What follows is pure and unadulterated speculation. I can’t prove what I’m about to contend. I have no data, no studies, no statistically-relevant sample. Just anecdotes and a hunch.
The least Islamophobic cohort in American society — except of course, for Muslims themselves — consists of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans between the ages of 25 and 40.
I’m basing this entirely on my interactions with combat vets over the years — both downrange and back here in the States. It would be easy — lazy, even — to expect them to harbor blood-curdling hatred of Muslims. The insurgents they fought deliberately blended in with the populace, after all.
Some of them came to war harboring precisely such hatred. They wanted to avenge 9/11, and the average Iraqi or Afghan would do. Not all did, but it would be a whitewash to ignore that some did. I had a long and mournful conversation with one such officer in Mosul in 2007.
Then something unexpected happened. They got familiar with Afghans and Iraqis. “Local nationals” translated for them. They met with local dignitaries and heard plaintive cries for help. They heard locals express bitterness and outrage over the million indignities of war. They found themselves understanding. Then sympathizing. Then wanting to help.
And then they found something more powerful than sympathy: mutual interest. They learned that they couldn’t do anything significant in their unfamiliar stretches of a foreign country without the aid — or at least the acquiescence, or apathy — of the locals. A choice between working together or failing was no choice at all.
Some even made friends. Iraqis and Afghans, especially those who work as interpreters or intelligence analysts, often have wonderfully vile and profane senses of humor. (In my experience, this is truer for Iraqis than Afghans, but not unheard-of for Afghans, either.) A dirty joke, a bullshit boast and an unspeakably nasty DVD or video game can bond people in warzones for life.
Suddenly, those same Americans who barely even knew any Muslims back home — didn’t know that Allah is just the Arabic word for the exact same God many of them worship — wanted to know more about Iraqi or Afghan culture. It didn’t seem so unfamiliar; or if it did, it was the kind of unfamiliarity that posed an appealing challenge to understand. They wanted to debate about the world with the locals, and didn’t even mind when the locals debated back and challenged basic points about America.
Some came home and kept up a correspondence with their new friends. Some took classes about the Middle East or South Asia to contextualize their experience. Some didn’t come home at all.
Obviously, there are exceptions here. I have no illusion that this a universal experience of two searing wars. I know combat veterans who have neither love nor hate in their hearts for Muslims, just… emptiness.
But ever since last year’s “Ground Zero Mosque” flap, it’s struck me that the Robert Spencers and the Pamela Gellars and the lot of them don’t have their stock veterans to trot out in service of the idea that the mosque down the street is a threat to your grandmother. I do not believe that is an accident.
Most non-Muslim Americans don’t have many interactions with their Muslim neighbors. Or if they do, it’s not an issue. I grew up in Brooklyn, one of the most diverse places in the U.S., and it only occurred to me after 9/11 that one of the members of my high school crew was a Muslim. Combat veterans had perhaps the most self-conscious familiarity with Iraqis and Afghans of all Americans. They had no other option.
And many, if not most, came home understanding that Muslims aren’t so different. Muslims don’t have heat vision. They’re not implacably opposed to freedom and all that shit. They’re not looking to join a terrorist group, and “proto-terrorism” doesn’t lurk in their hearts.
Like I said, I can’t prove any of this. It’s all anecdotal. But the more I think about it, the truer it seems. I can’t think of anyone who came home from Iraq or Afghanistan more furious at the average Muslim, which is perhaps of the most surprising and profound aspects of the 9/11 Era.