Saturday, October 13, 2007

HOLY LAND FOUNDATION TRIAL: “Tolerance” or “Freedom?”

Even as the jury deliberates the fate of the HLF defendants, a grotesque hoopla has grown up surrounding a Muslim Family Day at Six Flags celebrating the end of Ramadan.

Someone needs to get a life, and it’s not the Muslim community of North Texas.

(Most?) non-Muslim Americans, and Americans who are not of Arab descent have, since 9/11, been unable to think of Muslims and/or Arab-Americans as persons. Americans seem not be able to think of our Muslim and Arab-American neighbors as human beings whom Thomas Jefferson believed to have certain “rights” simply by virtue of their existence, among those rights (but not, in Jefferson’s view, limited to them) are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The only specific right Jefferson enumerated in his lifetime was the right to freedom of conscience (religion).

Jefferson wrote, in his “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in the State of Virginia,” that “…all attempts to influence [one’s mind in matters of religion] by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations…are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion… [Therefore,] no man shall be….enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

Paradoxically, in this time and place, one would probably have to look very hard to find an American who would not at least give lip-service to the Jeffersonian ideal of absolute freedom of religion. We salute the flag with “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” At the same time, with no evidence except irrational fear engendered partly by the events of 9/11 (and by a government that uses fear as a means of control), many Americans act as if they believe that affording Muslims the rights Jefferson says we all possess simply by virtue of our being is foolish, if not dangerous. Muslims, especially Muslims who live next door, are “otherized,” thought of as a one-dimensional group, and demonized—with no evidence. This “othering” is not, however, a recent phenomenon. As Nada Elia writes,

The “othering” and rejection of Arabs and Arab Americans is as old as this country, as is the erroneous homogenization of all Arab Americans as Muslims…. It is no mere coincidence that the nation’s first motto, E Pluribus Unum, was replaced in 1956 with the more representative “In God We Trust.” After all, the embrace of plurality had to stop somewhere, and the lines have historically been drawn most clearly with regards to religion. The confluence of church and state, with the presidential worldview today embracing Christianity and Zionism, is a lethal mix for Arabs and Arab Americans, who are perceived as the quintessential enemy. (1)

We non-Muslim Americans seem, for the most part, to be unable to distinguish between diversity and violence, between that which is “unfamiliar” and that which is “evil,” between what we don’t understand and what we hate. And because we cannot make distinctions, we hate difference in a way that Jefferson might well have thought was “sinful and tyrannical,” the description he used for forcing anyone to support a religion they do not believe.

The idea that one’s own religion/culture is not only superior to “otherness” but under threat from the inferior “other,” intensifies what might be (real or imaginary) concern over some kind of “terrorist” threat. Flags wave, and confusion about cultural and religious “otherness” destroys any desire or ability to understand and accept persons whom one perceives to be dangerously “different.” But, in the simplest Jeffersonian terms, the inability to accept the humanness of the “other” is a rejection of the “unalienable rights” that adhere to that person. Shalom Lappin puts it this way:

Acceptance of cultural difference, even when expressed as religiously based separatism, is not a “concession” to immigrant minorities but follows directly from the foundational principles of liberal democracy. Adversaries of multiculturalism threaten those values by rejecting cultural and religious pluralism. (2)

This inability of non-Muslim Americans to accept what they (we) see as a dangerous “otherness” is not a new phenomenon. It is as old as the Republic itself. Interestingly, not much is written currently even in scholarly circles to try to understand this “othering” of Muslims and Arab-Americans. Matthew F. Jacobs, in his article “The Perils and Promise of Islam: The United States and the Muslim Middle East in the Early Cold War,” says he is trying

…to bridge such gaps in the scholarship by exploring the ways in which particular discourses about Islam influenced how policymakers and regional specialists comprehended the Middle East from the mid-1940s through the early 1960s. I begin by investigating how academics, government officials, and journalists trying to understand the Middle East …relied on faulty and essentializing assumptions and common stereotypes about Islam as they focused on it as a dominant feature of regional culture, society, and politics….They came to view Islam as a powerful threat to expanding U.S. interests in the region from the late 1940s through the mid-1950s. (3)

This is not to say that academics and scholars could (or have the responsibility to) change the way non-Muslim Americans think. That so little scholarship exists that attempts even to understand non-Muslim Americans’ demonization of Islam indicates that the “[perception of Muslims] as the quintessential enemy” will not change any time soon.

And so back to Six Flags. Is it so difficult to accept a Muslim family day at the quintessential American amusement park? Will any of the six flags that have flown over Texas (shall we talk about “diversity?”) be endangered by Muslim families celebrating the end of the fast days of Ramadan? Can anyone present one shred of evidence that the North Texas Muslim community supports “terrorism,” either in Arlington or in Jerusalem (the US attorneys for North Texas have tried, but could make their case only with evidence that could not be documented)? It is rhetorically unsound to make one’s case by asking questions, so understand that I am not asking “rhetorical” questions. I challenge anyone who is afraid of my Muslim friends (or simply wants a scapegoat for all that is wrong in the world) to answer these questions.

Or, in the absence of logical answers, Get A Life (fac ut vivas).

(1) Elia, Nada. “Islamophobia and the Privileging of Arab-American Women.” NWSA Journal, (National Women’s Studies Association) Fall2006, Vol. 18 Issue 3, p155-161. Nada Elia is Profess of Comparative Literature, Antioch University. She is co-founder of RAWAN (the Radical Arab Women’s Activist Network). She holds a B.A., Beirut University College; M.A., American University of Beirut; Ph.D., Purdue University.
(2)Lappin, Shalom. “Multiculturalism and Democracy.” Dissent, Summer2007, Vol. 54 Issue 3, p14-18. Shalom Lappin is Professor, Computational Linguistics, King's College, London.
(3) Jacobs, Matthew F. “The Perils and Promise of Islam: The United States and the Muslim Middle East in the Early Cold War.” Diplomatic History, Sep 2006, Vol. 30 Issue 4, p705-739. Matthew Jacobs is Professor of History at the University of Florida at Gainesville.