Friday, July 18, 2008

Islamophobia: The New Acceptable Prejudice

A recent poll stated that 12% of Americans, more than one in ten, believe that Senator Barack Obama is a Muslim. It's quite a large percentage, given the publicity of Obama's former pastor, the now notorious Jeremiah Wright. For many months, the Obama campaign has been furiously trying to explain that Obama is not a Muslim. Then, a brilliantly satirical caricature of Obama and his wife Michelle appeared on the cover of The New Yorker. Both the Obama camp and the McCain camp called the cover offensive, but the folks at The New Yorker stuck to its guns and defended its satire. The least problematic of this incident was that they had to explain that their cover was satirical, and everyone knows that when you have to explain a joke, it's no longer funny. It's Comedy 101. Granted, it's The New Yorker, hardly that funny to begin with. But that's an entry for another time.

How did Senator Obama himself feel? In an interview with Larry King, Senator Obama stated that "when you're running for president for almost two years ... you get a pretty thick skin. And, you know, I've seen and heard worse." He then added that "this is actually an insult against Muslim-Americans, something that we don't spend a lot of time talking about. And sometimes I've been derelict in pointing that out. You know, there are wonderful Muslim-Americans all across the country who are doing wonderful things. And for this to be used as sort of an insult or to raise suspicions about me I think is unfortunate." King then immediately switched topics and discussed the war in Iraq with Senator Obama.

In addition to treating the magazine cover with a grain of salt, Obama brought up a point that I've been aching to hear raised: what's wrong with being Muslim?

During this campaign, Obama's secret Muslim past is an accusation that has been tossed around by the ignorant, playing on fears of another 9/11. As a consequence, the Obama campaign has tried to distance itself from the Muslim community, even going to far as to remove two Muslim women wearing headscarves lest they appear in the same vicinity as Obama. The Muslim world is so feared and stigmatized that American Muslims are treated like second-class citizens. Fortunately, the Obama campaign immediately apologized, and that was that. If only that could be true of all apologies.
Racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism are the top three prejudices that are taken advantage of in order to discredit an opponent's argument. Since there is no way to successfully defend oneself against charges of these three prejudices without sounding like an ignoramus, these prejudices are the standard go-to for argumentative tactics. They work, because they evoke feelings of oppression, from slavery to the Holocaust. The fear of resembling an oppressor is so grand, no self-respecting person can afford to make a remark that is even close to sounding racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic, bringing about obvious benefits (less outward prejudice) and drawbacks (free-speech is stifled).

But Islamophobia is not pounced on with the same outrage that racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and even homophobia are. Even before 9/11, Hollywood and the mainstream media almost always portrayed Muslims in an unflattering way. Muslim representation has ranged from the sexist oil sheik, to the racist cab driver, to the womanizing Persian, to the airplane hijacker. Granted, these Muslims exist, and they're not just a few people, but we've barely even seen token "good" Muslims. The consequence is that many people are less aware of what Islam really is. They watch movies like "Executive Decision" or TV shows like "24" and assume that Muslims are just a bunch of Jew-hating terrorists who pray to their mysterious god "Allah" and honor-kill their daughters because their holy book the Koran commands them to do it. Every single time a nutjob Muslim commits a crime, the stereotype is reinforced. The reinforcement turns into resignation and acceptance. The acceptance manifests itself as prejudice.

Consequently, anything that is related to Islam is now tied to terrorism. From Rachel Ray's scarf to Barack Obama's name, fear has overtaken reason. Apathy has been substituted in place of the pursuit of knowledge. Theology and dogma now explains the behavior of all Muslims, even though theology and dogma have little place in everyday American life.

And where are the so-called "moderate" Muslims? Where are their voices? If they are so moderate, why are they not doing more to condemn the actions of extremists? Several months ago, I gave my answer to those questions. Since then, little has changed. Muslims and non-Muslims alike don't talk. The silence breeds further acceptance of negative stereotypes, and it continues from there.
One of the causes of this silence is the sad fact that no one really knows where to go to find answers to their questions. While political correctness has its place, the fear of being un-PC too often dampens people's reasonable questions. It's risky to sound unaware, lest being unaware becomes tantamount to ignorance. I disagree. Ignorance, to me, implies the knowledge of something's existence, while consciously ignoring or seeking out the truth. Being willfully ignorant is a redunancy. Not being aware of something is different; at least it's somewhat excusable.

So where does one go for answers about Islam? The most obvious answer is, well, Muslims. And when you talk to Muslims, you'll find out that their way of life is not all about reading the Koran, or praying five times a day, or even abstaining from pork and alcohol. Dogma may be the foundation of belief, but because Leviticus says that homosexuality is forbidden doesn't mean that there aren't gay Jews.

Communication is the foundation of all learning. Once communication has been established and the facts have been ascertained, we can then make our judgments. Any conclusion made without all the facts is premature judgment, hence the term prejudice. And that has to stop.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

How do you deal with the Unreasonable?

In July 1, 2008's Op-Ed Section of The Washington Post, columnist Richard Cohen wrote a piece that touched on a sentiment that I've had growing in me since the start of the new century. The article itself is a criticism of Senator John McCain's search for endorsements from famous members of the American clergy, most notably Billy and Richard Graham. He writes that "the endorsement of such clergymen has been sought by virtually every Republican presidential candidate of our times," a practice that Cohen feels is "disquieting."

I understand where Cohen is coming from. The pursuit of approval from the faithful is a necessary one to undertake if one is to get anywhere in politics. Since most of America (and, indeed, the world) either practices a religion or holds a belief in reverence for the supernatural, professing a faith is the easiest way to gain trust. In America, it's Christianity.

Most Americans who have faith weren't really concerned about Mitt Romney's bid for the presidency. True, he had to come out and defend his faith, but at the end of the day, Romney was accepted in a way that wouldn't have been possible if he hadn't been religious at all. In other words, better to have a different faith in Jesus than no faith in Jesus at all.

I've noticed that an individual's piety is seen as the redeeming quality behind even the most scientific and reasonable of people. Albert Einstein's research fundamentally altered the way in which the universe is seen and questions the concept of predestination, but rest assured, Einstein himself could not fully comprehend the magnitude of his discoveries. "God does not play dice," he is famously quoted; ergo, since Einstein believed in the supernatural, so must we all.

In The Assault on Reason, Al Gore methodically traces the pattern on how Americans, through television and the 24-hour news networks, have given up on their heritage of Enlightened reason to surrender to gut instinct. It's a brilliant argument, but it later seems disingenuous when he attempts to balance reason with faith.
Cohen notes that piety can "excuse ... ignorance and intolerance." It's true. How often have we forgiven people because they either found Jesus, or converted to Islam, or turned to Buddhism? And how often have logical arguments screeched to a grinding halt when a matter of faith is brought up? In fact, the only way reason is able to progress is for matters of faith to be ignored. Even amongst scientists who have faith, their faith is compartmentalized in a place that is accessed only at sporadic times. This compartmentalization is necessary in order for science to progress. When trying to chart the trajectory of a falling particle into the gravity well of a singularity, Jesus' Sermon on the Mount doesn't have much applicability.

Faith, by definition, is unreasonable. It causes wonder, that there's something greater than what we can see, no matter what tools humanity can invent to see farther or smaller than ever before. It is the source of inspiration that can drive a believer to handle venomous snakes without fear or stand up for civil rights. It's also the source of courage that allows a man or woman to willingly strap on explosives and kill. It's the screen through which we can ignore destruction and see something totally different and unrelated. And in this modern age, it is seen as the ultimate trump card to an individual's character and trustworthiness -- that no matter what his or her reasoned or scientific background, that individual is willing to allow the unprovable to supercede documented evidence.

And so it goes. Time and again, American politicians will court the faithful by underlining their own faith. And time and again, Americans will follow those who show the most faith in their beliefs. But it must be stressed that although following the faithful may have led us to legislated equality, the faithful also led us to believe there were WMDs in Iraq.