Wednesday, May 26, 2010

On "Bits of Muslims"

During my time in the American South I’ve heard a number of things come out of peoples’ mouths that shocked and disappointed me. I’ve gotten so used to the typical prejudices in Alabama, that most of the various forms of bigotry cease to surprise me anymore, but every once in awhile I will still hear something that will strike me and linger with me.

This story transpires on a Saturday, probably six months ago. I started the morning off by doing something I never do on a Saturday—waking up early. I did this so I could join two of my close friends in a morning of paintball in Wetumpka, a little town that’s best described as an offshoot of Montgomery. This was probably the second time I had ever tried to play paintball, and I spent most of my day scrambling to evade the experienced teenage players who pelted me with stinging paintballs whenever I stuck my neck out. I tried to make up for my lack of experience by running twice as hard—a strategy that didn’t get me very far, but did give me a hell of a workout. I was playing with a rented gun and each of these kids had fully-automatic paintball guns with rifled barrels and expensive accessories. I was completely outmatched, and by the end of the paintballing session I looked it. I was laying in the grass, covered in mud, paint, and sweat. As an added bonus I also had over a dozen fresh red welts all over my torso.

After conferring with my buddies we decided the next course of action should be to obtain some food. I had spent my morning trying to outrun kids with high-tech paintball gear, and I was starving. As we drove home we spent the car ride arguing over which restaurants we should be eating at. I was a pretty vocal force in this particular exchange and I advocated for a little bar/restaurant called Gino’s Ristorante (I’ve changed the name of this place, out of courtesy). We strolled up to the building, looking like some crew of misfits—all dirty, all sweaty, all of us with paint smears that we hadn’t even bother to clean. Gino’s wasn’t open, but one of the owners was just walking up to the front door.
“You boys know we just opening now right?”
We exchanged nervous glances.
“Um, didn’t know sir, but we can just continue down the road and find another place.”
“Oh don’t you worry about it boys, you can come to the bar, we’ll give you a few drinks on the house and you can relax until the food is finally ready.”

We took him up on his offer, and a few drinks on the house soon turned into many drinks on the house. Overall, since coming to Alabama this may be the only instance I’ve experienced of the much touted “Southern hospitality”. The owners, Gino and Teddy, plied us with drink after drink and hung around at the bar to offer their views on local and world affairs.

The conversation turned political, as any good conversation is wont to do. Mothers and etiquette specialists will often preach to you about avoiding sex, politics, and religion in polite conversation—ignore them. The only worthwhile conversations are those that broach on areas of controversy. Any dullard can prattle on about the weather and sports teams. If you want to make your night interesting jump into the fray and mix things up on the issues that matter—after all civilization never would have advanced if everyone had avoided arguing.

We spent some time talking about Southern race relations. I will spare you the nitty gritty, suffice it to say that at the height of our debate Teddy accused me of being an “N-word lover”. I could have (and some would say should have) met this obscenity with an immediate breaking off of communications, and left the bar. But I have a personal belief in “meeting people where they’re at”. Meaning, that I recognize that some folks may have grown up with a narrow-minded and racist upbringing, and I prefer to gently push them in the right direction, rather than slam them by calling them “racist”. Again, I won’t waste the space in this post on the details, but I like to think that I made some progress with Teddy in discussing the lingering effects of slavery and Jim Crow laws. I will keep my fingers crossed and hope that some of this made some kind of impression on Teddy. He did at least pretend to see my point of view.

At some point in the conversation, after we had reached a pseudo-settlement in our discussion on Southern racism, Teddy started talking about my military service. I always get a little uneasy when this topic comes up in the South. I’m not sure what to say when people “thank me”, because it doesn’t seem genuine. I’ve always had the sense that our military could literally be doing anything over there, or in any corner of the world, to any group of people, and these kinds of folks would always thank us by reflex. It’s this sort of blind and reflexive approval from a country’s civilian population that allowed the Germans and the Japanese to operate their war machines. So, as expected Teddy thanked me for protecting him, and I responded with a simple thank you as I usually do—I wasn’t in the mood to do the heavy lifting that it would take to turn over another entire set of lazy assumptions, and I was afraid of somehow looking rude by not accepting his compliment. Then Teddy, feeling like he must be in friendly company with a military man, decided to go further and tell me a story.

“Yeah so somebody sent me this video in an email, it’s awesome the stuff you guys can do! This video showed these terrorists were standing around a truck, and then a missile flies in and BOOM! Bits of Muslims everywhere! Hahaha!!”
He looked at me for approval, as if he was expecting me to laugh along with him. I didn’t laugh, but I also didn’t say anything, as I probably should have—I simply couldn’t think of an appropriate response.

Teddy’s comment isn’t the first I’ve heard like this, but for some reason it’s the one that really sticks in my brain. Despite all the complaining I hear from Fox News pundits over political correctness, anti-Muslim bigotry seems to be one of the few forms of bigotry left that’s fully acceptable in the mainstream. In the American South I constantly hear the religion of Islam attacked by casual Christians, who have never bothered to do any learning about Islam, and who have never met a Muslim person. I presume it’s no small coincidence that most of these proclaimed Christians don’t live their daily lives in an even remotely Christian manner.
Talking heads like Bill O’Reilly have an interesting way of stoking this anti-Muslim sentiment. I watched Fox News a few days after the attempted attack by Faisal Shahzad in New York City. O’Reilly opened his show by complaining that “nobody” was referring to this as Islamic terrorism, due to the endemic plague of “political correctness” that conservatives seem so concerned about (but don’t mention the word “retard” or they’ll have a conniption fit).

Now it’s worth mentioning that I had already seen a speech from NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg where he mentioned Shahzad’s Muslim and Pakistani background and urged New Yorkers not to let this affect their views of the many Muslims and Pakistanis who already live peacefully in NY City. So he did identify Shahzad as a Muslim.

No matter, O’Reilly and his panelists spent at least half the show complaining that no one is labeling this act of terror as “Muslim” and in the course of doing so they managed to repeat the words Muslim and terrorist over and over again in the same sentence. By the time this episode was done the words “Muslim” and “terrorist” must have been paired together at least a hundred times. And this, of course, is on America’s most watched cable news show. By spending so much time complaining about not labeling this a Muslim terrorist attack, they get to do the labeling themselves. And by only talking about Islam when terrorism is involved, the intention to associate the entire religion with terrorism is unmistakable( I couldn’t find the exact episode I reference here, but this clip makes my point). In the midst of all his complaining about Muslim terrorism, O’Reilly didn’t seem to find the time to mention that the first person to notice the suspicious vehicle and notify others was a Muslim immigrant. I never saw this piece of the story reported in the mainstream.

Needless to say, there was also no mainstream coverage when a terrorist firebombed a mosque in Jacksonville, Florida just ten days later (thankfully, none of the 60 worshippers inside were injured). In fact, I only learned about this today. Unfortunately for American Muslims, our righteous indignation doesn’t seem to boil up when they are the victims of terrorism.

Another recent incident of free-flowing anti-Islamic bigotry was right after a few South Park episodes were cancelled due to threats from the now infamous “Revolution Muslim” website. I’m not any more sympathetic towards the creators of this site than the next red-blooded American, but I simply don’t find it necessary to begin denigrating an entire group of people based on the threats of a few nutjobs. And that is in fact what they were—Revolution Muslim is run by a few crazy men in New York who have been kicked out of their mosques by the Muslim majority, because they are, in fact, nutjobs. There are only between 4 and 10 of them, and with no mosque that will accept them they stand on street corners shouting at people. It’s best to treat them like all fringe lunatics and just ignore them.

As such I actually reserve most of my outrage in this situation for the executives at Comedy Central who censored the episode. What kind of American business backs down off of its right to free speech based on a few implied threats from a few crazy people? Have they no sense of patriotism? So many men and women suffered so much to give Americans some of the most open free speech laws in the world. I have personally witnessed one man, Mikey Weinstein, brave death threats from Christians almost daily and he doesn’t stop what he does. My advice to the executives at Comedy Central: grow a pair.

It’s also worth mentioning that the whole Revolution Muslim website seems a little fishy. I’ve seen many claims, not yet contradicted, that report the site’s founder, Yousef al-Khattab was originally named Joseph Cohen, an Israeli Jew. It seems that shortly before moving to the US he was a right-wing Jew with his own settlement in the West Bank. At the risk of sounding conspiratorial I won’t speculate on this, but you can form your own conclusions.

In a development that should surprise no one, one of the recent idiotic and offensive statements comes from a Tea Party leader, who described the Muslim god as a “monkey god”, and then apologized to Hindus for defiling their “monkey god”. I smirked when I read what a Hindu blogger told the Tea Party official he could do with his apology.

I find it ironic that so many Christians have become prejudiced against Islam to the point that they are openly intolerant of it, and even find it appropriate to laugh when Muslims are killed violently. I could swear that Jesus was pretty clear when he preached openness, tolerance, and nonviolence.

And yet this dichotomy is nothing new. When asked what he thought about Christianity, Gandhi had this to say,

“I like Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

I personally know Christians who really do make an effort to live their lives according to Jesus’ teachings, but they seem to be in such short supply these days.
The terrorists who are Muslim really aren’t so different from any other religious person who decides that killing innocent people is justified-- they are simply common hypocrites. Both the Koran and the Bible preach nonviolence and offer very clear restrictions on the killing of innocent people—yet every day we see Christians and Muslims twisting their faith to justify killing their fellow man.

There’s enough casual prejudice against Muslims in the current American psyche that I could surely say more on this subject, and probably will in the future, but I couldn't seem to find a way to dive into all of this with Teddy.

Instead, when he yelled, “BOOM! Bits of Muslims everywhere!” I sat there quietly as he cackled. Sensing the awkward pause, he continued, “so hey take another drink, on the house, I insist!” Such incredible generosity! This would have been the fifth free drink, along with a free appetizer he had given me—a pure stranger.

I’ve grown used to this phenomenon, but it still has a way of shocking me-- the human capacity for cruelty and compassion in the same breath.

No comments:

Post a Comment