Not long ago I was looking at American propaganda during World War II, and the way it portrayed our major enemies in that conflict, the Germans and the Japanese.
You might be surprised to learn there was a vast difference. Virtually all the European propaganda was directed, not towards the Germans as a people but to their Nazi rulers, who were presented as a nasty and fiendish yet intelligent gang. We needed to beat them on the battlefield and conquer the nation they’d hijacked.
But the hidden message seemed to be that when that was all over, the Germans would be normal again. They might need to be punished some, but then they would be readmitted to the civilized world. We did not know much about the Holocaust then.
The way we portrayed the Japanese was entirely different. They were presented as fanatical, bloodthirsty Asiatics, cunning, ugly, and fundamentally inhuman. Last year, an editor I know had to cancel plans to reprint some of his paper’s classic front pages from World War II. He was uncomfortable with the blatant racism evident towards the Japanese in the newspaper’s very headlines. The ads were worse. One showed a cross-eyed Japanese soldier with a fiendish grin, saliva dripping from his fangs.
Thousands of Japanese-Americans on the west coast were rounded up into concentration camps, purely out of racist hysteria.
For American Muslims, the climate is, in some ways, as bad or worse than it was for the Japanese. They are members of a relatively small community outside the religious tradition of most Americans.
Suddenly, on Sept. 11, other Muslims kill thousands of Americans in a series of shocking terror attacks. The killers proclaimed they are doing this in the name of Islam, and that all Muslims should support their holy war.
This was not something calculated to make it easy for other peace-loving Americans to rally around their peace-loving Muslim neighbors – which may be what the terrorists had in mind. To his credit, President Bush swiftly and repeatedly warned against stigmatizing all Muslims as potential terrorists. But the actions of his government since then haven’t exactly made American Muslims feel as accepted as everybody else.
Five thousand young men, virtually all Muslim, were “voluntarily” interviewed by the Justice Department within a few weeks of 9/11. When Ismael Ahmed was nominated for University of Michigan regent the next year, there were hundreds of thousands who voted the straight Democratic ticket – except for him.
How we get past this, I don’t know. There are no Muslim equivalents of Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Japanese-American who lost his arm fighting for this nation in World War II.
But we need something to make us feel more like one people. The head of the Council for Islamic Organizations of Michigan suggests Muslim Americans need to more forcefully denounce terrorism. And that might be a good place to start.