In response to anti-Muslim rallies this weekend: an excerpt from Pre-Post-Racial America

This Friday and Saturday, anti-Muslim rallies were organized all across the country, including rallies that encouraged people to show up armed. The campaign is, in a word, sickening, and in a hyphenated word, un-American. OK. Two last words, one of which is hyphenated: unequivocally un-Christian.

It is so important for us to learn about one another to recognize why we need to stand with each other in acts of intentional solidarity. Now is such a moment.

I am so grateful for the inter-faithful acts of solidarity with Muslim Americans, and in order to invite Christians in particular to continue to vocally support Muslim Americans, here is an excerpt from chapter 7 of my book Pre-Post-Racial America, “Race and Religion Post-9/11.”

…As a teenager, [feminist and Muslim rights activist] Layla worked with youth in understanding race, religion, and immigration issues. She volunteered for human relations workshops and became a teen trainer for the National Conference of Christians and Jews chapter in her city. All this interest in race and identity and religion began in the South, sparked literally by being caught between two boxes on a traffic citation: “I was sixteen and driving 10 miles over the speed limit when I was pulled over by an African American police officer. When I reviewed the ticket she handed me I politely refused to sign it because the violation did not describe me. It denoted my race as White. I said that I could not sign a document that is false and I promised to challenge it if she forced me to take it. Left with only one of two boxes to choose, she laughed and said, ‘I can clearly see you are not Black.’ She looked at me for a long minute and then acknowledged the silliness of not having a box to be an ‘other,’ and those words stuck with me.” In the end Layla avoided the ticket. Exasperated, the officer tore it up and let her off with a warning. Little did that officer realize that she created a new chapter of awareness in Layla’s mind about her own racial identity that existed between those two boxes….

It has not been so long since the Tsarnaev brothers set off a bomb at the end of the Boston marathon in April 2013. I remember a few things from that week that you may or may not have experienced along with me:

  • Deep grief at the attack of such a family-friendly and massively attended event.
  • Anxiety that the bombers would be people of color. (A fair number of people of color experience this anxiety every time there’s a bombing or mass shooting. White mass murderers are seen as individuals; people of color are discussed as representatives of their race.)
  • A “here we go again” feeling when I learned that Boston doctor Heba Abolaban from Syria was attacked by a man who said, “F*** you Muslims,” and, “You were involved in the Boston bombings!” a day before police announced they had found a suspect.5 (The first person they brought in, a Saudi Arabian man with burn marks on his hands, was cleared the same day as the bombing.) Dr. Abolaban was wearing a hijab, a headscarf worn by some Muslim women.
  • Relief (I know; I’m not proud of that) when the suspects were literally Caucasian—from the land of the Caucusus Mountains.
  • Mild horror as their religious identity became known and (you can say this was all in my head) I watched people almost visibly thinking, “Whew! They’re not really White if they’re Muslim!” and bearing witness to the marked shift in media coverage that I knew would not result in retaliations against White Muslims in the same way it would against people who “look” Muslim, bearing in mind that what the Tsarnaevs promoted bears no resemblance to the beliefs of the vast majority of Muslims in this country, be they Black, White, or Brown. Remember: Muslim is to terrorist as Christian is to KKK…

Privilege is always hard to see when we’re the ones benefiting from it, and I, for one, am very proud of living in a country where the freedom of religion is a foundation of our constitution. So here are a couple of illustrations of the ways I benefit from being a Christian in the United States without even always being aware of it: a Christian bumper sticker on my car doesn’t open me up for targeted vandalism. People who represent me in public office have a working understanding of my faith. I am never expected to speak on behalf of my whole religion. (Sometimes I do, but I usually can’t fool people that all Christians believe what I do—we’re too well known.) My house of worship is not likely to get burned down because people hate or distrust or fear my religion. (In the late 1990s there was a resurgence of church bombings, but they were race-based.)

Suspicion about Muslim Americans escalated to its highest levels not immediately after the terror attacks but rather several years later. The explanation is often attributed to the rise of so-called anti-terror experts who were ubiquitous in seeding doubt along with a series of questionable research reports about the incompatibility of Islam and democracy. The goal was clear: plant seeds of distrust and fear that Muslims are inherently “the other,” different not simply by cultural practice but by nature. This explanation was used repeatedly to quiet the moral challenges that the country was acting counter to its values and constitutional promises by allowing sanctioned use of torture, rendition of immigrants, and conditions at Guantanamo Bay. Under the banner of national and homeland security, there was a call for widespread surveillance of American Muslim communities and enclaves. The power of this narrative in the public psyche became clear during Congressional hearings convened during the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 by then Homeland Security House Committee Chairman Peter King, a staunch and easily angered Republican from Long Island, New York. The hearings convened were eerily reminiscent of the McCarthy-era campaign. Surveillance of Muslims was not a new idea and had surfaced many times before, often by right-wing groups such as the Christian Coalition. Yet it was not until 2011 that public acceptance created the needed political traction for Peter King’s efforts…

The interesting thing is that the church has some experience, albeit long ago, of being on the other side of this privilege/oppression equation.

In fact, the most controversial book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, was actually written as both a warning and source of hope to Christians being persecuted by the Roman Empire because, like the Jewish community, Christians would not praise Caesar as a god, which made them dangerous in the sight of the Roman Empire, no matter how small a group they were. Admittedly, this is not how most of us have been trained to read the book of Revelation, which is a little bit on purpose. Many centuries ago, when the canon (the formal list of books of the Bible we use today) was being established, the church was trying to get on the good side of Rome. Any idiot could read the book of Revelation and realize that the Whore of Babylon was actually Rome, and the picture John of Patmos painted of her was not flattering. Priests and bishops talked of cutting Revelation so they wouldn’t antagonize the empire that was finally not killing them or forcing them to denounce their faith and was even considering adopting it. An early church father, Origen, decided the book was too important a part of our story to lose, so he insisted it was actually about the end times and should be kept in the canon. We also have him to thank for my favorite book, the book of James. The church wanted to ditch that one because it was too Jewish, and they did not want to be associated with Judaism. He said you couldn’t cut a book written by the brother of Jesus, even though people mostly knew it wasn’t actually written by the brother of Jesus.

The book of Revelation cautions churches not to deny God and Jesus even though there are huge risks to their safety and lives in staying faithful. It also acknowledges how hard it is to be on the margins, living in fear, sometimes having to worship in secret. The Roman Empire is terrifying (and seemingly invincible) as John of Patmos describes it in Revelation 13:

And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names… One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast… [A]nd they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”… It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven… [A]nd all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered. (vv. 1, 3, 4b, 6, 8, NRSV)

Those would have been scary times to be a Christian. So it both puzzles and saddens me that as a country we have turned Christianity into a form of privilege, of access to resources and stability, of what is “normal” or “normative.” And this has intersected in disturbing ways with how we define race.

My favorite comic strip is Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks. When it became okay again to be funny in the months following 9/11, McGruder did a comic about the fact that South Asians and Arab Americans had become the most feared ethnic groups in America. In the comic, one of the Black children asked another how he felt about this new statistic and its displacement of African Americans as the most feared group in America. The child paused for a second and then started chanting, “We’re number THREE! We’re number THREE!”

This is a reminder of that hierarchy of privilege. In the decade since that comic ran, anti-Muslim hate crimes have continued to remain above their pre-9/11 rates (with a particular spike of 50 percent in 2010, simultaneous to several state legislatures proposing anti-Muslim legislation). The intersection of religious discrimination, stereotyping, and racism in America today begs something of us as Christians, whose ancient heritage is born of being stereotyped and discriminated against.

There are moments of hope and possibility for us. We adapt and we learn. The civil rights groups with leaders who once questioned Layla’s efforts to organize and engage Muslim, South Asian, Arab, and Sikh community groups are now championing efforts to battle racial and religious profiling. Muslim groups such as Muslim Advocates have created and led multi-faith and multi-ethnic policy and advocacy coalitions to challenge anti-Muslim bias that was fueling a series of fear-based congressional inquiries. The leadership of the nation’s preeminent civil rights groups now includes senior posts held by Muslims and South Asians at an unprecedented level…

Closer to home, Layla participated in my ordination. She wrote and delivered an ordination vow alongside a rabbi calling me to a lifetime commitment to protect the rights and wellbeing of all people of faith and goodwill. It was an easy vow for me to make, with the memory still fresh of my father’s safety being under threat in the days following 9/11. But it was an equally easy vow to make as someone who has studied the book of Revelation and knows that a people who have lived in fear for their beliefs cannot in good conscience participate in a culture that allows people to live in fear for their beliefs.

Insha’Allah (if it be God’s will), America may one day be the Beloved Community where all are free to worship without fear.

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