Friday, October 22, 2010

Our newest bogeyman isn't so new.

American is an island of sorts...certainly psychologically so.  It's no doubt due to the vast ocean the first European adventurers and then settlers crossed to get here, but that notion of separateness has served to support a strong strain of isolationism right up to the modern era -- just ask Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and the two Bushes.  For a country so willing to spend its treasure on its military, we're a country that loathes foreign entanglements.  Sure, there are plenty of hawks in government and business who may be all-too-ready to assert American power, but the majority of the people distrust this notion and only begrudgingly acquiesce to the role of reluctant policemen (inevitably turning sour and demanding disengagement -- e.g. Afghanistan and Iraq).

We also distrust "fer'ners" [foreigners].  This is the highest irony, of course, considering the vast majority of our ancestral backgrounds; but, nonetheless, every wave of ethnic immigration has been met with disdain or even outright hatred.  And yet they keep coming, and, eventually, they are folded into the society.  It's a painful and on-going process, and virtually every family here has experienced this to one degree or another, at one time or another.  Add to this our national shame in the slave trade and you get a nation that, in the kindest terms, remains conflicted, still not completely comfortable in its own skin.

It is onto this canvas that the current picture of anti-Muslim feeling must be painted.  Only, the canvas isn't new and there's plenty of paint already on it.  Some of the paint we inherited from our crusading European ancestors, some from our very first foreign entanglement with the Barbary States.  In the modern era, we have witnessed the nationalization of the Suez Canal, successive wars against Israel, oil embargoes, the Iranian hostage crisis, the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the First Gulf War, the destruction of the World Trade Center, the war in Afghanistan against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and the Second Gulf War.  It ain't pretty, and it's certainly not rational, but one can begin to understand why many Americans are not completely comfortable with the Muslim world.

It's not fair, of course.  It's not fair to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims who peacefully live their lives and practice their faith, and it's certainly not fair to American Muslims who are supposed to enjoy constitutionally-protected lives free from discrimination and prejudice.  Here's a poignant Venn Diagram that gives a little context:

This is a freedom that, by the way, extends to wearing religiously-prescribed clothing onto airplanes without harassment.  Our laws and our ethics demand that we not discriminate or act prejudicially against an individual or a group for exercising their rights.

And yet we do.

It's wrong, but is it understandable?  I would argue that it is understandable.  It is also unjustifiable and desperately needs to be countered with education, experience and appeals to the values and common decency we purport to hold dear.

Juan Williams famously lost his contract with NPR yesterday for publicly admitting to a prejudicial nervousness upon seeing Muslim dress on fellow airplane passengers.  Some believe he was attempting to justify such a reaction; others feel he was explaining and exposing a reaction many others feel but would be rightly ashamed to mention.  Myself, I tend to side with the latter, and I think it was a shame and missed opportunity to fire him...not least of which because he was immediately -- and thoroughly predictably -- welcomed with open arms at Fox.  But I don't know Williams' head for certain, and my concern is not with him, specifically.  My concern is with the rest of population, who, despite a desire to treat people equally and a knowledge that discrimination is wrong, still nevertheless feel twinges of Williams' nervousness in a similar situation.  Are we to lump them in with people -- pastors no less -- who put up signs like this?

Some out there in Commentland would obviously have no problem doing just that.  They seem perfectly comfortable writing off prejudicial fear as nothing less than racism and bigotry.

I do not.

We're human beings and we mess up all the time.  Our goal is to recognize this and try to make things right, and this one-strike-and-you're-out philosophy when it comes to knee-jerk reactions to irrational fear is wasteful and counterproductive.  It doesn't help solve the problem; it's more concerned with meting out punishment.

Let us all recognize that our bogeyman du jour is Islam.  Whether it's the community center proposed in Lower Manhattan or Juan Williams or the popular misconception that our President is somehow, secretly, a Muslim, our country (but not just our country) is wrapped up in a certain degree of hysteria, causing many to overreact and retreat into camps of defensiveness.  If we cannot admit that there's a problem and look it squarely in the face without fear of recrimination, we will never be able to counter and correct it.

We'll still just be Us and Them.

[Image sources:  Venn Diagram here,and Islam sign here; see Dr. Suess' Sneeches here.  For further reading on the history of Islam, I re-recommend Reza Aslan's brilliant and engaging No god but God:  The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, available here.]