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David Sirota
David Sirota
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The '80s Origins of Today's Anti-Muslim Bigotry


The least intriguing aspect of Republican Rep. Peter King's congressional hearing this week on terrorism and the "radicalization in the American Muslim community" is the spectacle's obvious hypocrisy. King was himself a cheerleader of a terrorist group (the Irish Republican Army), and his hearings ignore new government statistics showing that since 9/11, right-wing and white supremacist terrorist plots have outnumbered those of Muslims. Indeed, as the law enforcement data prove, if "radicalization" is a concern, it is at least as much of a problem in the ultraconservative community as it is in the American Muslim community.

King has defended his hearing's narrow focus by saying that "there are a small percentage (of Muslims) who have allied themselves with al-Qaida" and that "the leaders of that community do not face up to that reality (and are) not willing to speak out and condemn this type of radicalization." In the wake of Joseph Stack's kamikaze attack on the IRS, Scott Roeder's killing of abortion provider George Tiller, and Byron Williams' Glenn-Beck-inspired terrorist plot (among other atrocities), King should be saying exactly the same thing about his fellow conservatives — but he's not.

As I said, this hypocrisy isn't interesting because it's so utterly undeniable. However, what is interesting — and profoundly telling — is King's explanation for his behavior. He says simply that "It makes no sense to talk about other (read: non-Muslim) types of extremism."

The remark, of course, typifies a broader sentiment in America and raises the most important "why" question: Why do so many like King see extremist acts by non-Muslims as mere isolated incidents that "make no sense to talk about," yet see extremist acts by Muslims as a systemic problem worthy of military invasions and now congressional witch hunts?

The short answer is 9/11 — but that's oversimplified.

Anti-Muslim sentiment was embedded in American society well before that horrific attack stoked a bigoted backlash. The real answer is connected to overwrought Reagan/Bush-era pop culture that first equated "terrorist" with "Muslim."

As film scholar Jack Shaheen discovered in his book "Reel Bad Arabs," roughly a third of the most blatantly anti-Muslim films of the last century were made in the 1980s alone. These movies used sporadic atrocities committed by individual Islamic extremists (the Lebanon bombing, the Berlin bombing, etc.) to demonize all Muslims. Consequently, Hollywood's go-to villain in the 1980s became the Muslim terrorist — whether it was "Iron Eagle's" unnamed Middle Eastern country or "Back to the Future's" bazooka-wielding Libyans.

Notice that those two movies were aimed at '80s kids who have now grown up. That was the norm with Islamophobic pop culture in the Reagan/Bush period — and not just in film. Early '80s editions of the G.I. Joe comic book, for example, had the heroes alternately fighting Iranians and "infiltrating a Persian Gulf nation." Likewise, in the lead-up to the first Gulf War, there were Muslim-demonizing board games for kids like "The Butcher of Baghdad" and "Arabian Nightmare." And, of course, there was the World Wrestling Federation, whose preeminent Bad Guy was the keffiyeh-clad Iron Sheik — described by one wrestling publication at the time as an "evil hitman (who) shows no mercy in terrorist attacks on the USA's best."

And so what started as a cheap pop culture trope in the 1980s has now become the unquestioned assumption — the assumption that King's hearings clearly appeal to. His inquisition and the sentiment it represents asks us to continue indulging the stereotypes we were sold as kids, and to ignore what should be the most frightening fact of all: the fact that no matter what stories we were told in the '80s, "radicalization" is a systemic problem, and not limited to any one religious minority.

David Sirota is a best-selling author of the new book "Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now." He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado. E-mail him at, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at



9 Comments | Post Comment
"since 9/11, right-wing and white supremacist terrorist plots have outnumbered those of Muslim"

They have? I would like to see the compiled list that proves this statement. I sure as heck don't like the KKK, but I haven't heard of them trying to bring down any planes full of people lately.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Kim
Fri Mar 11, 2011 11:45 AM
I would like to see the compiled list that proves that since 9/11, right-wing and white supremacist terrorist plots have NOT outnumbered those of Muslim!

This is so typical of the current right-wing mentality. No critical thinking. No self-reflection. When was the last time a Muslim tried to bring down a plane? And in the 5 most recent domestic terrorist attacks, how many involved a Muslim (hint: 0).

Here's how the conservative thought process goes:
1) If you hear something that supports your ideology, don't question it.
2) Otherwise, demand proof.
3) When proof is provided, reject proof as a "liberal conspiracy".
4) Continue believing the right-wing propaganda; rinse and repeat.
Comment: #2
Posted by: A Smith
Tue Mar 15, 2011 8:21 AM
Kim, you'll never see a list from this guy.

After the Munich Olympics people became aware of terrorists. To make plots plausible screenwriters threw in arab antogonists. Had Godzilla stormed the Olympiad he would have been featured in "Back to the Future".

Sirota always tries to squeeze square pegs into his circular synaptic process. As long as there is someone to call rascist he is satisfied with the argument. If Sirota wrote screenplays you and I would always be Godzilla.

Comment: #3
Posted by: Tom
Tue Mar 15, 2011 8:34 AM
See, Kim? Al thinks you and I share critical thinking skills with Godzilla. No self-reflection in our bitter souls. He's got no list either, but if he yells loud enough and call us enough names he might win by default. As to Al's conservative thought process, I think that represents projection.

Loud projection.

Comment: #4
Posted by: Tom
Tue Mar 15, 2011 8:41 AM
Here's your proof. Would have posted it sooner but fighting with this stupid site that won't let me post.

If you care at all about being intellectually honest, you must revise your beliefs when presented with credible contrary evidence. In your case, per #3 above, proceed to dismiss it as I'm sure you will because "the truth has a liberal bias."
Comment: #5
Posted by: A Smith
Tue Mar 15, 2011 11:50 AM
Comment: #6
Posted by: A Smith
Tue Mar 15, 2011 11:52 AM
http assets docs publications MPAC-Post-911-Terrorism-Data.pdf
http centers tcths about documents Kurzman_Muslim-American_Terrorism_Since_911_An_Accounting.pdf
http terrorist-organizations militant-extremists-united-states p9236#p2
Comment: #7
Posted by: A Smith
Tue Mar 15, 2011 11:54 AM
"if he yells loud enough and call us enough names he might win by default... I think that represents projection. Loud projection."

Sounds like projection on your part their buddy.

Comment: #8
Posted by: A Smith
Tue Mar 15, 2011 12:05 PM
--Kurzman's study of Muslim-American Terrorist activity deals with relatively small numbers. Hard to draw trend lines or make statistical inferences. Of course, small numbers here -- that's a very good thing.
--One might be tempted to dismiss out of hand any study from the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), but I found it thorough and objective.
The two big take-aways from your links (the ones I could open) aren't about Muslim/Non-Muslim or Left-Wing/Right Wing militancy.
1) Overall frequency of attacks by militant extremists has dramatically declined.
Between 1970 and 1995 (Oklahoma City), "the United States experienced an average of forty-eight (militant extremist) attacks per year. Since 1995, the average attacks per year declined to nineteen."
--Jonathan Masters, backgrounder, published Council on Foreign Relations Feb 2011
2) "the percentage of attacks perpetrated by individuals acting alone, characterized by law enforcement as "lone wolf" offenders, has increased roughly five-fold." -- ibid.
All that said, comparing the combined acts of all militant extremists in the past 40 years (including WTC 1993 and Oklahoma City) to the murderous events 9/11 is like comparing a 1.0M tremor to last week's 9.0M in Japan.
Comment: #9
Posted by: oddsox
Wed Mar 16, 2011 12:30 PM
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