Innocence in a Culture of Bigotry

You can talk to family members separately and each person will offer descriptions that sound like none of them came from the same family. Given that acknowledgement, my story is that my younger sister was a bully who was skilled at presenting herself like a victim and as a result routinely enjoyed my mother’s indulgence and I her scorn. The endless arguments led my brother to decide to be Switzerland. It would have meant more than I can adequately express to have him defend my honor. Here’s the thing about the notion of neutrality, when it comes to bullies or outright evil: not taking a side, is taking a side. During World War II Switzerland had a policy of denying entrance to Jews trying to escape the Nazis. Tens of thousands of would-be immigrants died because they were turned away by Switzerland. That’s how neutral looked to Jews fleeing genocide.

Switzerland and the Holocaust

If you are willing to take a position and maybe even help, how do you decide? Who’s right? Who’s wrong? The challenge is that often identifying the true victim is challenging because not every wronged person makes an ideal hero. We want to cheer for the unjustly accused as long as they suit our idea of someone blameless. If there are any shadows cast on someone’s character or details from their past that make us uncomfortable, then it gets muddy.

In early 2000, Adnan Syed was sentenced to life-plus-thirty-years for the murder of his ex-girlfriend. His guilt or innocence has been debated for many years by countless people. The debate went viral as a result of the podcast “Serial.” I was among the record-breaking number of people who listened in 2014. It was compelling. But in the end, “Serial” did not leave me with a clear conclusion, just disappointment. (I never listened to season two.) My perception is that Adnan did not make the perfect wrongly convicted hero, but was instead a flawed human being and in many ways an enigma. His story was told by producers who did not sufficiently address the impact of cultural and religious bigotry. It was addressed, yes, but not adequately

“Serial” – season one

Since the 2014 podcast I had not forgotten about Adnan; then, earlier this year, I met author Rabia Chaudry who wrote Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial (2016). In her book, she owns her bias as a family friend and advocate for Adnan. She has become an attorney since his conviction, and is the person responsible for convincing the “Serial” producer to take on his story. What I observed from the podcast in 2014 and I maintain now, is that I don’t believe that what happened to Adnan would have happened if he was a Caucasian/non-Muslim.

The bigotry began by the police not investigating the victim’s white boyfriend (or anyone else), and going out of their way to connect Adnan to the murder, while using his religion for motive. They chose their suspect then set about proving it. Claiming his religion was his motive is like saying that anyone who is Christian could have a motive for murdering an abortion doctor. The most shocking initial public display of apparent systemic bigotry was at his bail hearing. Prosecutor Vicki Wash argued that “…he has limitless resources…if you issue him bail you are issuing him a passport to flee the country…There is a pattern in the United States of America where young Pakistani males have been jilted, have committed murder, and have fled to Pakistan…” (p.97). There is no such pattern. And there was never any reason to jump to that conclusion about Adnan and his community. In place of evidence, the prosecutor used religious and cultural bigotry.

I was at a picnic last summer and somehow the subject of the plain Mennonites and Amish came-up. These women wear a yarmulke-like net cap called a covering. I compared it philosophically to a hijab. The response was that the Mennonites and Amish don’t commit honor killings. I hope that if you’re reading this, I don’t have to explain how far-fetched this assertion was. But just in case, the link below has actual data on honor killings which are not exclusive to Muslims or men commiting murder, though of course, it’s always women who die.

Honor killing awareness

What I am willing to say is that when I see women needing to take special measures in their dress to accommodate their religious and cultural customs, it disappoints me. I support their right to do so, but I wish they would make a different choice. I wish this of the Amish, and I wish it of women wearing the hijab. These practices exist in the context of male dominant cultures, which are many. Male dominance is so prevalent and so pervasive that we don’t always even see it. It’s just not conscious for most people. It’s one of those norms we have come to take for granted.

Our justice system is another norm we take for granted, with little questioning. We want to believe that people get what they deserve so we don’t feel vulnerable. But the system has a deep inherent flaw in that it is an adversarial system set-up to have winners and losers. Lots and lots of losers. And most of them are poor. Read their stories. The drive is not for truth or justice. It is to win. At any cost.

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project

I don’t know if Adnan did it. But I do know that he did not get treated justly because he is a Muslim. I choose to believe if enough of us care about making our defective system more just, it can happen. I believe if we send our intentions into the Universe things will happen, though not without us taking actions as well, of course. Don’t know where to start? I do. Start by reading more. If you read with the intention of impacting change, I promise you that the Universe will present you with ideas and opportunities. At least choose to not be Switzerland. -J.B.

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Comments

  • canolan  On July 14, 2017 at 10:20 am

    I couldn’t agree more. Biases are everywhere. We all need to be conscious of our own before judging.

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