Tuesday, October 12, 2010

An open letter to America's Muslims

From the better-late-than-never department...

During the height of the kerfuffle over the so-called ground-zero mosque many American Muslims raised the question of whether they would ever be fully accepted in American society. That question still seems to be hanging in the air, so I though I would take it upon myself to answer it.

Dear American Muslims:

The answer to your question is yes, sooner or later you will be accepted, but it may take a long time. You have to understand there are some features of American culture that are fundamentally at odds with certain aspects of your faith.

First and foremost, where religion is concerned we Americans are shameless hypocrites. Many of us loudly proclaim America to be a God-fearing country, but our real national religion is capitalism. If there is ever a conflict between religion and commerce, commerce wins. So, for example, we have never taken the second commandment very seriously. You may have noticed that depictions of Jesus are everywhere. So your strictures against depictions of the Prophet (PBUH) are fundamentally at odds with our culture. Before you can be accepted, one or the other is going to have to give. If you look at history, the assimilation process happens faster if the group being assimilated adapts to the culture rather than insisting that the culture adapt to it.

While I'm on the topic of commerce being the national religion, praying five times a day is widely viewed as being a little over the top. An exceptionally pious American (of any faith) goes their house of worship once a week. Anything more than that is viewed with suspicion because it's too significant an impact on productivity. This is true for any religion, not just Islam, but five times is day is so much more than any other mainstream religion demands of even its most ardent adherents that you really stick out. Not a good thing if you really want to fit in.

Another aspect of our culture that you need to understand is that concealing one's face is generally associated with lawlessness. In our culture, people conceal their faces not out of modesty but because they don't want their identity to be known. The visceral reaction to seeing someone, male or female, with their face covered in public is overwhelmingly negative. I am myself a product of four cultures (German, Israeli, Palestinian and American) so I am about as multicultural an American as you will ever meet, but seriously, seeing women wearing what looks to me like an instrument of torture over their faces creeps me out.

Last but not least there is the whole terrorism thing. The association of Islam with terrorism is tragic. It is bigoted. It is wrong. But it is, alas, not completely baseless. This is going to sound self-contradictory, but it would really help if the voices of moderation within Islam were louder. In American culture, intentional violence against innocents is flatly unacceptable under any circumstances. Yes, I know that America commits violence against innocents. As with religion, we are hypocrites, saying one thing and doing another. Yes, we have killed vastly more civilians by retaliating against 9/11 than were actually killed in 9/11 But killing those innocents was not our intent. To us, that makes all the difference in the world.

This is the crucial thing: American hypocrisy is at once a deep flaw in our character and also the glue that holds our society together. There are differences between us far greater than those that separate Shia and Sunni. But since 1865 we have not settled those differences with violence. The only way we can do that is to set aside some of our more ardent beliefs and behave as if we did not believe them. I have neighbors who are Baptists. According to their theology I am a heretic who is condemned to hell because I have not accepted Jesus as my lord and savior. But that doesn't stop us from going out to dinner and having a good time. We just don't talk about religion.

That sort of suspension of disbelief is much, much harder when your women are veiled and the call to prayer goes out over the PA five times a day every day.

By the way, it is important to notice that it is not just Muslims in America who are marginalized when their religious practices conflict with our cultural hypocrisy. Christians also suffer this fate. Fred Phelps is a pariah, not because he's a Muslim, but because he is too much of a Christian. Phelps's sin is that he takes the Bible too seriously. He is not willing to capitulate to the secular and the politically correct like, say, the Mormons have (mostly) done. But that is the price of acceptance. That is why the members of the Westboro Baptist Church are even more unwelcome than you are.

This is your dilemma: Islam as it is currently practiced seems (to my admittedly unschooled eye) to insist that you be Muslims first and Americans second. But America insists -- and has always insisted -- that Americans be Americans first and Muslims -- or Jews or Catholics or Baptists or Lutherans or Wicans or Methodists -- second. The price of being accepted in America is accepting others whose views are fundamentally incompatible with your most cherished beliefs and not getting in their face. The reason your assimilation is taking so long is that you are too principled, too pious, too unwilling to compromise Allah or the Q'uran or the Prophet (PBUH).

And if you find this letter at all offensive, well, that would be exactly my point.


Anonymous said...

A "better-late-than-never" reply :)

I dont think any muslim would find this offensive. This is something most muslims would notice every day anyway.

I agree with a lot that you've said (and I dont think most muslims would disagree either).

For e.g.:

Meeting/Friending/Enjoying the company of people regardless of their religious beliefs. I do it too, and I dont see any reason not to.

Depictions of the Prophet. Again, I dont control what others do or can do, and I dont want to. Frankly, I dont care what anyone publishes. Publish whatever you want, but respect the other party's right to complain and make a fuss. Thats the "free speech" way of doing things, isn't it?

What I disagree with:

I dont see how praying 5 times a day hurts productivity. Does drinking coffee 3 times a day do it too? What about smoke breaks? They're 5 minute breaks at most. At the end of the day, in any employment, you should care whether people are getting shit done or not. Whether they take 5 min breaks here and there has no impact on productivity. I think this speaks more about your fear of people who are "very different" from you than the productivity guise you're hiding this under :)

Again, the veil. I understand that its scary and suspicious. But I feel that forcing a group of people to change because people are scared is the wrong precedent and decidedly un-American (I'm Canadian actually). What if African Americans were asked to stop wearing hooded clothing because that an African American wearing dark glasses and a hood over his head looks scary? That sounds nonsense.

Again, I understand what you're saying and I doubt we're even disagreeing. What you're saying is: Here are the facts, people may be irrational, but thats the way it is and you need to change to fit in.

My approach is different. I say, identify people who are irrational, and instead of caving in, coach them into seeing why (some of) the fear is irrational.

By categorizing things as being "American" and "Muslim" you're creating an issue that isn't there. What is "American" and "Muslim" and how do they conflict? I believe muslims should integrate completely into societies by helping their neighbors, their communities, getting involved in politics and so on. But they should not bend over backwards in doing so.

Muslims have made mistakes that they're paying for. There are muslims (in muslim countries AFAIK) who insist in violence. I dont personally know any muslims here in Canada who think violence is the answer. Yes, muslims should renounce terrorism and violence completely. Yes, we should try to integrate. These are actual issues. Veil and beards are not issues with muslims, they are issues with people's perception of muslims. In this case, the perception needs to change (just like the perception of African Americans changed over the years).

My wife wears the veil and I have a beard. By being friendly and talkative to people around us, we've managed to dispel a lot of doubts. I think thats the way forward for muslims. By constantly being "good" in their own societies, change the public perception a person at a time.

Ron said...

> I dont think any muslim would find this offensive.

Good to know.

> I dont control what others do or can do, and I dont want to.

That's terrific. But many of your fellow Muslims do want to, and are willing to use violence to back it up.

> I dont see how praying 5 times a day hurts productivity.

Maybe it doesn't. I'm talking here about perceptions. I suspect the vast majority of Muslims don't support the use of violence. But the perception is that many, perhaps even most, Muslims tacitly condone violence in response to perceived insults to Islam. Maybe this is completely wrong. Maybe this is just a PR problem. But it's a problem.

> But I feel that forcing a group of people to change because people are scared is the wrong precedent and decidedly un-American.

Who said anything about forcing anyone to change? If there is ever an attempt in the U.S. to make wearing veils illegal I will be at the front of the line to march in opposition. But they still creep me out, and they creep a lot of my fellow Americans out, and that's not going to change any time soon.

> What you're saying is: Here are the facts, people may be irrational, but thats the way it is and you need to change to fit in.

Not quite. What I'm saying is: here are the facts, and it is your burden to figure out how to deal with those facts. You can choose to change, or you can choose to address these issues some other way (like education for example). But if you want to fit in you have to address them somehow. You can't just sit around and hope these facts will just go away, because they won't, at least not any time soon.

Unknown said...

>"The association of Islam with terrorism is tragic. It is bigoted. It is wrong."

Maybe a better phrasing is "The association of all Muslims with terrorism is tragic." ? Islam (the Quran specifically), seems to mandate a lot of violence against innocent people that just don't believe in Islam, which I think is terrorism.

Ron said...


That depends on whether you define Islam according to what is in the Quran or according to what is in the hearts and minds of people who self-identify as Muslims. I think the latter is more likely to be productive, so that's the standard I choose.