October 26, 2011
October 26, 2011
Americans relish the cycle of public apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It makes us feel cleansed, as if deplorable events never happened and, even though they did, that we are the better for having recognized and expiated them. Confession runs deep in our culture; absolution, too. As a result, almost no offense is beyond repair, and the more public the admission, the more complete the pardon. The ritual is often carefully choreographed and, at its pinnacle, becomes an Oprah moment.
Not all acts, of course, can so easily be absolved. When a nation apologizes for slavery or genocide, who offers forgiveness? In 2005 the Senate apologized for its failure to enact antilynching legislation. (Twenty senators did not sign a statement supporting the measure, many of them from states, like Mississippi, where lynching occurred.) Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice thought the act “better late than never.” But James Cameron, then 91 and a survivor of an attempted lynching in Marion, Ind., in 1930, reminded everyone that the apology “won’t bring anyone back.”
These tropes of apology and forgiveness become especially animated in discussing the civil-rights era. Those who fought for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s are aging, and recent setbacks in racial and social justice are disturbing. It makes Americans want all the more to believe that the battles were not for naught, that beliefs and practices have changed, past injustices been rectified, and a brighter future lies ahead.
David Margolick’s engrossing new work, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock (Yale University Press), takes up these issues directly. Margolick, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair,is the author of several books, including, with Hilton Als, Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song(Vintage, 2001), and Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling and a World on the Brink(Knopf, 2005). In his new work, he peers into the lives of two women forever framed in a photograph taken on September 4, 1957, on the first day of what would be a tumultuous year at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., as nine black students sought to desegregate the all-white school.
Elizabeth Eckford was almost 16 years old and entering 11th grade. From an early age, Elizabeth was a loner, preferring the company of books to peers. She wanted to be a lawyer one day, and the better facilities and opportunities available at Central, she hoped, would make whatever difficulties she faced worth the desegregation struggle.
That morning, Elizabeth rode a public bus to school, but as she tried to enter, the Arkansas National Guard and an angry mob confronted her. An army of news media covered the scene, and at least three photographers, Will Counts of the Arkansas Democrat, Johnny Jenkins of UPI, and Lloyd Dinkins of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, focused on her. Each captured the moment as she walked expressionless, head up, clutching her notebook, while a crowd followed behind and at least one angry young white protester, her face contorted with hate, spewed invective.
It is easy to mistake the heckler as an adult, one of many mothers in the crowd infuriated by desegregation. But she is Hazel Bryan, age 15 and a half. Hazel adhered to the conventions of the segregated South, though her musical tastes ran more toward Johnny Mathis than Elvis Presley. At her church, the preacher made racial matters clear: “The birds don’t mix; why should the races?”
Counts’s and Jenkins’s photographs were reprinted around the world. (Dinkins’s were not run at the time.) Elizabeth, who never wanted attention, became the heroine of the story of desegregation; Hazel, who loved being on stage, was frozen in time as the contorted face of racial hatred. “It reminds me of the howling mob that crucified Christ,” commented one Arkansan in a letter to the Democrat. Hazel’s parents withdrew her from the school. It would be 40 years before the two women would again be seen together…
From the Arab Spring and the Great Recession to the Eurozone Crisis and Chinese Inflation: Are We Headed toward a New World Disorder?
October 26, 2011
In 1848 Europe was convulsed by revolution, the so-called “springtime of the peoples.” In 1968 unrest swept through most of the developed world, from Prague to Paris, from Berkeley to Mexico City. These revolutionary outbreaks were once-in-a-century events brought on by political discontents.
Now, a new revolutionary storm, almost worldwide in scope, appears to be brewing. Its origins, outwardly political, are in fact traceable to economic and social disparities that have been building up over the past five or six decades. To address these disparities in a constructive manner will be a difficult if not impossible task. Political reform by itself is a relatively simple matter, given a modicum of goodwill. Broadening the franchise can be achieved through legislation. Free and fair elections can be guaranteed by admitting international observers who have access to the world media. Major economic and social reforms, on the other hand, require changes in both behavior and outcome at all levels of a society. Such reform almost never occurs without violence. And all too often violence results in nothing save the accession of new oppressors to power.
The so-called Arab Spring, playing out over a vast area stretching from Morocco to the Persian Gulf, appears, on its face, to be a political phenomenon. It’s true that the cry in the Arab street is for liberation from corrupt and despotic governments. But a closer look reveals a more nuanced and distressing picture.
The narrative being presented to Western publics by their governments and media alike is one of Arab peoples yearning for free institutions similar to those in the West. But this goal motivates only a small minority of the protestors, mainly young people from middle-class families. These young people often speak Western languages and accept, to a large degree, Western political and social values. As such, they become the focus for the Western media in telling an apparently straightforward story that’s easy for Western publics to understand. But this narrative is, at best, a sideshow to the real play of events in the Arab world.
The revolution that began in Tunisia in December 2010 is above all the consequence of economic distress and despair. Unemployment and soaring food prices, not political liberalization per se, are the motivating forces behind the mass protests, violence, and bloodshed we continue to witness. A massive youth bulge exists throughout the Arab world, and governments have shown no capacity to address the problems that come with it. In truth, the economic record of Arab regimes since independence has been largely one of stagnation. Even in oil-rich countries the economy remains in the hands of elites who have shown little inclination to foster individual initiative and entrepreneurship among the citizenry. Now these elites find themselves riding a tiger, as economic pain has provoked the masses to revolutionary violence.
Egypt, the most important and advanced nation in the Arab world, has so far escaped without major bloodshed, thanks in part to U.S. pressure that helped to force out the dictator there. But for Egypt all the big challenges remain—establishing a working democracy, eradicating corruption, and providing enough work and bread to keep the great mass of the people (40 percent of whom live on less than two dollars a day) content, or at least quiet. The history of modern Egypt provides no indication that the country will master these challenges. On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that at some point in the future a more radical revolutionary outbreak will occur, leading either to the establishment of an Islamic state, or a return to military rule, with the latter possibly degenerating, as before, into despotism.
Far too little reporting has been done on the real strength and goals of the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt. When in February 2011 the virulently anti-American and anti-Israeli cleric Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi addressed an adoring crowd estimated at 1 million strong in Tahrir Square, Cairo, theNew York Times gave it passing mention, while cable and network news ignored the occasion almost completely. The possibility of a radical outcome in Egypt should not be discounted, while elsewhere in the region the rise of radicalism is perhaps even more likely. Simply put, when large numbers of young men are without work, without prospects for marriage, and without any outlet for their social and political grievances, violence occurs and the fabric of society begins to disintegrate. At that point religious fanaticism comes to the fore, and the “solutions” it offers find new adherents. Witness Iran in the early 1980s.
Although Europe does not face the challenge of a youth bulge, there as well we’re beginning to see a breakdown in social cohesion caused by economic distress. The protests over budget cuts in Britain that began last year and the riots this past summer are merely the overture to a crisis that is spreading across the continent. The revelation that Greece is an economic basket case, and that its citizens’ standard of living must inevitably decline, has led to violence in the streets of Athens. Similar violence has occurred in Spain, where unemployment stands at over 20 percent.
The Eurozone crisis is not amenable to any solution based on a one-currency political economy. Germany and the other northern states are simply too productive; Greece and the rest of the South can’t keep up. Bailouts and austerity programs kick the can down the road, but won’t resolve the problem. Greece and probably the Iberian countries will suffer bankruptcy in one form or another, and will eventually have to detach themselves, or be detached, from the rest of the Eurozone. The German taxpayer will not subsidize southern Europe indefinitely, and the Greeks, Spaniards, and Portuguese won’t starve to keep the euro afloat. Yet obvious as this conclusion appears to be, there is tremendous resistance to acknowledging its reality. The international financial ramifications are of course potentially enormous, especially as no one is sure just what exposure the major European banks have to Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian debt. The derivatives crisis of 2008 nearly brought down the U.S. economy, and might possibly have destroyed capitalism itself. That danger was averted by the great bank bailout, otherwise known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which was imposed on the U.S. Congress by the Treasury in October 2008. A similar crisis may be building in Europe today. In 2010 the EU bailed out its southern economies to the tune of 750 million euros (equivalent to about $1 trillion). To believe that the printing press will once again save capitalism from the abyss is the height of optimism. To believe that it can do so indefinitely is absurd.
In any case, a decline in the standard of living throughout much of Europe, which is clearly in the cards, would be unprecedented in the post-World War II era, and will undoubtedly provoke a combination of violence and malaise, a phenomenon we are already witnessing on a small scale. If conditions worsen, is a return to the 1930s possible? History doesn’t literally repeat itself: one cannot envision Europe once again under the shadow of the swastika. But a breakdown of the liberal order in Europe would create a moral and intellectual vacuum. It’s hard to predict precisely what would follow from this. The more severe the economic decline, the more likely it is that radical solutions will find favor with those who are suffering. Such at least is the evidence of history.
Clearly, both Europe and the Middle East are in crisis. But they’re not alone. If we look eastward to China, we see economic and social problems building there as well. Here the difficulty is not, as in the Arab world, stagnation and the stifling of any initiative generated from below. Nor is it a case of deep regional disparities in wealth and productivity, as in Europe. The dangers China faces are those that occur when rapid growth threatens to overwhelm a still-developing political economy…
October 26, 2011
A decade after 9/11, America has reached a political and intellectual stalemate regarding the Muslims in its midst. Many Americans continue to fear their Muslim neighbors and fellow citizens, if not as potential terrorists then as terrorist sympathizers — or, more generally, as the bearers of an alien culture shared by America’s enemies.
Stoking these fears are a handful of zealous investigative journalists and bloggers who recycle a body of facts about the Islamist origins of most Muslim leaders and of virtually all major American Muslim organizations. Largely taken from the federal government’s successful prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation, a Hamas front group, this evidence is incontrovertible — yet its implications are far from clear. As critics repeat and re-examine them, the facts take on a frozen-in-time quality, like artifacts of political archeology never put into any wider context. The critics fail to acknowledge that individuals who once espoused Islamist views do not necessarily remain committed to them over time. People do mature beyond youthful folly and rage, and America causes immigrants to change.
On the other hand, our political, media, and intellectual elites routinely dismiss these findings as irrelevant ancient history. This, too, is a mistake, both substantively and politically: Though these Muslim leaders and organizations do not represent all (or even most) Muslim Americans, they do dominate the relevant political space. Moreover, their Islamist ideology has had, and continues to have, a formative influence on how Muslims think of their place in America and of America’s relationship to the Islamic world. Elite opinion also systematically denies or ignores the fact that Islam is a dynamic, even aggressively proselytizing religion. This is not to suggest that Muslim-American leaders are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers; nor is it to criticize how they interpret the call to advance Islam. Like many Christians, many Muslims regard their own exemplary actions as the best way to spread their faith. Nevertheless, Muslim leaders readily acknowledge that not so long ago they dreamt of, as some have put it, “the crescent flag one day flying over the White House.” For most leaders, perhaps for all, this fantasy has long since collided with reality. Yet its influence lingers.
The failure of our elites to acknowledge such evidence has fueled the anxieties of Americans. But if elites have been too cavalier about the challenges Islam poses to America, ordinary citizens and their tribunes have been too alarmist, depicting scenarios in which Muslim leaders are not only devious (which many have been) but also omniscient — as if they were exempt from the difficult tradeoffs that all political actors inevitably face. In fact, Muslim leaders have typically been recent arrivals largely ignorant of America’s huge, dynamic society and its complicated politics. Like other immigrants forced to learn and adapt, they have made many mistakes.
Remarkably absent from both the elite and popular story lines is an appreciation of how America has changed Muslims. To be sure, not all of these changes have been benign. But we must address them all the same. Such a reckoning would not only abate our credulity about the competence of Islamists, but would also help to restore our faith in the resilience of American values and institutions — a faith that has been strikingly absent among American Islam’s most strident critics. Most important, it would facilitate our addressing the real challenges posed to America by Islam.
Among these challenges, the most salient is the loyalty of Muslim Americans. This is not to suggest that Muslims are actively disloyal. Yet their loyalty to this nation is muddled. This confusion is due in part to the influence of cosmopolitan values and corresponding policies (such as dual citizenship), and partly to contemporary America’s apparent unwillingness to place serious demands on its citizens. Beyond these factors, however, the Muslim-American confusion over loyalty also reflects the lingering influence of Islamist leaders, institutions, and ideology. This more subtle challenge is hardly unprecedented in our history as a nation of immigrants — but in our debates about America’s Muslims, it has been overlooked both by complacent elites and by alarmist populists.
WHO ARE AMERICA’S MUSLIMS
In assessing America’s Muslim community, even basic facts can be hard to come by. For example, after years of interviews and field research, I have met only one Muslim who did not confidently assert that there are 6 to 10 million of his brothers and sisters in the United States, and that their number is growing all the time. This second point is correct, but the first certainly is not. The U.S. census is prohibited from collecting information about religion, so there are no precise data about the size of the Muslim community. The most authoritative, however, are those from the Pew Research Center, which estimates that there are about 2.75 million Muslims in the United States. Of those age 18 or older, more than 60% are foreign-born. Other reliable estimates tend to hover in the same range.
Muslims therefore represent less than 1% of the U.S. population, a much smaller proportion than in the nations of Western Europe. In further contrast with European Muslims, Muslims in the United States tend to attain education and income levels roughly comparable to those of the broader population. For instance, according to Pew, the share of Muslims who have graduated from college is about the same as the portion of all American adults who have done so: 26% of Muslims, compared to 28% of the population at large. Similarly, American Muslims report household incomes of $100,000 or more at about the same rate as Americans generally: 14% of Muslims, compared to 16% of all U.S. adults. These figures undoubtedly reflect the fact that Muslims have typically come to the United States in pursuit of higher education. Yet as pockets of poverty among groups like Somalis and Yemenis suggest, this has not always been the case: Pew also finds that, in 2011, a higher percentage of Muslims than Americans generally report household earnings under $30,000 (45% of Muslims, compared to 36% of all Americans).
In light of questions about Muslim loyalty to the United States, it is also worth pointing out that Pew reports high naturalization rates among Muslims. Seventy percent of foreign-born Muslims here are American citizens. Among those who arrived before 1980, virtually all are now citizens; among those who arrived during the 1980s, about 95% are; and of those who arrived in the 1990s, 80% are citizens.
Frequently remarked on, but little appreciated, is the enormous diversity of this small (but growing) population. America is home to the most varied agglomeration of Muslims on the planet. The overwhelming majority are Sunnis, but Shias represent about a tenth. Among the Sunnis, there are also significant differences stemming from allegiances to different interpretive legal traditions, or madhhabs. For instance, the leaders of the largest Muslim-American organization, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), cope every year with disputes among their primarily Sunni membership over how best to determine by moon-sighting the start of Ramadan. And because Islam is an “orthopractic” religion — concerned more with appropriate behavior than with doctrine — similar disputes abound.
There are also racial and ethnic differences. The most visible and important is that between immigrant-origin and African-American Muslims. This refers not to Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam — a small, racist cult that never had much to do with Islam — but to African-Americans either raised in or converted to orthodox Islam, typically Sunnis but also a few Shias. Overall, according to Pew, these represent 13% of all Muslims in America. (If one includes the substantial number of Muslim immigrants from Africa, then about 23% of Muslims here are racially black.)…