When is a discussion, debate, polemic, or rant about Islam and Muslims not really about Islam and Muslims? If it is not about Islam and Muslims, then what is it about? The analytic heft of Islam: An American Religion lies in part in its play on this fundamental irony that dots the United States political landscape today. In this elegantly written book, Nadia Marzouki introduces all-too-common terms like “Islam,” “mosque,” and “Sharia” as sites of a more foundational and fundamental contest about the promise of “America.” Drawing upon Richard Hofstadter’s essay on the “paranoid style” of American politics, Marzouki situates today’s toxic diatribes about Islam into a larger American narrative in which Muslims today, not unlike the Illuminati of the nineteenth century, are convenient distractions from a more fundamental contest about what “America” is, who it serves, and by implication, who and what it must necessarily exclude. As a history of the present, Marzouki’s book contrasts the current furor that seeks to exclude Islam and Muslims from the political and social landscape, with the inclusive view of Muslims and Islam that (at least theoretically) informed the Founding Fathers who helped fashion the country’s origin story. On this approach, the bigotry that passes for today’s public debate about mosques, Sharia, and Muslims is indicative of a more longstanding history in American politics in which a right-wing minority forces a national conversation on the symbolic meaning of America and its democratic commitments.
Marzouki moves between the political debates about Islam and Muslims to the legal proceedings to which these debates are directed for two reasons. First, she acknowledges the overt bigotry and racism implicit in these debates, and recognizes their implications on the lives of Muslims and those who are often mistaken for Muslims. Armed with a range of reports and facts, Marzouki is fully aware that the volatile rhetoric about Islam and Muslims has also informed a climate more prone to hate crimes. Second, while recognizing the real harm these debates generate, Marzouki shows they are also sites of a more poignant debate about whether Americans can embrace the inclusive ideals that informed the country at its founding. Islam and Muslims, in this context, serve as tropes or heuristics that galvanize a broader, more amorphous conversation about America, its promise, and its beneficiaries.
To situate the present in the history of American politics, Marzouki makes an important reference to Hofstadter’s 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Published after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Hofstadter’s essay is a touchstone of American political style and remains as salient today as it was when first published. The paranoid style of which he wrote had less to do with a clinical diagnosis, and more to do with a style or mode, akin to how an artist may employ a style of representation. For Hofstadter, in the paranoid style, “the feeling of persecution is central, and it is indeed systematized in grandiose theories of conspiracy.” The spokesperson of the paranoid style sees a hostile world directed not so much against himself as individual, but rather as against “a nation, culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others.” This particular style of politics was not new or even distinctly American, as Hofstadter reminded.
While his essay offers an account of the paranoid style across US history, he gestures to its operation in Europe and elsewhere. Focusing on American history, though, he shows that the paranoid style “represents an old and recurrent mode of expression in our public life which has frequently been linked with movements of suspicious discontent and whose content remains much the same even when it is adopted by men of distinctly different purposes.” Whether directed at eighteenth-century “Illuminati” or twenty-first-century “Muslims,” the content of the paranoid style has a certain core concern: “the existence of a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character.”
This characterization of the paranoid style helps give a different perspective on the vignettes in Marzouki’s book. One particular story she recounts concerns a range of state legislative bills and statutes that ban Sharia. These attempts to ban Sharia rely on a construction of “Sharia” that serves the interest of those aiming to define, in paranoid fashion (and thereby in an exclusionary manner), the importance of protecting American democracy from the clear and present danger. In various examples across the United States, proposed legislation targets Sharia in a range of ways. Some target Sharia only; others equally target Sharia and International Law (as in the 2010 Oklahoma constitutional amendment); yet others go so far as to mess with karma on top of Sharia (don’t Arizonans know not to mess with karma?). One might suggest that adding other traditions is meant to avoid constitutional concerns with religious freedom or equality. Those are certainly relevant legal considerations.
But I also suggest that what is at stake in these legislative debates is a paranoid politics about a fundamental threat to the American fabric, where “Sharia” serves as the under-determined, under-defined, but utterly ubiquitous threat to democracy that we must protect against. In its 2010 Sharia: The Next Threat, the Center for Security Policy (lead by Frank Gaffney, who also features in Marzouki’s analysis), characterized Sharia in a fashion that cannot help but echo with the paranoid style. The authors of that report described Sharia as,
[T]otalitarian socio-political doctrine . . . Translated as ‘the path,’ shariah is a comprehensive legal and political framework. Though it certainly has spiritual elements, it would be a mistake to think of shariah as a ‘religious’ code in the Western sense because it seeks to regulate all manner of behavior in the secular sphere—economic, social, military, legal and political.
For the report’s authors, Sharia threatens to unravel the very fabric of liberal democratic orders such as the United States. Indeed, it is perhaps not surprising, despite sounding paranoid, that Oklahoma’s 2010 constitutional amendment banning Sharia was called “The Save Our State” Amendment.
Senator Joseph McCarthy, nineteenth-century populists, anti-Masonic and anti-Catholic movements, and late eighteenth-century fears of the Illuminati share the same paranoid style as today’s anti-Muslims. This paranoid style is present in all the examples Marzouki examines. From the protests about mosques to the concern about Barack Obama being a Muslim—the absence of a factual basis speaks directly to a paranoid style of politics that is less concerned about the objective reality of a threat, but rather is convinced that there is a hidden, cancerous threat to the republic operating from within its borders. Hofstadter’s “paranoid style” explains why facts do not matter. It doesn’t matter how this legislation characterizes Sharia, how legislators describe the threat, or whether the descriptions have any basis in fact. The turn to facts (if even experts) is heard through a paranoid filter that translates facts as smokescreens for the conspiracy that remains hidden, by virtue of being a conspiracy, in the shadows.
But there is one fundamental difference between Hofstadter’s historical account of different targets of the paranoid style and the hostile climate against Muslims today. According to Hofstadter, the paranoid style operated on the margins of politics and political respectability; today that style informs officials in the White House, National Security Council, and Justice Department. One can only hope, as Marzouki suggests throughout her book, that the extreme politics of paranoia will remain frustrated by an administrative state and justice system that remain wedded to process, evidentiary burdens, legal standards of reasonability, and a discourse of rights and equality.