Category Archives: Bigotry and Religion

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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March on, Democracy. March on.

When you look up at the sky, what do you see? Meteorologists must see the presence or absence of clouds and the likelihood of precipitation. Astrologers probably think, “When are we finally going to rotate away from that sun so I can 16142735_10211738442004652_2931030917139632431_nsee stars?” Religious people often look up there and imagine God in Her heaven, wistfully, blissfully, earnestly, or desperately. I’m not sure what atheists see. Maybe they just say, ‘I’m glad I’m alive to look up at this sky.’ That’s close to what I was thinking on Saturday, January 21st when I was in our nation’s capitol for the Women’s March on Washington. I looked up to the sky and said, “I am glad I am here.” And just in case Mother God was listening, I said, “Thank you.”

When I first decided to march, it was to protest the election of a wannabe Emperor who has boasted about assaulting women and inspired millions to freely come out to express their inner bully and wide-spread bigotry. His character flaws and shocking mental health issues are too numerous to waste words here. As we got closer to the March day, I just wanted to make myself a better citizen. I traveled with three acquaintances whom I barely knew before the March and I now consider good friends. They stayed overnight at my house so we could make a 5:15 a.m. bus with as little pain as possible. The night before we all admitted to both hope and skepticism that the March would make a difference.

The March program opened with one of the most deeply spiritual expressions I’ve ever experienced  – and please note here I’m a religion writer who has been in quite of few religious gatherings in my life. The program started with what the organizers called a “song” but I would call a chant or a musical prayer. If YouTube is correct, it was the Native American Norine Hill from #IndigenousWomenRise. I hope you will find a quiet place and click on this link. Please imagine yourself outdoors under an overcast sky with people in every direction, and even in the trees. Then listen. I don’t know if there were words, or what her intention was, but I heard a call to all of our souls, to rise to the greater good.

Native American opening song

I don’t really like crowds. I like to be home where it’s quiet with my dog and cat at my side. It takes something to get me out, other than working for a living, of course. But the experience started much before daylight when three buses left from my small suburban community and joined 1,900 of them in the stadium parking lot. Then a very diverse river of people climbed stairs, walked to the Metro station, got in and out of subway cars, then inched out onto the street. All the while in the metro station there were sweeps of chants and a sort of woo-hoo kind of high musical sigh that was to your ears what the wave at a sports stadium would be for your eyes.

The YouTube video was shot close to where I was standing, which was blocks from the stage. You can see people actually climbed the tree to get a better look. This img_20170121_100727street was intended to be a route for the walking part of the March, but it was too crowded. After a couple hours of standing with a crowd pressing in, I got a little claustrophobic, so we inched our way from where the crowd was packed to an area where it was only slightly less packed behind the Smithsonian and toward the Mall.  All the while, people were pouring in from every direction. We walked about 10 or 15 blocks to find something to eat. The whole time we were walking away from the stage, people from every direction were streaming in. While we ate lunch we watched the March on a muted CNN in the restaurant and realized that it so much bigger than we could comprehend at street level. When we went to return to the marching part of the March, it was everywhere. It was not just one street, but many streets, all filled with people marching. There were spontaneous chants to fun rhythms (picture Bill Murray in “Stripes”). The one I’m still chanting while I walk my dog is: “This is how democracy works!” Oh, yes it is.

It was difficult to hear all the speeches while we were there, so I’ve been listening online. (Thank you New York Times; link follows.) I was able to hear most of Gloria Steinem and some Michael Moore live, and they remain my favorites.

New York Times online speeches

What was clear on Saturday, and is even more vivid listening online, is that the speakers were embracing multiple issues, not just their own agenda. The over-arching theme was democracy, tolerance, equity. These values were more powerful than the crowd’s clear disdain of the newly elected  “Groper-in-chief,” (quoting Jane Fonda on Bill Maher’s show). In fact, much more potent than the mass dissatisfaction with the incoming president was the urgent need to put common values in place that assure people are treated fairly and have more equal opportunity.

It’s important to ask: What started all this? One idea, from one woman in Hawaii on Facebook. Her what-if/what-can-we-do moment launched an important action for millions that was not just an expression but a movement to a more engaged populace willing to work to keep democracy vital. One woman’s idea started this. As Steinem told us, “…370 marches in every state and on six continents…” Check out the New York Times article with photos from around the globe and highlights of signs and chants.

New York Times global photos

The United States is a secular democracy with a constitutional commitment to the separation of church and state. I remind you that it matters because while all religions are protected, it assures you can practice the one of your choosing, or none at all, without fear of imprisonment. The new president is threatening to require Muslims to register. With no exaggeration at all, this is not unlike what Hitler did to Jews before he started the genocide. It’s also a short walk from registry to rounding people up for camps like the Japanese in this country after Pearl Harbor. Make no mistake that the current governance threatens to take us into very dark times. Are you going quietly?

In spite of the efforts of the White House to make shameless bigotry and greed the new policy, Steinem tried to give us perspective and said, “I have been thinking about the use of a long life and one of them is that you remember when things were worse…This, [she waved her hand across the crowd] this is the upside of the downside. This is an outpouring of energy and true democracy like I have never seen in my very long life.” Right with you on that, Gloria.

Saturday’s global March proved that we don’t need laws or religion to guide us into a secular morality that can be embraced by diverse masses. Click on the link below and scan the list of speakers, most of whom mentioned other issues in their own speeches. And when is the last time you heard someone running for office even talk about the common good? Well, of course, we can thank Hillary for: “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.”

List of speakers

Rhea Suh, NRDC president said, “Each one of you is an individual that made a powerful decision – a choice to be here…because you believe in the fundamental principles that we matter…We are not helpless. We are still a democracy.” The March was a call to remember that democracy only thrives with engaged citizens, who are watching to assure the balance of power. Democracy also needs a free press to recognize and publicize corruption. Some work needs to be done there since they largely failed us in this last election cycle. But we need to do our part by buying newspapers and turning off fake news and reality TV. We need to demonstrate that as media consumers and citizens, we want more than unsubstantiated or un-investigated sound bites.

And, since this is a religion column, I am compelled to remind you that freedom of religion means you get to make your own choice and practice it as you want. If you want the government to impose your religion on others, then prepare yourself for the day when what they impose is not your religion. That said, if they really do impose a Muslim registry, I’m with Madeleine Albright and I’m signing-up as Muslim. -J.B.

New York Times photo: Chang W. Lee

 

“It’s Not About You”

I would like to be paid $5 for every time a friend, acquaintance, or co-worker gives me pop-psychology advice that has in it, “It’s their problem. It’s not about you.” I would prefer the money, because it would add-up to a very nice amount and I findits-not-about-you money useful. Recognizing the possibility of good intentions in those employing these presumed aphorisms, as opposed to the idea of just getting me to shut-up about my problems, I still say this advice is crap. The title statement is often followed by a close second, let’s say it’s only worth $2.50, that one is: “You aren’t the only one.” Then there’s the other classic: “Everything happens for a reason.” Please abandon these worthless comments. Better to be silent and pretend to listen.

Most often, using these clichés is a Western way of trying to sound Zen, you know, getting us to ‘own’ our problems. It may be an attempt to get us to recognize the crazy in others and try and duck. Good luck with that. In my experience, crazy needs interaction and finds the absence of such intolerable. No one is more driven than crazy people looking for a target.

Here’s the thing, if what’s troubling you is racist, misogynistic, workplace bullying, familial disrespect and manipulation, or any of the other miseries for which many of us are an unfair target – of course it’s about you. By that I mean, it is not your fault, you do not deserve it, but with no one to abuse, there is an absence of abuse.

I took a witchcraft class at Penn where we studied the historic torture and murder of women accused of witchcraft by the Roman Catholic Church. My conclusion was that the accused witches and the church had a symbiotic relationship. Without the churches accusations, the women were just practicing the old arts in relative obscurity. Ironically, the witch accusation elevated them, but then they started getting killed. The fabricated witch threat elevated the church to an assumed higher level of protection of the ignorant masses and wrestled away power from the women the community relied on for healing. You can say that old Wally Lamb quote that oppression ultimately oppresses the oppressor, but when it comes to alleging witchcraft to justify torture and murder, the male priests weren’t dying – just the women (and a scant few men who associated with them).

It’s almost always about power. Not necessarily overt power, but often interpersonal power, social power, or a sick psychological power, like the dark side of The Force. Though I write about religion here and I do believe there is actual evil, I think most of our miseries are caused by other people. I’m not dismissing the stupid stuff we do to ourselves, that’s just not my point right now. The fact is that there are a whole lot of people who have to put other people down to lift themselves up. I am willing to allow them compassion to recognize that they were most likely abused themselves, but what I’m complaining about here is bad behavior and part of me doesn’t really care why. I’m tired of trying to understand and get all centered and Zen about it. I don’t have a magic answer, I just want to remind all you cliché-bearers that it sucks and your pithy comments don’t really help.

The Starbucks barista offered me real wisdom this week when she said the best music comes from heartbreak. I will grant that for every time there was a situation in my life causing me angst, it produced some unexpected benefit. That is not to say it was worth it – it is just that it wasn’t without any value at all. You know, lessons learned and all that.

I do not want to lean on rescue fantasies, but I do think we could help each other out a little more. How about defending that co-worker you know the boss is bullying for entertainment? I mean out loud. Yes, it will be at your own peril. But if more of us did this, I would like to believe there would be less bullying. If you’re not up to that, how about at least taking the poor sap to lunch?

I read an online article on one of those career websites that recommended something I figured out only a few years ago for myself: passive-aggressive work slow-down. First, reasonably assess the situation and determine how closely you are being watched. There will be gaps in that surveillance, because there always are. Study the slackers in the office. Every office has them and they are rarely called on it. Once you have determined the gap, then use your best passive-aggressive skills to engage in a work slow-down. This is how you will protect yourself. Take your mind to another place and do something that enriches you but is not so task-oriented. In this moment, you take back your personal power. Now if your workload is unreasonable and you are relentlessly monitored by people who disrespect you, then you must find a way to leave. No job is worth giving-up your dignity. Take it from someone with gaps in her rèsumè, peace of mind is much more critical.

Then there’s racism, classism, and misogyny. No matter your age, can you picture the “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial? That was a powerful speechmlk at a critical juncture of the Civil Rights movement. People took action, they came together, and they made sure their voice was heard. But the oppressed were not alone. Some would say that the turning point in the Civil Rights movement came when white civil rights workers started getting murdered.

If you are hoping for support from religious people on this, you may be disappointed. Religious expression in this country has de-evolved to ideology and condemnation. However, the doctrines of the major religions, and especially the Abrahamic traditions, have a lot to say about social justice. They expect their followers to work toward it, in case you are wondering. Religious leaders should be the voice for the oppressed, but in this country many prominent figures are joining the chorus of the oppressors, e.g. Franklin Graham or Pat Robertson.

When I think of the Martin Luther King, Jr. speech, as we approach his holiday, I think about the Lincoln Memorial. It is a different place to me now because they will not allow women there on January 21st. Truthfully, I don’t know who the “they” is but I think it was a request by the president-elect’s transition team to the National Parks Service. In spite of that, I will go to Washington and I will march lincolnmemorialfor social justice with thousands of others – especially women. But we will not be allowed to do so in the proximity of the Lincoln Memorial. There just aren’t enough of the non-oppressed standing beside the oppressed on this one. So yes, this IS about me. I am not the only one, but I will not be allowed at a national monument because I am part of the Women’s March on Washington. Not personal you say? This is as damn personal as it gets, just on a very grand scale. It is about me. -J.B.

American Hero: Imam W.D.

What’s happened to “Star Trek”?  It’s gone mass appeal with little time for a story in between faser fire, fisticuffs and bodies spit into space.  This is not your parents’ action and adventure of the old Indiana Jones days.  No, today it means convincing, gratuitous violence, thank you J.J. Abrams (the over-lauded young director).  The title “Star Trek into Darkness” is entirely appropriate.  Yes, I admit I’m a bit of a Trekkie.  I like that it was always easy to find several interesting heroes in a “Star Trek” episode or movie.  Still, the question this disappointing movie made me ask is: who are our heroes?  What constitutes an American hero these days?

First of all, there’s trouble with the word ‘American.’  Linking our identity to this continent reminds us (or should) of the historic fact that the Europeans stole this resource-rich continent from the Native Americans, along with economic prosperity for the elite built on the backs of African (et.al.) slaves.

The exploitative heritage of this country is often glossed-over, or worse, a cliché.  In fact every time I look at Andrew journey-into-america-cover211Jackson on a $20 bill I shudder.  His systematic and unapologetic intention to exterminate Native Americans would easily be called genocide by today’s standards.  Author Akbar Ahmed assigns him the category of “predator” in describing “three distinct but overlapping identities – primordial, pluralist and predator,” in Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, (p.45).  Ahmed’s examples and explanations of these identities are interesting, but for the sake of brevity in this column you can take them at face value, using Dick Cheney and Andrew Jackson as examples of predators, Thomas Jefferson being a pluralist, and the Puritans primordial.  Ahmed looks at these conflicting identities and their impact on society, and foundational for the conflicts we all live with today.

The book flap of Journey into America said, “This eye-opening book also offers a fresh and insightful perspective on American history and society.”  I’m backing into the story of this book because reading about my own country’s history through the eyes of immigrants was powerful.  I was not ignorant to America’s inglorious past, but Ahmed put some of this country’s history in the context of how Muslims are currently treated in America, immigrants and natives.  Not surprisingly, he reveals story after story of bigotry, though this book is much richer than any of those stories in isolation.  In fact, the context he provides is what makes reading Ahmed compelling.  It matters in general, but also because there are six to seven million Muslims in the U.S., and globally, one of every four persons is a Muslim (p.7). 

Ahmed chairs Islamic studies at American University in Washington, DC and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.  He chose an anthropological methodology because, “Anthropologists believe that society consists of interacting parts, and that anthropology is therefore the only discipline attempting to study society as a whole,” (p.10).  Ahmed travelled the U.S. and beyond with a team of researchers for visits to mosques and personal interviews, as well as collecting 2,000 questionnaires from people of all backgrounds all over the country. 

With all these stories, from first-hand accounts and from history, there was one person who especially struck me as what I think of as a real American, and my idea of a hero.  Ahmed described him by saying, “The genius of Imam W.D. was that he single-handedly moved the African American community toward identifying with a pluralist American identity while moving away from Black Nationalist Islam,” (p.174).

In my effort to get to know him better, a well-informed source referred me to two books.  Both are dated, but offered me a fuller picture of Imam W.D.  In American Jihad: Islam After Malcolm X (1994), author Steven Barboza titled the chapter on W.D. Mohammed “Prodigal Son,” (p.94).  (The Black Muslims in America, 3rd Edition 1994, by C. Eric Lincoln was also consulted for this column.)  Over time, the world would see how W.D.’s interpretation of Islam differed from his father, Elijah Mohammed.

Barboza’s book had an undertone of disappointment that W.D. did not build on his father’s legacy and empire, which was successful, but harsh.  As one example of sanctioned non-religious activities, the Nation of Islam (NOI) under Elijah Mohammed had a team of “enforcers” (“Fruit of Islam,” FOI) which were known as the ‘punch your teeth out’ arm of NOI.  That may well have been the case since there was a story of ten people killed ‘for no other reason than they didn’t want the FOI completely dominating their lives,’ (p. 96).  Imam W.D. also ended the exclusion of whites (p.95-6).  Louis Farrakhan and his followers eventually split from Imam W.D., retaining many of Elijah Mohammed’s doctrine and practices.

Akbar Ahmed compares Imam W.D.’s impact on American Islam akin to Martin Luther’s impact on Christianity (p.173).  In 1992 he was the first imam to offer morning prayers in the U.S. Senate (Barboza, p.98).  Not only did he make great strides in pluralism, he also taught his followers how they could be good Muslims as well as patriotic Americans.  Another imam said of him: “He is the greatest inspiration to us; he inspired us to accept our obligations and responsibilities as Americans.  Since 1975 we have identified as Muslim Americans.  We have rights, duties, and responsibilities as Americans.  We have to support good wherever we see it,” (Ahmed, p.192).

I now see the late Imam W. D. as a peaceful, devout spiritual man who sacrificed and persevered to lead people of his own faith on a devout path, while maintaining and building inter-faith relationships.  In this country he was a pioneer in teaching a more Orthodox, compassionate Islam.  He’s not taught in American history classes.  Probably many more non-Muslims think of Louis Farakhan or early Malcolm X.  Imam W.D.’s influence was quieter, but likely more widespread, and more spiritual than political.  That was heroic.

With no disrespect to Imam W.D. or Akbar Ahmed, I leave you with something less lofty.  I have been enjoying Canada10340‘s Islam-light on Hulu.com.  Take a look at “Little Mosque.”  It’s not quite a sitcom, but it’s not drama either.  It is an everyday interpretation of the lives of Muslims in a small town in ‘America’ (remember Canada is on the American continent).  This show makes me makes me smile, and sometimes laugh out loud.

“Little Mosque” on Hulu.com

Asalaam alaikum: peace be unto you. –J.B.

Past post on the Roman Catholic leadership

In light of the pope’s extraordinary resignation, I re-offer some thoughts from a previous blog on the Roman Catholic Church and make the distinction between the established leadership and many of its devout practitioners on the link below.

Sins of the Fathers: The original sins of the Roman Catholic Hierarchy

-J.B.