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Thursday, September 9, 2010

Still Not In My Name: A follow-up on the Park51 controversy

“The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.” - The Prophet Muhammed, pbup

After I posting the last article, I received a number of interesting responses, including a link to Keith Olbermann’s Special Comment on Park51 from a relative of mine, who summed things up by saying, “This is America, dammit!” I’m not always a big fan of Olbermann, but when I agree with him, I can always rely on him to provide a more eloquent description of my position than I can.

I also got into a discussion with a former colleague of mine - a very intelligent guy, whose opinions I hold in very high regard. Although we differed in our views on Park51, our discussion forced me to clarify a number of the points I was making - as any good discussion should do. So here I present my original thesis again, hopefully in much clearer terms.

First, the term ‘racism’ - if you’ve ever gotten into a discussion about race with an anthropologist (such as my fiance), you’re probably aware of the fact that the term is fuzzy, at best. While there are some physiological characteristics that are common among people from common geographic areas - skin pigmentation, for example - the idea of sorting people into a handful of racial categories is pretty ridiculous.

That said, the term is still useful. Terms like “islamophobia” aren’t really accurate - distrust and hatred of a particular group because of what they look like isn’t the same as fear of that group. So, to be clear, what I say “racism,” I mean treating a person or people a certain way because of what they look like, how they dress, what their religion is, and anything else that’s about ‘the group,’ rather than who they actually are, individually. Yes, it’s a broad term, but that’s the point - in this country, we judge people based on who they are, what they have done, and the individual choices that they have made. This is America, dammit!

And now onto the core point from last time: If you see someone who looks Muslim, and you think “terrorist,” then you are a racist. No metaphors or qualifiers necessary - a racist. Whatever your background, whatever your past experiences, whatever atrocities may have been committed by other Muslims you know -- if you see a Muslim, and because of the fact that they are Muslim, you think “terrorist,” then you are a racist.

In discussing this with my colleague, he compared avoiding the building of mosques near Ground Zero to a college trying to avoid placing football players in the dorm room next to a female student who had been gang raped by a football team. I imagine that the common response to this is, “well, it’s not really fair to the football players, but the poor girl has suffered enough already...”

Now, replace “football players” with “black students” or “hispanic students.” Suddenly, this wouldn’t be okay, by any stretch of the imagination.

My point is not to diminish the suffering of our hypothetical girl - she has suffered greatly, and it would be perfectly normal human response for her to be terrified of people who look like her attackers. But simply following our basic instincts and urges generally doesn’t lead us to great outcomes.

Our social structure has evolved to include certain safeguards that prevent us from acting on these base urges, and encourage us to act in the manner that we’ve agree is the right way to act. It is one of these safeguards that ensures that most of us, however uncomfortable it might make us, would agree that the girl, raped by a black man, who doesn’t want black men living next door, is a racist.

The safeguards don’t always work, though. For some reason, we seem to have a blind spot when it comes to Muslims (gays and atheists, too - but that’s another discussion), which is Ron Ramsey can call Islam a “cult” and still take 22% of the votes in a 3-way gubernatorial primary.

So, on to my final point from last time: the “Ground Zero Mosque.” If you see a mosque as a symbol of terrorism, that’s not ok. Even if your mother, your brother, your son, your wife, or anyone else was killed by radical Islamic terrorists on 9/11 - it’s not ok.

The idea that the Park51 community center should be moved “out of respect for the 9/11 families” implies three monstrous things: that “the 9/11 families” are racist, that this racism is excused by the death of their loved ones, and that the group that is the target of their bigotry should go out of its way to avoid being seen.

This is insanity of the highest order. As I said last time, the way to deal with racism is not to ignore it, and it is certainly not to blame the victims - it is to stand up and call out the racists.

There are legitimate discussions to be had about how to deal with the problems of radical Islam and terrorism, and a populace that implicitly condones anti-Muslim racism isn’t helping.

- Tiro