Infidel: An unbeliever with respect to a particular religion, especially Christianity or Islam. (This definition is labeled “offensive” by the American Heritage Dictionary and the OED.) Also, one who has no religious beliefs; or one who doubts or rejects a particular doctrine, system, or principle. Merriam-Webster’s first definition for infidel is “One who is not a Christian or who opposes Christianity.”
Infidel came into English (from Old French infidèle, “disloyal”) during the mid-16th century; it appears twice in the Tyndale Bible (1526), in 2 Corinthians and 1 Timothy. (From the latter: “The same denyeth the fayth, and is worsse then an infydell.”) For the next five centuries it served as a scathing insult.
But in the 20th century the meaning began to drift, writes Thomas Frank in “Semper Infidelis,” his editor’s column in the January 2012 issue of Harper’s.* Beloved Infidel, Sheilah Graham’s 1958 biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, was one sign that infidel had begun to mean something closer to “spunky rebel” than “contemptible unbeliever.”
Today, writes Frank, infidel has taken a surprising new turn: It has become “very much the buzzword of the political moment,” flaunted at political gatherings by Americans—churchgoers, self-professed patriots—who don’t give a fig about Merriam, Webster, the OED, or anyone’s tender sensibilities:
The first self-proclaimed infidel I noticed, if memory serves, was at a Tea Party protest I attended in 2010. Actually, he wasn’t even a full-fledged infidel. Instead he was a “Farm Team Infidel,” a phrase that his T-shirt illustrated with an image of a man in a baseball cap aiming a pistol, rendered in the familiar tricolor silhouette of the Major League Baseball logo.
The combination of image and slogan baffled me completely.
As time passed, however, I discovered other infidels among us. There were those whose T-shirts boldly proclaimed their heresy in Arabic. There were infidels who announced their contempt for the sacred from the handles of their knives and the covers of their rifle scopes. There was a “Team Infidel” that blasted Korans with shotguns, “corporate infidels” who brought an iconoclastic attitude to their management style, and “proud infidels” who flaunted their fondness for forbidden items like beer and bacon. There was even The Infidel, a comic book whose hero fought bad guys while clad in a suit of pigskin.
The Infidel #1, February 2011.
Using “infidel” in this way, Frank writes, “is supposed to be a way of showing your support for the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan—a yellow ribbon with attitude.” The usage supposedly originated among the soldiers themselves, who tattooed “infidel” on their chests. Frank was told that although “infidel” gear may be sold in PXs in Iraq or Afghanistan, it’s rarely worn there:
But there is no doubt about the epithet’s soaring popularity on the home front. To imagine that Westerners in a war zone are “infidels” rather than “contractors” or “combatants” or even “soldiers” is to make the kind of linguistic maneuver that American cultural gravity more or less demands of us.
And, Frank writes, “while there is considerable precedent for motorcycle clubs started by returning veterans, the Original Infidels must surely be one of the first to have been started largely by returning military contractors.” The Original Infidels’ website makes sneering reference to “political correctness” and “bleeding-heart liberals.”
Which brings us to Frank’s pointed question: Who in the United States is meant to be offended by these proclamations of infidelity? “Muslims, of course,” writes Frank, “but also Islam’s clueless proxies at home: liberals.” That’s right: liberals are the archenemy (the true believers?) in this imagined crusade. Frank cites the opening line of a song called “I Am the Infidel”: “I can’t sing and I can’t play, but I piss off a liberal every day.” (“I Am the Infidel” is in no way related to Jimmy Buffett’s 1996 song “Cultural Infidel.”)
The product copy reads:
Declare your infidelity!
No matter what America does, our enemies consider us infidels. What better way to show them that you are NOT terrorized? Declare your infidelity. Be brave...be proud. Be an infidel!
Other “infidel” T-shirts carry messages such as “I am the infidel your imam warned you about!” and “Proud to be an infidel” (with INFIDEL in Stars-and-Stripes type). Some designs have “infidel” in faux-Arabic script:
These artifacts, writes Frank, are visible proof of the neo-infidel’s creed:
He is a rebel for laissez-faire capitalism, an anarchist for the law, an enforcer of the established order who imagines that it is an act of defiance to rack up one thousand dollars per day as a contractor in Iraq. Damn, it must feel good to be an infidel.
* The issue isn’t yet online, and when it is, content will be restricted to subscribers. I recommend buying the issue, which also contains Alexandra Fuller’s essay on losing and gaining a second language, Christopher Ketcham’s article about the homeowners’ revolt against the banks, and Jenni Diski’s critique of “the false nostalgia of Mad Men.” In a nice bookend to the title of Frank’s column, Diski’s article is called “Unfaithful.”