Saturday, January 10, 2015

The subtlety of monolithic Islam bigotry

By Frank Moraes

On Wednesday, I published "Je Suis Charlie." And I stand by most of what I wrote. But there was one thing that I wrote that was based upon hearsay rather than actual research: "In the case of Charlie Hebdo, any outrage is totally unjustified because the magazine took on everyone." It was also based upon the cover illustration to the left that mocked both a Muslim and a Hasidic Jew. But I think there might be a problem with this contention.

Yesterday, Glenn Greenwald wrote "In Solidarity With a Free Press: Some More Blasphemous Cartoons." It is a reaction to a push by many all over the political spectrum who claim that we should celebrate the offending cartoons that supposedly caused the recent massacre of innocents in Paris. It is an interesting and thoughtful analysis of the issue. (Contrast it with Jonathan Chait's incredibly uninteresting response, "Charlie Hebdo Point-Missers Miss Point.") I'm not quite sure where I stand on it. But this part struck me:

With all due respect to the great cartoonist Ann Telnaes, it is simply not the case that Charlie Hebdo "were equal opportunity offenders." Like Bill Maher, Sam Harris and other anti-Islam obsessives, mocking Judaism, Jews and/or Israel is something they will rarely (if ever) do. If forced, they can point to rare and isolated cases where they uttered some criticism of Judaism or Jews, but the vast bulk of their attacks are reserved for Islam and Muslims, not Judaism and Jews.

I don't speak French, so I'm not in a position to say. But it made me realize that the cover illustration above may actually indicate the fundamental problem with my own thinking. The problem, as I now see it, is that the Muslim is generic and the Jew is not. The implication is simply, "all Muslims and particular Jews." But I don't think that this is intentional. It is more along the lines of, "All Japanese look alike!" What such claims actually mean is that the speaker has little experience with Japanese people. (I've had this problem myself -- cured by years of Japanese cinema watching.)

It is pathetic, of course, that I now feel I must mention that I'm free speech absolutist. It is not just that it is obviously wrong to kill people for the "offense" of saying things you disagree with. The idea that people should not have the right to encourage draft resistance during a war ("shouting fire in a crowed theater") is simply ridiculous. Just the same, it is curious, isn't it, that we do not have such clearly political -- First Amendment -- rights, but we do have the right to snipe at minority groups in any way that we choose -- including "the right of neo-Nazis to march through a community filled with Holocaust survivors..."

According to Juan Cole, two-thirds of Muslim heritage French people don't even consider themselves religious -- much less "radical." The problem here is that even among the very small world population of Jews (less than 20 million), we distinguish. But the 1.6 billion Muslims are monolithic for us. And that's why that Charlie Hebdo cover struck me as fairly even-handed (I would have preferred a Christian in there -- but intolerance is not limited to any religion or non-religion).

Bigotry is, at base, about classification -- treating individuals as members of a group. It is a very big issue that I fight with in myself constantly regarding racism. I fear that many people who, like me, worry about racism, don't worry about such grouping problems when it comes to religion. After all, people supposedly choose their religions. There are a couple of problems with that. First, people don't choose their religions. Almost every religious person is a member of the faith they grew up in. Second, as we know only too well, there is very little that can be generalized about a hippy Unitarian and a right-wing evangelical Protestant. The same is true of all people. I'm sure there are even cruel Jains.

I would hate for the tragedy in Paris to leave us with nothing but what we should have always known: people shouldn't be killed because others find them offensive. Worse still is the idea that this is all about Islam, because if these actions really spoke of the religion, those 1.6 billion Muslims would have forced us to live under a worldwide caliphate by now. I suppose that it is asking too much for everyone to take this as an opportunity to examine themselves. But it really is on all of us non-Muslims, because it isn't like the terrorists are going to start wearing "gang colors." And it is wrong to ask Muslims to abandon their heritage so we can better spot those we ought to fear. (Not that it would work, of course.)

(Cross-posted at Frankly Curious.)

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1 Comments:

  • SO you think a generic Muslim in France looks like the guy in the picture? What are you talking about?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:46 AM  

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