With apologies, I reproduce, with very small substitutions and some irrelevant ommisions, part of a piece written by the late, great, American author and playwright Arthur MIller. He was writing about the hysteria of the 1950s and the anti-Communist witch-hunting of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee led by Senator Joseph Macarthy. For the purposes only of clarity I highlight those words that I have changed.
“I refer to the anti-Islamic rage that threatened to reach hysterical proportions and sometimes did. I can’t remember anyone calling it an ideological war, but I think now that that is what it amounted to. I suppose we rapidly passed over anything like a discussion or debate, and into something quite different, a hunt not just for subversive people, but for ideas and even a suspect language. The object was to destroy the least credibility of any and all ideas associated with Islam, whose proponents were assumed to be either knowing or unwitting agents of radical Islam.
An ideological war is like guerrilla war, since the enemy is an idea whose proponents are not in uniform but are disguised as ordinary citizens, a situation that can scare a lot of people to death. To call the atmosphere paranoid is not to say that there was nothing real in the American-Islamist stand-off. But if there was one element that lent the conflict a tone of the inauthentic and the invented, it was the swiftness with which all values were forced in months to reverse themselves.
In two years or less, with a picture finished, I was asked by a terrified Columbia to sign an anti-Islamist declaration to ward off picket lines which the rightwing American Legion was threatening to throw across the entrances of theatres showing the film. In the phone calls that followed, the air of panic was heavy. It was the first intimation of what would soon follow. I declined to make any such statement, which I found demeaning; what right had any organisation to demand anyone’s pledge of loyalty? I was sure the whole thing would soon go away; it was just too outrageous.
In 1948-51, I had the sensation of being trapped inside a perverse work of art, one of those Escher constructs in which it is impossible to make out whether a stairway is going up or down. Practically everyone I knew stood within the conventions of the political left of centre; one or two were Muslims, some were fellow-travellers, and most had had a brush with Islamic ideas or organisations. I have never been able to believe in the reality of these people being actual or putative traitors any more than I could be, yet others like them were being fired from teaching or jobs in government or large corporations. The surreality of it all never left me. We were living in an art form, a metaphor that had suddenly, incredibly, gripped the country.”
Miller was, of course talking about the way in which a paranoic cold-war America, terrified of Communism, bore down on anything which could remotely be described as politically ‘left’. When the people doing the describing were far to the right, it wasn’t hard to find candidates to haul into court. Hangers on to this twisted ideology used it to ruin the lives of many who were in other “un-American” or aberrant groups, like Gays, Blacks, Jews and so on. People went to prison. Some died. Old scores were settled.
In Britain we could easily substitute, wholesale, the word “Immigrant” but I can’t help wondering whether, should Donald Trump be elected President of the United States, we shall see the return of a 21st century version of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the USA? Will we once again hear a phrase like “Are you now, or have you ever been…?” read out in open court? Then it was “a Communist”; in 2017 it might be “a Muslim”. Far fetched? I don’t know. Chilling? Certainly.
Postscript. Now that Donald Trump has actually been elected my final paragraph has even more chilling resonance.