Tuesday, August 31, 2010

about Muslims as our latest national boogey man...

The last couple of years, I've been working on boats and traveling quite a bit, so I've pulled back on some of my political fire and brimstone that marked my musings on this blog for the first few years (how long have I been doing this now?!?). I've liked backing off and not staying quite so fired up all the time, but I'm not really conditioned to stay too demure for too long. One thing that is sure to get me fired up is getting ridiculous stuff from family members. I don't expect better from the world in general; I do expect it from my family. They like getting me riled up, though, so I try not to take the bait when they pass things along to me that one of our more conservative extended family members has sent them.

Which is what I tried to do when my Dad sent me a chain-letter version of this: Why the Peaceful Majority is Irrelevant. In its chain-letter version, it has been changed to begin like this:

Subject: German View of Islam

This is by far the best explanation of the Muslim terrorist situation I have ever read.

His references to past history are accurate and clear.

Not long, easy to understand, and well worth the read.

The author of this email is said to be Dr. Emanuel Tanay, a well-known and well-respected psychiatrist.

A German's View on Islam

A man, whose family was German aristocracy prior to World War II, owned a number of large industries and estates. When asked how many German people were true Nazis, the answer he gave can guide our attitude toward fanaticism...

After that, it pretty much continues like the blog post through the link, though the layout has been changed a little, emphasizing the end paragraph with bullet points for each sentence and italicizing those sentences. It is worth noting that the forward I was sent did not include any link to the original piece, and changed the name of the person sending it, making the new originator someone with a title of authority ("Dr."), and made it a point to laud him as way of introduction ("...a well-know and well-respected psychiatrist."). I don't like these ridiculous forwards, and I hate they way they are tweaked to make them more effective as propaganda. Needless to say, this set me off. Gently at first, but I got it the same day the guy asked the cabbie in New York if he was Muslim and proceeded to stab him and it was in the middle of all this mess about the Cordoba House.

A little gentle prodding by my father elicited a promise for a detailed explanation of my strong reaction to this forward and to the anti-Muslim sentiment being slung around the media lately, and that is what follows. Thankfully, I've got very forgiving family members who are generally pretty forgiving when they are the ones having to listen to my tirades about politics and society.


Ok, Dad. Here goes nothing.

This started as a rebuttal to the forward that you sent, comparing Islam to Nazism in the context of the current debate surrounding the building of the mosque in Lower Manhattan. This diatribe wasn’t specifically referencing that, but this debate is the reason for it being sent around at the moment. The debate about the mosque itself is just being used as a rallying issue to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment for political gain. I’ll head towards the larger political issues later on, but let’s start specifically with this forward that you sent me.

The speaker talks about prewar Germany, pointing out that most Germans weren’t Nazis, but that “many enjoyed the return of German pride, and many more were too busy to care.” This apathy on the part of the majority allowed a small group to take control and lead their country down a dark road. We are all well aware of where they ended up, but we are given a personal peek at this history through the regretful eyes of our speaker.

Then comes the discussion of modern Islam. The comparison is made that although it is asserted that the majority of the Islamic world are peace-loving people, the fanatics are taking over and inaction on the parts of this supposedly peaceful majority make the entire religion an enemy to the West.

In a global context, fundamentalist Muslim groups do present some very real threats. Most of this threat is within other countries and towards other Muslims. People getting stoned and hung and beheaded in Iran and Afghanistan and Egypt are Muslims dying at the hands of Muslim religious extremists. Fundamentalists are dangerous threats to every country when they organize and gain enough momentum to wield power and enforce their vision on others. Fundamentalism is an abuse of religious authority to organize and exert political and military force to stay in control and subjugate others. It is the same thing in Islam that it has been in Christianity or Judaism or any other religion. Muslim fundamentalists are enemies, but not just of America. They are first and foremost the enemies of their own people.

I’ll agree that we should be doing more to counter the growth of militarized fundamentalist around the world wherever we can, but I’m disgusted by the suggestion that the people suffering at their hands are also our enemies or the suggestion that we should condemn 1 billion people based on the actions of a few thousand who happen to follow the same religion. The crazies aren’t trying to subjugate and kill other people because God tells them to; they are doing it for other much more simple, human reasons and dragging God in as an excuse to justify their actions. People everywhere do that.

I’m speaking in generalities because I don’t like the way language has become coded in this public debate to separate and emphasize otherness to make it easier to view Muslim people as less-than and ‘different’ so they can be dehumanized. Instead of ‘mosque’ we could just as easily call their places of worship ‘church’ and instead of ‘Allah’ we can just say ‘God’. It is worth remembering that Muslims worship the same God as Jews and Christians; “Allah” isn’t a name for God, it literally means “God” in Arabic. But the debate is set up to avoid empathy and common ground because it is intended to emphasize difference so a dangerous other can be pointed at and the angry mob can have a direction to point their wrath.

Which gets us back to our metaphor of the pre-war Germans and Jews. Let’s scale down our scope from a global on to a national one, since this was seemingly written for an American audience in the context of the discussion of the actions of American Muslims. There is perhaps a larger population of Muslim people in this country than there ever has been before, but even so they are still a tiny minority of the whole, mostly spread thinly throughout our communities other than a few larger population centers where people have gathered like Detroit or New York. We’ve got an organized smear campaign by the extremist branch of a major political party citing them as a threat and painting them as a dangerous insidious other, and using national pride as a rallying cry. I’ll agree that pre-war Germans and Jews are an apt metaphor for what is going on in America today, but it takes some serious mental gymnastics and fabrication to begin to suggest that in this metaphor we aren’t the Germans who are going to pay dearly for what the fanatics do to our country if we don’t speak up.

The people who are asking for people to oppose this community center are asking us to change our nation in dark ways. We are supposed to be a nation of laws, not a nation of emotions. Sure it might be sore for some people to see a mosque built in downtown Manhattan so close to the location of ground zero, but only if they conflate Islam in general with the fanatics who carried out the attacks. The people attacked the towers not because they were Islamic, but because they had a list of grievances against the West. They weren’t targeting Christians; they were targeting the US as representative of Western encroachment into the East in general. Their gripes weren’t with our beliefs, but with our international politics and with whom we’ve backed up and supported in foreign governments. Those crazy Saudis that keep getting mentioned are the ones we’ve backed for years now. That we’ve helped keep their repressive regime in power was one of the complaints specifically cited as reason for attacking America. Our support of the Shah of Iran for so long is what led to the Islamic revolution in that country and the rise of militarized fundamentalist Islam there.

This isn’t just a diatribe about what we’ve done wrong in the world. We’ve done lot’s right, and in general, around the globe people who might hate our foreign policies still want to come here. People want to live in the US because we are better. Our system of keeping religion separate from state and protecting civil liberties has been a shining example throughout the world. I write and say and wear things daily that could get me arrested and killed in dozens of countries around the world; I don’t take that liberty lightly. Our democracy is a sticky crazy mess, as any system trying to balance so many different groups and beliefs should be, but when we scrape away as much emotion as we can and get back to the objective rule of law, we mostly stay on a pretty admirable path. This is why people want to come here. Even Europe doesn’t come close to the freedoms and protections we have.

Religions aren’t the causes of wars, they are the cover smoke for skirmishes over resources. And they are convenient ways to draw lines around Us and Them. The politically religious fundamentalists in our country fueling this debate would like to redraw who belongs in the in-group we’ll call “real Americans”. The resources at stake at the moment are political capital and votes. By targeting Muslims in general at the moment, they not only get to feed the lingering anger over 9/11 but also provide an outlet for the racial resentment that simmers beneath the surface here in America, but because they offer a group whose boundaries are described culturally rather than specifically racially, people can pretend this isn’t stoking racist fires. All the more convenient if the group chosen is largely brown skinned. This isn’t to say that it is specifically about color, simply that it synchs nicely with historic prejudices and has an easy visual recognition of the people spoken about as Other. This has been the Republican playbook for years. Pick an ambiguous but recognizable Other, spread dramatic tales of how they are destroying the real America and their secret powers and insidious connections, call on the real Americans to stop them before it is too late. This year they are surprisingly leaving the gays out of it for the most part, but it brings me no joy to see where all the vitriolic energy has gone.

Sure, if people who had caused the 9/11 attacks were trying to build a mosque as a monument to their crime at ground zero, we’d all be up in arms. Actually, I wouldn’t be because I know that it would be shot down in an instant and wouldn’t get past any kind of review board in New York. They can’t agree on how to build a parking garage at ground zero without the public shrieking, much less approve a terrorist shrine. No one would touch it with a ten-foot pole. But wait, if that is the case, how did this get so far along? Why didn’t someone stop this sooner?

Because it is a non-issue. The only reason it is an issue is because as a nation we are largely credulous enough to swallow the plausible lies that we are fed that let us feel threatened and brave. So, when some folks start organizing a large Muslim community center patterned off the 92st Y (which is Jewish and with whom they discussed the practicalities of this project) in an old Burlington Coat Factory, no one in New York gave a rat’s ass about the project. Because it isn’t interesting or controversial outside of normal neighborhood practicalities. I’m sure some of the neighbors didn’t want something going up that would drag more foot traffic there, but otherwise this wasn’t anything controversial.

But if you point out that it was going to have a prayer room, which we can call a mosque since it would be a prayer room for Muslims, I suppose you could call the entire project a mosque since we normally think of the local Y as a church or a synagogue depending on whether it is a YMCA or a YMHA (I am, of course, being sarcastic). And if we want to call everything downtown ground zero, we can say it is being erected at ground zero. It is a large project with lots of fundraisers, so it might be worth noting that a wealthy Saudi man who has given money to various Middle Eastern political groups is giving lots of money to this project and then we can say it is funded by terrorists. It helps if you don’t point out that this Saudi guy also spends his money on other terrorist organizations like Fox News as he is the largest NewsCorps shareholder outside of the Murdock family, but if you just don’t say his name or put his picture up when you describe how scary he is, most people aren’t going to dig and double-check. A terrorist mosque at ground zero makes a jazzy little boogey man amplifier. Most non-Muslim Americans have never been in a mosque, so you can easily equate that term with terrorist meeting place instead of it simply being a Muslim place of worship. If we called it a Muslim church, it would conjure an easily recognizable and relatable image, but common ground isn’t the goal, so the word ‘mosque’ is said repeatedly and in accompaniment with sinister speculation, so that the distinction between whether or not it is a mosque becomes important. It shouldn’t be; it could be planned as primarily a big religious meeting place and my objections to the opposition of its construction wouldn’t be any different, but how it has been painted and the importance of language in the construction of the idea of this building as symbolic of Muslim Otherness makes looking at this manipulation informative.

Muslims as a boogey man are particularly useful to republicans this year not only because 9/11 happened, but because the popular Democratic president has a Muslim sounding middle name. Along with the mosque howling, we’ve got people suggesting that we don’t know where he was born or if he is or isn’t Muslim. Insinuating that he might or might not be Muslim is meant to insinuate that he might or might not be a real American or at worst that he is an explicit threat to America. There is something interesting in painting the elected official leader of a democratic nation as emblematic of the dangerous Other.

In the end, this debate isn’t about Christians vs. Muslims. This is about manipulating emotions to rally and control political momentum. The Nazis did this masterfully. I’d like to think that our country is more self-correcting and difficult to lead down dark paths so I’m resistant to the analogy, but I appreciate the reminder that when faced with an organized segment of the population spreading half-truths and lies to denigrate and dehumanize a minority as a threat to rally and channel rage for political gain that if I don’t speak against these people as a member of the majority that I’ll be culpable for anything my silence enables them to do. Consider your spitfire son revitalized and ready to rage against this stuff anew.

Thanks, Dad.


(ed. note: I want to make clear that this wasn't written as a smack down of anything my father had written, he just got to be the audience as all this coalesced and finally came to a head enough to keep me writing long enough to put some thoughts together. On rereading it, I felt the ending might come across as too snarky to an outside audience not privy to the rest of our correspondence. No disrespect meant to my dad, whose opinions and wisdom I'm lucky to be able to solicit, and whom is a saint for calmly discussing this stuff with a son prone to hyperbole and brimstone.)

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