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Saturday, 14 July 2012

Small Town American Islamophobia: In the Defense of Joe of Main Street, USA

Allow me to begin this article with a statement to put everyone's mind to rest and set the record straight: I am not supportive of any form of bigotry, regardless from where or from whom it emanates. Bigotry, like murder, rape and oppression is a wrong, a sin against humanity and a stain upon the society which condones it or remains silent about it. Nothing but shame and abhorrence can be associated with such a society or a people who would remain bigoted and hateful, and such a society needs to be called such and labeled as such, until they realize their hate and admit to that which they promote.

Joe lives on Periwinkle Lane in a small American midwestern town, in a little pink, two bedroom house. He works hard and does what he can to give his family a decent life. He is not rich, and feels cheated by both Republicans and Democrats, but he has to vote for somebody, maybe this time an Independent. Joe's wife and kids go to church on Sunday, but he stays home and watches the ball game because he works hard all week. He doesn't care who moves next to him or down the street, as long as these newcomers are decent hard working people like himself. They might be different or weird, but as long as they don't push themselves onto Joe's life or his family, all is cool. Just live and leave me alone, and I'll do the same, that's Joe's mantra. Most of the time, at any rate. After all, this is America.

I have had many a conversation with a number of American Muslims, many of them good, reform minded people who believe in American democratic values and stand against the bigotry of Islamism and caliphate seeking jihadis. These are good, honest people who love their God and their faith and want to see Islam take it's place in American society, working and contributing to what their non Muslim neighbors already have and possess: a viable and solid community base with liberal minded religious institutions which can be shared with their non Muslim neighbors, offering solace and support for families and friends. Many of us who consider ourselves Muslims often have little problem attending a church or synagogue service or reaching out to religious leaders who might shed some light on whatever concern we may have, though we may not be Christian or Jewish. Most of the time, we are not turned away because of our adherence to Islam. There are bigots who would do this, but the very Gospel which has found it's way to the innermost chambers of even a would be tyrant's heart forbids such demonstrations of hate and bigotry, at least most of the time. I would challenge Quran burning Pastor Jones in Florida to throw me out of his Sunday service. He might berate me for adhering to Islam as a faith, bombard me with threats of hell, admonish the entire ummah of Islam for following a false prophet, but he will not throw me out. The reason? Pastor Jones really believes in his Gospel and the possibility of redemption. Therefore, he is accountable to God for his actions, horrible and disgusting as they may be. He is so solid in his faith I am no threat to him, though he thinks my own faith is a threat to my soul.

On the other hand let us remember that non Muslims cannot enter Mecca (or are at least separated when they do) and in some Muslim nations such as now in once tolerant, open minded Malaysia, non Muslims cannot use the term 'Allah' for God. Churches are not allowed to be constructed or repaired in many if not most of these Islamic countries. Christians are oppressed and watched with suspicion and they are regularly labeled as "apes and pigs" by religious leaders who make Pastor Jones seem almost like a tolerant and compassionate, inclusive minister. Attacks on non Muslims and their places of worship, even on Muslims who might be out of the main stream such as Ahmadiyya, Sufis or Shi'a Muslims are encouraged by these mouthpieces of evil. Islamism has spread, and is spreading ever more rapidly to the farthest corners of the Islamic world and even among Muslim communities living in the West. Whole nations have been turned around. This is not a generalization but rather a harsh reality, a fact. It's worse than we think.

The average small town American is not now nor has ever been in touch with Islam or Muslims. The one or two he may have met in the past have usually been immigrants who performed some kind of service, such as a peddler, a shop keeper or a factory worker. He may have called himself 'Mike' rather than Muhammad, or 'Albert' rather than Abdul, and might have married an American women of Christian background and brought up his kids as Protestant or Catholic Americans who went to church on Sunday and stood for the Pledge of Allegiance on Monday morning at school or before the football game. Unfortunately, his Islamic heritage may have been slowly forgotten, and his memory of practicing Islam in his home country a distant memory. This has been a sad part of early Muslim immigration to the United States, the negation and forgetting of the religious heritage that fortified the hard working men and women who immigrated to these shores to forge a new life which was to guarantee freedom and the pursuit of happiness. But these immigrants also knew that to follow their dreams meant that they had to respect the people who founded the nation where their dreams were to be fulfilled, and their children's dreams were ensured at all costs, even at the cost of identity. They didn't impose upon the majority laws and demands that their own religious beliefs be bowed to. How many Muslim factory workers in those days, when lining up for the company lunch which consisted of ham, potatoes and green beans asked their servers to hold the ham and give them extra green beans and potatoes, so as to avoid the ham? They were looked at as weird, but then there was more ham for those who wanted it. See my point? They didn't impose or demand that sharia be respected. They simply wanted to work and make some money, and if they had to forego the protein they would do so for their children's sake, their future and their well being rather than demand that ham eating Americans stop eating their ham because some guy named Muhammad would be offended. Muslim immigrants and others who were not Muslim did get their share of prejudice, no question, and the desire to avoid 'rocking the boat' was somewhat born of fear of offending the status quo. But the constitution guaranteed freedom for all, and these immigrants did partake of the American dream. Mosques appeared in the USA in the early 20th century to serve the small communities of Muslims such as the Lebanese and Syrian Muslims in the Midwest, the Albanians of Portland Maine or the Crimean/Polish Tatars of Brooklyn, New York. Many of these communities bought their meat from a Jewish Kosher butcher when they felt the need for some 'halal' meat, but the majority purchased in the local market and got on with life, a chicken on Sunday and hamburgers and hot dogs, compromising with all beef, for the family barbecue.

Today however, the numbers of Muslim immigrants to the USA are far greater than they ever were before. Most of these people are educated at least somewhat in their own countries and in fact many are degree holding professionals, unlike the mostly illiterate immigrants of old. They are so numerous in some cities and regions that building a mosque or a school should be accepted as normal, without much hullabaloo. Yet the opposite has been true, and the result has seen the creation of a new term, 'Islamophobia'. These new Muslim immigrants are trying very hard to 'fit in', but since the terrible day of 9/11 all bets have been off. It seems that no matter what these people do, they will never be accepted.

Not that American life has been without it's prejudice and small minded provincial discrimination. We already know about this studying American history. The African slave trade, the worst of it's kind in history, was one of the reasons that led to a Civil War that tore the nation apart, and the subsequent freedom granted to the African Americans in the aftermath of that war was not accompanied by their inclusion in American society. In fact, the 'reconstruction' of the destroyed American South did not include the advancement of a once captive population who remained oppressed by an uncaring government. It would take a whole century before these people would begin to see a civil rights movement that would finally grant them a status of equality to white people, and that status still has not been fully realized. Let us add to this scar the displacement of the native Americans who were forced off their own land to live on reservations where severe depression brought about alcoholism and obesity to the descendants of a proud people who's once muscular physiques and noble bearing were the stuff of legend and imagination. A simple glance at the photos of Sitting Bull or Geronimo prove the noble countenance of the American Indian. What happened to these people is very tragic to say the least. The derogatory treatment of immigrants from Europe, such as the treatment of the Catholic Irish, Jews and others from eastern Europe, Italians and Greeks from the Mediterranean, Middle Easterners and Asians has left us proof that not all Americans were so welcoming as the Statue of Liberty herself or the dream she promised to all. Eventually these once oppressed people got on with their dream searching. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights promises happiness for all, or they at least guaranteed the pursuit of that said happiness. These documents were utilized by all to realize their dreams and bring an end to that discrimination which was being experienced. In other words, for all the negative there was a guarantee of a positive, and the negative folks had to bite their lips and accept that which was at the heart of the American way of life: democracy, freedom and respect for each and every individual regardless of their ethnic origin, their conscience or their economic status. By and large, this has been the outcome and the final word on acceptance in the USA. We are all Americans and we are all entitled to respect and tolerance. When we feel we are being denied these rights and freedoms there is recourse to correct and alter our situation. The system has, so far, worked.

The current atmosphere of anti Muslim feeling however has been anything but positive. There seems to be a wall that both Muslims and liberal minded Americans have crashed into that does not yield. The fear, mistrust and resentment of Muslims and Islam has given rise to a near militant anti Muslim obsession that is alarming. Pastor Jones wants to burn the Quran, but he is not alone. In fact, he has the support of hundreds of thousands, even millions across America. Can this be simply explained as sheer hatred or is it something else? If we listen carefully to what these so called haters say and express at every rally or opportunity they get to voice their opinions, they usually claim that Islam is an evil religion, prone to violence. It's founder, Muhammad was also a violent man who preached the overthrow of the entire world's governments for the establishment of a worldwide caliphate that would install Islam as the religion for humanity. Add to that the fact that he married a girl of 9 years of age and had sex with her, adding her to a harem this devious womanizer kept at home. He was a criminal, a tyrant in history who lied and cheated his enemies and slaughtered anyone who got in his way. No one in their right mind would take an Atilla the Hun or a Tony Soprano as the example to follow in faith, but Muslims do. Therefore, Islam must be evil and Muslims nothing but misguided fools who need to be set straight or kicked out of the nation that would protect them. These haters feel that Muslims are out to impose their sharia on them, that Muslims are deceptively trying to implement elements of Islamization on United States government. There is a plot to do this right under our noses, and an American president with a Muslim name like Barack Hussein Obama is sheer proof that sharia will be implemented with his blessing. It's the old conspiracy monster in his finest hour. Much of this sounds nonsensical and frankly, let's be honest, it is. However, I think it is a duty laid upon us as followers of a Quran of compassion and tolerance that we at least try to see and understand the grudges these people feel. It is easy to disregard them and tell them to stuff it, to remind them that they were horrible to others before such as African Americans and native Indians, to immigrants and women, to gays and lesbians and countless others. But will merely telling them to stuff it solve the problem? I don't think so, especially while there are Muslim clerics who preach and quote books of hadith that claim Muhammad married a nine year old girl and had sex with her, massacred Jews and forced others to pay taxes so as to support the mistreatment of women or the imposition of the jizya on minorities and non Muslims. You and I don't believe these clerics, but their voices are not being successfully silenced, certainly not by the reformists within Islam. While we call for reform these clerics impose Islamist tyranny on others, and they have been quite successful in doing that.

Allow me to play the devil's advocate. Many of these common people of small town America who haunt Main Street coffee shops and the burger joints on streets with names like Periwinkle Lane or live in two bedroom little pink houses on Magnolia Drive are descendants of the early colonists who took on the British empire in a revolution and won. The Kentucky long rifle manned by a Yankee marksman hiding behind a tree stump picked off many a poor British regular before they knew what hit them. After seven long and bloody years, these same defiant Yankees set up the world's first modern democracy and defended that democracy from any and all who would try to destroy it; the British came back in 1812 and burned Washington to the ground, but when they besieged Baltimore amid bombs bursting mid air and the rockets red glare through the perilous night, in the morning the proud American flag was still there. Surrender was not an option. Two weeks after a peace treaty was signed the American forces displayed their determination to defend democracy by defeating an invading British force at the battle of New Orleans. They then spread west, these intrepid people and tamed an unknown land, all the way to the Pacific ocean, inciting rebellion in Texas against the oppression of Mexican dictators. Their farms fed millions and improved agriculture, developing technology like the cotton gin and the round dairy barn that revolutionized food production world wide. Yankee ingenuity invented and produced, granted and created inventions without help from the old world that this new, fledging nation broke from. These people struggled with issues like slavery, and just as there were religious minded people who saw no problem in slavery there were religious minded progressives like the Quakers who became ardent abolitionists. Some like John Brown became militant in their ardor and endeavor, willing to die for his belief that slavery was a sin. These people had to cope with economic insecurity and growing capitalist greed, transformed themselves into a world power and liberated Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines from feudal Spanish rule. They then came to the aid of the old world twice; once in 1917 and again in 1941. Without American help a Nazi German dominated Europe and an imperial Japanese empire would hold sway and tyrannize nations that would reel under their oppressive regimes. They stood against communism and Stalinism and defeated Marxist ideology and in short have become the greatest and most significant power the Earth has ever known. Neither ancient Rome nor Persia, seafaring Britain or Spain, Ottoman Turkey or the Baghdad Caliphate itself can compare to the awesomeness of American global power. America is a democracy that inspired the French revolution and continues to inspire revolutions across the globe. Even a young Ho Chi Min, then a student in France and working as a bus boy at the Versailles Treaty Conference in 1919 told then American President Woodrow Wilson that he wished for his own country of Vietnam aka French Indo China to be like the great democracy of the United States. Fate and the turn of events would pit Ho Chi Min against that very democracy in his old age, but the pursuit for democracy has had it's appeal and still does. Even the Islamists of the Arab Spring are forced to consider some form of democracy while attempting to implement Islamic values into their governments. Yes, the legacy of these Americans who walk along Main Street and Periwinkle Lane is strong indeed, and they know it. They have taken in refugees and stowaways, the oppressed and downtrodden peoples and those seeking more food, wealth and education for their families. They raise money through town meetings and through church functions to send aid to people in countries the names of which many cannot even pronounce properly. They care for the world though much of the world cares little for them, and they are alright with that. They prize individual freedom and the right to do what one will with his or her life. Try to take that freedom away from them and you will ride the whirlwind. Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, who successfully planned the attack on Pearl Harbor was reluctant to go to war with America, as he had traveled there prior to the beginning of the Second World War. The industrial might and the stretching farmland meant that the USA was able to sustain an army far longer than the Japanese economy could. But most of all he remarked impressively about the strength, nature and fortitude of the American people, who would against all odds defend their land; "a rifle behind every blade of grass"...and their way of life like no other. Imagine this compliment, coming from a man who hailed from a military nation of the famous fight-or-die Samurai. He knew that a war with the USA, the 'sleeping giant' was suicide. Yamamoto was no fool. He was damn right. The independent heart and the individualist mind of the American Yankee could not be forced to accept any form of government that demanded any kind of servitude whatsoever. Immigrants fleeing oppressive regimes and empires had no problem fitting themselves into the fabric of American life. Thousands of young immigrants or children of immigrants enlisted into the military, such as the Italian Americans of the 20th century who had no problem going to war with the fascist regime of Mussolini, the head of an Italian government that once oppressed and tyrannized the young recruit's peasant parents when they lived there. The Japanese proved themselves as well. Though sent to detainment camps, young Japanese Americans enlisted to prove their loyalty. American Indians such as the Cheyenne, the Sioux or the Navajo, though forced onto reservations by their white conquerors, fought with a fierce determination that earned them both the praise and dread of their enemies. An Apache with a Bowie-knife was as deadly as any Samurai. African American recruits proved that they were in no way inferior to the German Storm Trooper. All of these peoples faced prejudice and discrimination on the home front, yet proved themselves time and again in their loyalty to America. They were Americans and though they faced more discrimination when they came home, they were nonetheless proud of being Americans.

Americans are reacting to Muslims negatively because they feel threatened. Their nation and it's principles are threatened, their way of life threatened. Let's again turn it all around again and see it from a small town person's perspective. Is there one Muslim nation on the globe that guarantees freedoms for it's people, especially non Muslims? Is there anywhere where sharia allows fairness in legal matters? Can Islam, as it is manifested politically and socially in the world compare to American democracy? The answer is no. Islamists are gaining ground in once tolerant places like Bosnia and Indonesia. Yet American Muslim leaders demand that Islam be recognized as equal to American democracy (compatible with democracy is sharia!) and Muslims be respected even though so many do or say absolutely nothing about Muslim tyranny, including the poor treatment of women, across the world. If a people see an ideology as evil and you feed that evil with lies and hogwash, making excuses for the inferior displays of life and supposed rights, then making demands of equality are a waste of time and an infringement to bridge building. In short, Muslims are going to have a hard time walking down Main Street and Periwinkle Lane as they are, seen as they are as lying and hypocritical, self indulgent and caring little for others. I'm afraid the attitude is not going to change but only get worse, unless Muslims do something to reach out and build some badly needed bridges. I say Muslims because, as a Muslim, I feel the onus is on Muslims. We are living in a country that guarantees freedom of religion yet too many from the ummah have a sense of superiority over non Muslims. Many Muslims claim to come from oppressive Islamic regimes and claim to love America, but they also are too silent on the issues that need attention. You can't have it both ways. Building a huge religious structure for a small Muslim population reminds the non Muslim Americans on Main Street that at one time in history, Muslims conquered and pillaged in Islam's name, often against Christian populations who were forced to lower their church bell towers in deference to minarets. How many towns across America are witnessing the construction of huge mosques that pose parking and mobility problems? Usually, the mosque is far too large for the numbers it is supposed to serve, but the congregations do not seem to care. It is built for the glory of God protected by the democracy they have immigrated to, but also to the chagrin of the conservative non Muslim community who remain confused and somewhat frightened.

There is no question that there are Americans who will never ever see any good in Islam or Muslims, just as there have been those who refuse to accept American Blacks or native Americans, Italians or Jews. They rant and rave much like their Islamist counterparts and are all too willing to go at it with violence once and for all for the glory of a Christian America ruled by white Christian people. They are the worms in the can, but it was Muslims who let the worms out by remaining silent, particularly after 9/11, going along with the all pervasive 'poor pitiful me' that too many Muslim leaders have adopted as their own slogan. "Send a jihadi to Allah" and "another dead Muzzie gone to paradise" has been the call and mantra of many, and good Muslims are rightfully outraged to hear these mantras. But have they complained loudly enough when Christians and Jews are called apes and pigs worthy of the fires of hell? Our individual complaints against these hate mongering jihadis will do precious little if Islam as a whole community doesn't change it's positions on these matters. Muslims won't change the feelings of these crusader-prone people, but at least they can try to seem to appeal to those who are not so crusader fanatic, and these are the majority of Americans who walk down Main Street and Periwinkle Lane. This majority does raise it's eyebrow when Islam is mentioned, but at least they are willing to sit back and trust that Muslims will create a community that does indeed demonstrate Islam's ability to contribute to peace and communal, socially responsible living. Muslims simply need to create that, and prove that Islam is capable. Muslims need to prove that they can build a mosque that is not so huge to downplay the local churches, one that doesn't represent the architecture and culture of the far off Saudi kingdom or the Gulf States where much of the funding comes from. In other words, Americans need assurances from the Muslim community. Muslims need to reassure their neighbors that they are not a threat. So far, they haven't. When, then, will they?

It is not enough that reform minded Muslims call out the crimes of the jihadis and the Islamists. Our cries will not change the situation of Islam as a faith in turmoil locked in the chains of dogma and literalism. There needs to be real change viewed by the rest of the world, by the common 'Joe' of Main Street. If Joe doesn't see this change, then he will be reluctant to accept our faith as a viable one to be a responsible part of his community. He doesn't care about the gifts of Islamic civilization to the Renaissance, because he broke with old Europe over two centuries ago, and in fact saved Europe's butt from Nazi aggression. Joe goes to work and endeavors to send his kids to school or hope they find a trade that they can fall back on to support their families when their time comes, and hopes for more prosperous times as well. When Joe sees a woman in hijab or niqab walking down Magnolia Drive, he is puzzled because he believes that the religion this woman adheres to is one that tells her she is of little worth. He has facts to back that up, simply quoting from the little he read that Saudi Arabia or Iran deny women rights. They do. Joe wouldn't care about the woman in niqab if so many people from her faith didn't state the desire to bring Joe's family to Islam, and so many more demand that Joe accept this demeaning dress and the implications of sharia as equal to his own wife's housedress and Joe's own ideas of government and democracy, free will and individuality. You see, many Muslims will have a problem with Joe. He simply doesn't buy their rhetoric. And he will stand against them, at least until they change their situation and interpretation of Islam. Unless there is change, Joe will have a problem with Muslims. If Muslims continue to threaten and endanger his freedom by listening to their leadership which tells them that Americans are inferior and that they as unbelievers must respect Islam, Joe will be watchful and mindful. If Muslims do not attempt to understand the feelings of the people of this great democracy to which they have come, Joe will not trust them. And with mistrust comes the potential for trouble.

Remember what Admiral Yamamoto said: "Behind every blade of grass......"

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