I’ve been avoiding this post for a couple of weeks now. First because there’s been a lot written about it already, but also because it really depresses me. Maybe also because I try to avoid posting about things that affect me on a personal level, as opposed to as a human being. But I feel like I’d be remiss in not writing something.
My wife and I have been thinking about moving to the US for reasons that I won’t get into here, so we spent most of the month of August between Alabama, New York and Washington DC. My wife is a Palestinian refugee who was born in Beirut and then had to move to Baghdad during the civil war, only to have to move back to Beirut because of the Iraq war. Between these two cities, she has seen and lived through much more sectarian conflict than anyone should ever have to in a hundred lifetimes.
So I was actually kind of excited to show her the US for the first time. I wanted to show her the literally dozens of Middle Eastern diners in Birmingham frequented by suburban good ole boys, Pakistani medical students and hip hop kids. I wanted to show her Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where Arabs, Jews, Hispanics, Haitians and hipsters all share the same park paths. I wanted to show her a place where with all its defects (both at home and abroad), everyone is welcome to worship in the way they see fit.
What she saw instead was terror babies and talk of repealing the 14th amendment. What she saw was the “ground-zero mosque” and naked religious bigotry; threats to burn the Qur’an and arson attacks on a mosque construction site. What she saw was a New Yorker cabbie stabbed because he’s Muslim. In short, a diet-coke version of sectarian conflict.
I’ve been back to Beirut now for a couple of days, but my cheeks are still red with shame. My father, who absolutely adores his new Muslim daughter-in-law, apparently has a hard time squaring the concrete (his new kin) with the abstract (dangerous Muslims). He forwarded me an email, as he is wont to do, about “the problem with Islam,” whose gist was, “look at these savage Muslims in some Iranian or Pakistani village breaking a boy’s arm with a car for stealing. How could these people ever be compatible with America?” The pictures, which had Hebrew subtitles, was summed up thusly: “MAY GOD HAVE MERCY ON US WHO TOLERATE THE MUSLIM!!!”
Throughout the years, I’ve come to expect this sort of Know Nothing nativism and knee-jerk “conservatism” from my father. But a quick perusal of newspapers and cable news allowed me to see that this attitude wasn’t just prevalent in my family or in suburban Alabama; rather anti-Muslim bigotry was being stirred up all over the country. In fact, it was our misfortune to arrive in DC just in time for the Tea Party that offensively used Martin Luther King Jr. as a backdrop but seemed to include only white people.
Had I not been in the US and heard people’s casual bigotry towards Muslims (given the charming euphemism of “anxiety” by the nation’s press), I’m not sure that I would have believed to what point America has sunk. But even open-minded, otherwise tolerant people who would never accept such blatant prejudice against, say, Jews or Blacks or Hispanics or Catholics or homosexuals, seem to have been prodded into this nasty distrust of Muslims. Never mind that the South Tower of the World Trade Center had a Muslim prayer room that was destroyed, along with around 60 Muslims, on 9/11. Never mind that Manhattan’s lower west side used to be “little Syria.” Never mind, most importantly, that America is a nation that was founded on the principle of religious freedom. No: Muslims are dangerous, and America wants nothing to do with them.
So building a mosque or a Muslim cultural center anywhere near the hallowed soil of ground zero is insensitive. Strip clubs, peep shows and sex shops, on the other hand, are just fine. Apparently now in Portland, Maine, just being Muslim on or around the date of September 11 is offensive.
My point here is not to debunk the faulty reasoning or point out the obvious bigotry behind America’s newly discovered (just in time for midterms!) “Muslim problem.” I lack the patience for that right now, and it’s been done elsewhere already.
I will say, though, that here in Lebanon, where sectarian conflict and tension are parts of daily life and where anti-semitism is far from uncommon, reconstruction has been going along smoothly on the Maghen Abraham Synagogue without a similar uproar from any of Lebanon’s 17 larger sects or their corresponding political parties. (For the record, that includes Hezbollah.)
But these days America seems uninterested in tales of religious tolerance. In fact, Newt Gingrich seems to be taking his cues on religious tolerance from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As Leon Wieseltier has noted, “Until they are like us, we will be like them.” Well my wife and I don’t want to move to Saudi Arabia. And if things continue like this, I’m not sure we’ll want to move to America, either.