Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

To my unknown Muslim community

While I am not a christian, I was raised in the christian cultural camp. I know its vocabulary and imagery and have lived intimately with christians my whole life. Therefore I know for a fact, and need not take it on faith, that the great majority of christians are good people leading peaceful constructive lives. I can read their collective face, and what evil I can see there I can isolate from the good.

It is in my personal nature to consider by extention that the great majority of muslim people are good, and leading peaceful and constructive lives also, despite the fact that in the 9/11 era virtually all terrorists have emerged from islamic belief and culture. But, because I am not a muslim and have had no intimacy with its culture, I do have to take my cherished assumption on faith. Your collective face is veiled to my eyes, I have no personal tool for isolating the evil from the good.

I can't be alone in my limitation. How common is this, here in my home in the U.S.A, in northern Delaware, or anywhere? I keep wondering, why are all the good muslims so quiet? They seem to be. Those wishing to build a muslim religious center blocks from ground zero in NYC can't not know the hurtful sensibility of the situation. Are they seeking to seed a healing glasnost in the heart of the west, or simply and cynically to keep their enemies closer? Or is it really just the luck of the real estate draw? I know that where I live the last decade has witnessed a ballooning muslim presence. They have a large community center just 2 miles from my front door. Them. Them is the problem. Not "they are," but "them is." Sometimes you can wind up alone in a limitation even if there are millions of you-- if you wind up being them.

Or, maybe the limitation is mine? The muslim community is talking, only I don't know how to hear it? Is a profound failure in the American media to blame? All too often good news isn't good enough to feed its appetite for sensationalism. If I could interview my hypothetical "you" on the street, here would be my question:

You are in my country by choice-- do you like us? Do you like what we are? Or do we disgust you and you just stay for the education and the work? Hey, if that's so, I understand. My italian immigrant grandparents didn't like it either, but back home in Italy, where society was decent, they couldn't find jobs. But their feelings never turned into hostility. Have yours? Or, are you like our own historical Pilgrims, who came to America to escape religious intolerance only to turn around and become intolerant of others at every turn? So, what will your contribution be to any future american greatness, good deeds despite all? Or yet one more growth-provoking lesson in hypocrisy?

Why do I talk to you as if you're a giant monolith? Because I can't see your face, whether that be my fault, my culture's, or yours. It's not fair to either of us, because the face is that unique part of the human body that shows the soul. And, politically speaking, you can see mine. Treasure any modesty you wish except that of your face.

I favor building the religious center near ground zero, granting transparency, simply because the rightness of doing so is the law of the land, constitutionally and morally. And even if we don't look moral to you on our surface, just below it most of us come out of a sense of justice in which we invest a profound faith. We allow ourselves-- and you-- to run wild because we trust ourselves to behave well when it counts, and because, as our Benjamin Franklin expressed, those who would give up liberty for the sake of security deserve neither. I deserve your face in return for mine.


  1. Douglas,
    you have put a very fine point on this hot bed issue. I've been struggling to see the side against the Community Center [at ground zero] and, though I am sure most of the people who are against it are not evil, I am amazed at how quickly some are able to put the "law of the land" away in the name of hate.
    However, you have captured my own feelings on the issue. I, personally, don't have much admiration for most organized religions. They tend to foster such sentiment as bigotry and intolerance. Though, it is true, most people who believe in these religions are good people. There is violence and hatred and extremism that lives within some human beings that does not exist in others; no matter their ideology.
    So, I speak up, I fight to protect the rights of those with whom I may not necessarily agree. Though, now that you mention it, being able to look someone in the face and read their body language is key to developing trust, understanding, and acceptance.

    Amy Eyre

  2. Let us also factor in that this is an inopportune time for Muslims in America to speak out.

    Anecdotally, at least, the number of attacks on Muslims and mosques has spiked since the Not Ground Zero But Nearby Ground Zero Mosque controversy erupted, and it would be a brave (and perhaps stupid) Muslim who would declare their support.

  3. I have seen many Muslim faces for a long time now, but I have also relied on a kind of faith called “solidarity” to guide my understanding.
    Beginning in 60s, I occasionally met members of the Nation of Islam, so-called Black Muslims. In those old days, they reflected Black separatist values. I understood that Islam had carried a special meaning for African Americans, not only for its spiritual attraction, but for its prevalence in Mother Africa and as an alternative to the religion imposed by slave masters. Today, most members of the Nation I encounter are more orthodox in their beliefs and ascribe to the universalist aspects of Islam.
    In the late seventies there was a great migration from the closing plants in Michigan to Chrysler’s Newark Assembly, where I worked. Many were Yemeni and a few were Lebanese Muslims. Previously, the closest thing to an Arab at the plant was one of the few Jews; his nickname was “A-rab.” “A-rab” would do for anyone of rare and exotic ethnicity, although someone may have understood the irony of moniker. Many of the Yemenis lived together for years until they could afford a home and bring their families over. While many majority workers may have been suspicious, habits of union solidarity paid off. Humping the line together or bellying up to the same lunch table year after year bred a lot of lasting friendships.
    Finally, I taught in Lebanon from 2002 to 2004. While they were not American, I got to know many Muslims of many varieties and from many Arabic or otherwise Muslim countries, teaching their children, working alongside them, buying my necessities from them, breaking bread with them, and enjoying their incredible hospitality and food.
    Yet all along my willingness to expect that Muslims were by and large good people was motivated by my faith in progressive values and my reading of history that showed how racism and xenophobia was used to divide humans from one another. I have long believed that a future of social progress and economic democracy depended on solidarity among the common people of the planet, who—let’s face it—had been slaughtering each other for God, king, country, and clan for ten thousand years. Everyone had to resist the poisons of the past and reach out to people who were enemies erstwhile but should be class allies everlasting.
    Accordingly, I helped organize numerous forums over the years for the Phoenix Community in Delaware, Inc, an ecumenical ministry with a global perspective. Often the topics related to the Middle East, and we brought together many Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, and many Jews, both American and Israeli, to help put a face on the participants in the conflict and to help pursue justice and peace for all the peoples of the region.
    So of course, when I see the hysteria over the Islamic Cultural Center, I see not only an attack on my friends, who to me have long had many faces, but also an attack on solidarity, using fear and bigotry to impede progress for the human race.

  4. In answer to Shaun above:
    After 9-11 Rev. Andrews, pastor of the Phoenix Community, and I reached out to the Islamic Society of Delaware over in Ogletown. One of the things the Imam said that struck us was that his flock had tended to be “quiet.”
    Now, whether this is because, as Douglas asks, this is our fault, our culture’s, or the Muslims’ in Delaware is open to debate. I only know that historically we have always had some religions at the cultural center in America and those more in the margins.
    Clearly at our founding the center was (white, male and) Protestant, with some contentions within that center among the diminutive but ruling Anglicans, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Methodist, etc. Riding along in the Margins were a few Jews, but beyond the pale were the Native American rites.
    The papists were never trusted, even though they were Christian, until recently, perhaps; Irish and Italian Catholics know well the incitements of Nativism. Like their co-religionists, Mexican Catholics threaten to out-breed “us.” Mormons ran west and founded their own cultural center. Recently, out on the fringe, we have Neo-Pagans: at least they are “white.”
    We scarcely think about what the Chinese thought, spiritually, as they built our railroads. I guess that’s because they, too, were quiet, though not without facing a few waves of hysteria. Confucianism? Taoism? or the now fashionable Buddhism? Buddhist were the Japanese, and Shinto, I suppose. Quiet did not keep them out of the internment camps. Anabaptist dress funny, but they are quiet.
    So, the Mohammedan has always been way out there, the object of an Orientalist fantasy: Odalisques and cutthroats that write in illegible curlicues. I can’t remember the first time I heard that Islam, unlike Christianity, was spread by the sword. Just look at those Shriners’ scimitars!
    Muslims join a long caravan of the faceless and quiet and vulnerable.