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Tea and paranoia

United States

Brian Snyder / Reuters

‘It’s time to take our country back!’ is the rallying cry of the Tea Party, the rightwing ‘grassroots’ movement in the US aligned with an influential section of the Republican Party.

‘In our country, we don’t have fringe anti-immigrant parties,’ says John L Esposito, an expert on international and Islamic affairs at Georgetown University, Washington DC. ‘There’s now a significant sector [of anti-immigrant figures] in our mainstream political parties.’

He believes that politicians and media commentators are taking advantage of fears around race held by a surprising number of people – for example, by directly linking ethnicity with crime, or immigration with unemployment. ‘When you look at who votes for [anti-immigrant candidates], they’re not all ignorant “redneck” people.’

Just as in Europe, politicians in the US are taking advantage of worries around the country’s Muslim population. The backlash against plans to build a ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ (in reality, an interfaith cultural centre blocks away from the World Trade Center site), or the furore generated by Terry Jones (an obscure Florida pastor with a miniscule congregation who burnt a copy of the Qur’an) has helped to encourage hostility. Leading Republicans, including Newt Gingritch, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Donald Trump and Mitt Romney, have questioned the loyalty of US Muslims while on the campaign trail.

Esposito recalls: ‘When Mitt Romney ran for office in 2005, he aligned himself with the possibility that, maybe, one should wiretap mosques in America. Not wiretap a mosque where there’s some evidence of a problem, but to proactively do this.’

Talat Hamdani is a lawyer and human rights activist of Pakistani heritage. Her son, Salman, a New York police cadet, lost his life in the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. She has been present at the ongoing congressional hearings of the Homeland Security Committee on the threat of homegrown Islamic terrorism.

‘Anti-immigrant sentiment has grown,’ she says. It is an uphill battle, but awareness is being generated. It’s not only within the Muslim community – it is the Latinos, the immigrant communities, interfaith communities who have all collaborated and are all taking action. We are learning through our experiences, but our community is mobilized.’

‘Worrying’ about your country’s security has become the prevailing mode of expressing devotion to the nation. ‘There is not much difference between the way Labor and the Liberal Party have aimed to shape public discussion about immigration and national identity,’ says Professor Ghassan Hage, who has written extensively about Australian politics. ‘Both work within the parameters of “paranoid nationalism”, which sees the nation primarily in terms of a boundary that needs to be protected from others.’

Arguably this sustained the Liberal Party’s John Howard for four terms as Prime Minister, during which tough immigration tests and indigenous-specific social policies were introduced, and the country stopped receiving African refugees. In this context, the immigrant is treated as ‘invading’ the country, resulting in behaviour that needs to be policed. Immigrants are continuously requested to assimilate and adhere to the nation’s ‘core values’.

‘But here’s the trick,’ says the professor. ‘There are no national core values. The discourse of “assimilation” is trying to produce a belief that there is something to assimilate to, when there isn’t. I am yet to find a nation which has core values that are beyond platitudes such as “a belief in freedom of speech and democracy and tolerance”, which are really the core values of every decent human being, regardless of where they come from.’

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