The Subtlety of Monolithic Islam Bigotry — In Me

Charlie Hebdo: Faut Pas Se Moquer - You Must Not MockOn Wednesday, I published, Je Suis Charlie. And I stand by most of what I wrote. But there was one thing that I wrote that was based upon hearsay rather than actual research, “In the case of Charlie Hebdo, any outrage is totally unjustified because the magazine took on everyone.” It was also based upon the cover illustration to the left that mocked both a Muslim and a Hasidic Jew. But I think there might be a problem with this contention.

Earlier today, Glenn Greenwald wrote, In Solidarity With a Free Press: Some More Blasphemous Cartoons. It is a reaction to a push by many all over the political spectrum who claim that we should celebrate the offending cartoons that supposedly caused the recent massacre of innocents in Paris. It is an interesting and thoughtful analysis of the issue. (Contrast it with Jonathan Chait’s incredibly uninteresting response, Charlie Hebdo Point-Missers Miss Point.) I’m not quite sure where I stand on it. But this part struck me:

With all due respect to the great cartoonist Ann Telnaes, it is simply not the case that Charlie Hebdo “were equal opportunity offenders.” Like Bill Maher, Sam Harris and other anti-Islam obsessives, mocking Judaism, Jews and/or Israel is something they will rarely (if ever) do. If forced, they can point to rare and isolated cases where they uttered some criticism of Judaism or Jews, but the vast bulk of their attacks are reserved for Islam and Muslims, not Judaism and Jews.

I don’t speak French, so I’m not in a position to say. But it made me realize that the cover illustration above may actually indicate the fundamental problem with my own thinking. The problem, as I now see it, is that the Muslim is generic and the Jew is not. The implication is simply “all Muslims and particular Jews.” But I don’t think that this is intentional. It is more along the lines of, “All Japanese look alike!” What such claims actually mean is that the speaker has little experience with Japanese people. (I’ve had this problem myself — cured by years of Japanese cinema watching.)

It is pathetic, of course, that I now feel I must mention that I’m a free speech absolutist. It is not just that it is obviously wrong to kill people for the “offense” of saying things you disagree with. The idea that people should not have the right to encourage draft resistance during a war (“shouting fire in a crowed theater”) is simply ridiculous. Just the same, it is curious, isn’t it, that we do not have such clearly political — First Amendment — rights, but we do have the right to snipe at minority groups in any way that we choose — including “the right of neo-Nazis to march through a community filled with Holocaust survivors…”

According to Juan Cole, two-thirds of Muslim heritage French people don’t even consider themselves religious — much less “radical.” The problem here is that even among the very small world population of Jews (less than 20 million), we distinguish. But the 1.6 billion Muslims are monolithic for us. And that’s why that Charlie Hebdo cover struck me as fairly even handed (I would have preferred a Christian in there — but intolerance is not limited to any religion or non-religion).

Bigotry is, at base, about classification — treating individuals as members of a group. It is a very big issue that I fight with in myself constantly regarding racism. I fear that many people who, like me, worry about racism, don’t worry about such grouping problems when it comes to religion. After all, people supposedly choose their religions. There are a couple of problems with that. First: people don’t choose their religions. Almost every religious person is a member of the faith they grew up in. Second, as we know only too well, there is very little that can be generalized about a hippy Unitarian and a right-wing evangelical Protestant. The same is true of all people. I’m sure there are even cruel Jains.

I would hate for the tragedy in Paris to leave us with nothing but what we should have always known: people shouldn’t be killed because others find them offensive. Worse still is the idea that this is all about Islam, because if these actions really spoke of the religion, those 1.6 billion Muslims would have forced us to live under a worldwide caliphate by now. I suppose that it is asking too much for everyone to take this as an opportunity to examine themselves. But it really is on all of us non-Muslims, because it isn’t like the terrorists are going to start wearing “gang colors.” And it is wrong to ask Muslims to abandon their heritage so we can better spot those we ought to fear. (Not that it would work, of course.)

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

4 thoughts on “The Subtlety of Monolithic Islam Bigotry — In Me

  1. The people arguing for Muslims to abandon their heritage are being more than wrong; they’re being silly. And, if they’re Americans of European heritage that goes back more than a few generations, they’re also ignoring their own history. Everyone knows how newer European immigrants were loathed by earlier immigrants. What many Americans don’t know is how this became the soul of corrupt machine politics. The machine politicians were the only ones who didn’t insult the newer immigrants. They went to their weddings and funerals, they ate at their feasts. In return, the newer immigrants were easily turned out to vote for machine politicians; it’s how machine politicians ruled cities for decades.

    Demonizing a group never, ever, makes that group assimilate faster! This is as proven a notion as you can find in political history. America is full of places where the scars from demonization have lasted so long that locals still cling with stubborn pride to their far-distant European descent; the Irish in Boston, pockets of German culture across the Midwest. (That’s what polka is.) Hell, we’ve been so horrid to descendants of slaves for so long that “African-American” culture won’t fade away for a thousand years, nor should we want it to (although a lot of “soul food” is very unhealthy, that should probably be more of a holiday tradition, like blood sausage for Germans.)

    This should be the lesson of the murders in France. That it’s time we stop giving terrorists what they want and demonizing our neighbors. They’re more scared of terrorism than we are, and justly so; they can be targets of both terrorist violence and popular repression. I can’t imagine the anguish they must feel every time another one of these attacks happen. Rather than call on “imams” to denounce terrorism (obviously, the overwhelming majority do), we should be calling on Christian churches and other important local groups to expand their efforts to let our Muslim neighbors know we stand with them against psycho demagogues trying to divide our communities.

    That’s one of the best Greenwald articles I’ve ever read. The Latuff cartoons were good, especially this one:

    Gazans being killed, Obama blocking the world from viewing, and a guy who looks like a Saudi prince sleeping, bored. Now THAT’s daring stuff!

    • I think I need to stay away from New Atheist websites. The truth is that I’m getting pretty tired of hearing the exact same logic from people like Sam Harris regarding Muslims that I hear from racists about African Americans and Latinos. One of my main selling points as a writer is a willingness to consider my own weaknesses and grapple with them publicly. I think I’ve come to the point where I think the New Atheists are simply a pox on us. They don’t present rationalism in a good light. And frankly, as an atheist, I wish they would stop calling themselves atheists. They may all be atheists, but as a public force, they are anti-theists. And every time I hear one of them say that she only believes things with evidence, I want to scream. The statement itself is self-refuting: neuroscience has demonstrated that our brains simply don’t work that way. I do suspect that eventually this fact will make its way into the mainstream of the movement and all the good followers will stop saying it.

      You really have to wonder what is it that makes one a Muslim. If Christianity was a turn away from the xenophobia and violence of the Old Testament, then Islam is a turn back to it. So let’s leave Christianity out of it. Why is it that Muslims are associated with terrorism now and Jews were associated with terrorism in the 1940s and 1950s? Does it have something to do with how the Old Testament was read by Jews? Of course not. It has everything to do with their political situation. If Islam is the “motherload of bad ideas” then so is the Judaism.

      Yes, I especially liked that cartoon because it was rendered so unbelievably well. I also quite liked the “Religion of Hate” cartoon. Jonathan Chait took special offense at the article, but then he’s a fighter. Pretty much any notable attack will find him punching back. But I found his article to be (1) almost devoid of substance; and (2) totally mischaracterizing Greenwald’s argument. Greenwald’s focus is razor thin. I think there is an simpler argument that can be made, however. Your regular Muslim is put in a very difficult and potentially dangerous spot because of the murders committed by these yahoos. So reprinting images that are offensive to Muslims literally adds insult to injury to other Muslims — even if they aren’t religious. Also: it doesn’t show any bravery when everyone and his brother is reprinting the images. I’d like to see our media actually be brave — stand up to real power.

  2. To my understanding Islam (besides simply being a religion people are born into) appeals to believers because it’s the opposite of Old Testament xenophobia and violence. That opposition is its historical/emotional justification. Mecca was a place where pilgrims of many varying sects went while corrupt cash-in religious leaders made a fortune turning the Abrahamic holy site into a hotbed of competing sectarianism. Muhammed eliminated the racism and the politics and made it a strictly holy site again, inspiring feverish rage from local thugs who wanted Mecca to stay under their control for their financial gain. I’m certainly vastly oversimplifying this but this is how I understand Islam; like Christ in the Gospels, Muhammed threw the moneychangers out of the temple and opened the faith to many more people of many more backgrounds.

    It’s obvious why such an origin story is appealing to people from different backgrounds who all share a history of their cultures and communities being ripped to shreds by the Romans first and colonialism later. And why a religion that preaches, primarily, avoidance of alcohol/drugs (little room for self-indulgent moments as a stranger in a strange land) with charity to the poor (help the community) are also strong draws. There was only a brief period where Muslims ruled themselves, and in that period they were (as you know) incredibly tolerant towards other religions and intolerant towards usury in a manner that may have been the closest thing to a “free market” the world has ever known.

    As you said about free speech, I’m not going to defend the modern Islamic fundamentalism towards women; that’s a granted. I think we all know where it comes from, and it’s strictly a political blowback thing, not religious. American Catholic women don’t exactly obey the Vatican on birth control; less powerful women in poorer countries are more likely to.

    This strikes me in many ways as comparable to how some hated the civil-rights movement. Quite reasonable-seeming people, on the left and right, said the Negroes were asking for too much, too fast. Quite reasonable-seeming people today act as though the wholesale demonization of anyone who goes to a damn mosque, which is nothing more or less than a church, usually a terrified and tame church, is completely acceptable.

    Sorry; bit drunk again! This shit just enrages me to no end and I can’t remotely see the logical point to it.

  3. Holy shit! Watching “Star Trek 6” right now, which was written/directed by Meyer, and is about right-wingers staging terror attacks to inflame hatred on both sides. No idea the movie was so political, I didn’t remember it at all; I wanted some fun escapism. It actually includes a line “better to live on our feet than die on our knees,” and it’s more honorably ludicrous than reasonable; Meyer was that good. Low-budget film, cheesy in many ways, great writing. Can’t believe I’m seeing this. Fucking Spock, using science and logic to carve through suppositions and find verifiable evidence. This was so what I needed. God bless Meyer so much.

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