In Mesa, Arizona, three days after al-Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center, an armed man walked into the grocery store owned by Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh, and shot him dead in the mistaken belief that Sodhi was a Muslim. Let it be said boldly and up front that Islamophobia is real.
Let’s also pause to recognize that it exacts a terrible toll even on people lucky enough not to be shot, or beaten, or insulted. Sodhi’s murder reduced my friend Khalid to a nervous wreck. Khalid’s father, a native of Delhi driven to Lahore by plundering Hindus on the eve of Partition, had known Sodhi slightly, I believe through some South Asian businessmen’s association. Khalid himself was a big, tough man – I think of him whenever I try to picture Babur, the Mughal – and a gun lover. He might have found it therapeutic to grapple with or draw on an attacker. What cost him his peace of mind wasn’t the fear of physical injury, but the fear that anyone could be so unfair as to hold him responsible for a crime he hadn’t committed, or link him with people for whom he felt no sympathy.
Still, in yesterday evening’s caveat against Islamophobia, “From the Logic of Hate, Deliver Us, O Lord,” Mindy Selmys says some things that stick in my craw. There’s its timing, for one. She begins: “I can’t help but feel heavy-hearted both for the French people and for the many peaceful Muslims who are going to feel the brunt of renewed Islamophobia in the days and weeks to come.”
Heavy-hearted is one thing, but this feels a little too…even-handed. When she hit “Publish,” the casualties from ISIS’ coordinated attacks hadn’t even been properly counted. Their blood had barely dried. Jumping from a mass slaughter to condemn acts of vigilantism that have yet to be committed – or some change in national mood that has yet to solidify – seems to me not in the best possible taste.
In themselves, keeping cool and looking forward are both admirable – they’re what thinkers get paid to do. As Sodhi’s murder illustrates, it’s best to get out in front of the nuts. Her point that violence is no more “inherent” in Islam than in any other religion, is well taken. But then she goes on to make a claim that’s reductive at best, and plain inaccurate at worst. “Muslims,” she writes,
…do not kill Westerners because Allah commands it. They kill Westerners because Westerners kill Muslims…What we experience as terrorism, they experience as just retribution against the enemies who destroyed their homeland.
Post for post – as I’ve been telling everyone who will listen — Mindy keeps the finest blog on Patheos. But honestly, I haven’t seen Muslims painted with such a broad brush since the last time I read Pamela Geller. What “they,” exactly, does Mindy have in mind? If she means all Muslims alive today, hadn’t she better observe some distinctions? The self-confessed authors of the Paris massacres belong to the Islamic State. To take its leaders at their word, their goal isn’t to exact vengeance on the West but to create, well, an Islamic state – actually, the Islamic state, heir to the caliphate founded upon Muhammad’s death and abolished in 1925. Once re-established, the caliphate is supposed to embark on its own missions of conquest which will stall only when End Times prophecies begin unfolding.
If ISIS’s mouthpieces had wanted to quote Noam Chomsky in the statement claiming credit for the late rampage, no power on earth could have stopped them. Instead, they referred to the theatergoers as “idolaters” — an expression of pure religious intolerance if ever there was one — and Paris as a “center of vice and prostitution.” Given recent history, this is a more justifiable description than “tool of Uncle Sam.”
As last summer’s swell of refugees demonstrated, ISIS’s program leaves most Muslims cold. Many may well feel some measure of resentment against the West for its foreign policy, if the Western powers can even be said to cohere in these things. Still, reading their minds and claiming they see terrorist acts as “just retribution” is irresponsible to the point of being dangerous. If Mindy’s so eager to discourage French people, or Westerners in general, from jumping to alarming conclusions, why does she jump to them herself?
In the same way that Westerners blame Muslims living among them for the violence and the terror, Muslims blame Christians living among them for the aggression of the West.
Here, Mindy seems more concerned with perceptions than reality. For her, it’s more important how we and Muslims “experience” one another’s aggression than who, if anyone, the legitimate aggressor is. If she wants to talk about what evil lurks in the hearts of men, then yes, she’s right to evoke this perfect mirror image.
However, the mutual antagonism between Islam and the West also expresses itself in discrete historical events. Carried into the realm of history, what-evil-lurks-in-the-hearts-of-men sounds a lot like chickens coming home to roost. I trust that isn’t what Mindy means, but I wish she’d made it clearer.
For example, if her point is that Operation Iraqi Freedom ruined the good deal Christians enjoyed under Iraq’s and Syria’s Ba’athist regimes, I’m inclined to agree. Ba’athism is, at least in part, the brainchild of Michel Aflaq, a Syrian Christian, who wanted to create a national ideology flavored by Islam, but secular enough that Christians would enjoy first-class citizenship. We certainly didn’t break that up on the Christians’ say-so, and the Muslims in those regions who think we did are wrong.
Mindy also writes:
The only reason that we go no further than racial profiling, vandalism of mosques, inflammatory rhetoric and the occasional torture of suspected terrorists whereas they behead, rape, and exterminate is that we are less affected. We live with the gruesome reality of terror once every couple of years, Most of us don’t get any closer than seeing it on TV. They live with the reality of war day in, day out, for years.
If Mindy’s point is that living in combat zones brutalizes people, okay. But over-zealous police work versus wanton murder is just too strained a comparison. And if she’s suggesting that Middle Eastern Christians posed any kind of threat to their Muslim neighbors — even a remote one — that’s simply wrong. (It is, however, the excuse Turks make to this very day for the Ottoman massacres of Armenians — one mustn’t use the g-word over there — during the First World War.) Certainly ISIS forces, with their foreign-born contingents, aren’t acting in self-defense when they advance on historic Christian homelands. No matter how sporting a handicap she awards the West, we can’t match ISIS when it comes to brutality pro brutality.
What Mindy writes next is, flatly, uncharitable:
And I know that in the coming days, the coming weeks, we are going to see the logic of hatred at work again. It’s already started. I’ve seen it on Twitter, in my FaceBook feed. Amid the hopes and prayers and calls for peace, the voices have begun to cry for blood. Good Christians saying that we’ve been peaceful long enough, that it’s time to start dishing out God’s vengeance on the infidel. Not in exactly those words, of course. If we put it that way, we’d realize that we sound just like them.
Witnessing any mass outpouring of anger can feel like wearing a stainless-steel colander on your head while someone whacks you with a ball peen hammer. Nobody would deny that. But anger isn’t the same thing as hatred. Although I’m sure Mindy’s making that equation in good faith, it does have the incidental effect of discrediting the people whose reactions she disapproves. Anger can sometimes be righteous; hatred never can.
Mindy knows her sources better than I do. Maybe they really are haters. But if their thinking has anything in common with mine, they’re just fed up. Not so much with Muslims or Islam as with the West, for failing to define itself, its own values and boundaries.
Lately, Michel Houllebecq’s Submission has become a hot topic. (I’ll be reviewing it soon.) Set in the not-too-distant future, it describes a France grown so weary with itself and its unresolvable internal tensions that it permits a party of fairly moderate Muslims to remake society according to their own tastes. Though not to be read as a prophecy, it does express a legitimate fear, namely, that the West has forgotten or abandoned whatever once made it distinctive. Lacking any living essence, whether that be Christianity, “enlightenment values,” or a widely respected cultural heritage, it’s gone up for grabs.
Mindy says she grew up in a neighborhood “with a lot of Muslim immigrants.” Inshallah, she’ll share her cookie with me, because I’ve lived in the Muslim world, nearly acquired a two-time haji for a father-in-law, fallen in love with the sound of the adhan, praised Angela Merkel’s leadership in welcoming refugees, and written dyspeptically of anti-Muslim demonstrators and Israeli West Bank settlers. When a gunman fired a bullet through Khalid’s parents’ window, I slept two nights on their living-room sofa in the hope of catching the next one (which, thankfully, never came).
But for all those multi-culti credentials, I don’t share Mindy’s implicit confidence that the West can drift on forever without giving itself up completely to someone or some group with vision and will. Will that new dominant power be made up of Muslims? Based on nothing but intuition, I’d say no. If all that comes of this recent bloodbath is a renewed fear of Islam or a another war, then it will have been a crisis gone terribly to waste.
Being arrogant enough to suppose I understand the call to arms Mindy heard better than she does, I do have hopes — or rather, wishes — that it will evolve into a call to some other kind of action. But when I try to describe what action that might be, I find myself grabbing at shadows. I think I mean a resolution among Christians to renew our own culture in such a way that no force can prevail against it — a Benedict Option without compound walls or neck-high gingham dresses. We probably couldn’t go on for too long in a posture of jut-jawed defiance, even if we wanted to — it’s exhausting. But it’s not a bad posture to start out with. Really, there must be more to this Christianity stuff than mourning and weeping.