When Your Atheism Is Really about Attacking Minorities

When Your Atheism Is Really about Attacking Minorities September 25, 2014

Minneapolis, Minnesota, is home to at tens of thousands of Somali immigrants, the largest concentration of Somali immigrants in the country. The community was largely formed by the result of refugees from Somalia’s civil wars. Relatively new immigrants with few preexisting networks, some 82% of Somalis in Minnesota live near or below the poverty level. They frequently have low levels of education, and have faced challenges integrating into American society made worse by the surge of Islamophobia that followed the 9/11 attacks.

Being poor, many Somali immigrants often find the need to turn to food pantries to feed their families. The trouble is, only one food pantry serves Halal food. Most of Minneapolis’s Somali immigrants are Muslim, but they still need to eat. Halal means no pork, but it also means the animals need to be killed correctly. Because only one Minneapolis food pantry offers Halal food, many Somalis are having problem finding healthy Halal food for the families.

Most of Minneapolis’s Somali immigrants live in poverty, and they need to eat too. They ought to have access to food pantries that meet their needs. This isn’t just about religion. It’s about culture too. And on some level, it’s about pluralism. Minneapolis already has an Asian-specific food pantry supported, like other food pantries, in part by public grants and funding. The city really needs to expand its offerings for its large population of underprivileged Somali immigrants.

All of this is to say how very disappointed I am in a recent article on the Friendly Atheist. It seems the local Somali community in Minneapolis has organized to create a food pantry dedicated to Halal food and to put Halal food on the shelves of the city’s other food pantries, and Terry Firma, a guest blogger for the Friendly Atheist, is outraged.

When you view the video, with its footage of protest signs that say things like “We shall NOT be ignored,” does it seem to you that these protesters are kindly “asking for help”? If they were asking for help, rather than dictating their demands for special religious freebies as if they were entitled to them, I’d be less irritated.

Asking for “religious freebies”? The local government helps fund the city’s food pantries, and it ought to make efforts to provide food pantries for all of its residents in need. Like I said, there is already a food pantry catering to the city’s Asian residents—why not one catering to its Somali residents as well?

Also, are we really going to deny the Somalis a food pantry serving their needs because they have signs saying “We shall NOT be ignored” rather than asking for help more passively and quietly? The problem, it seems, is those uppity immigrants who feel so entitled. It’s funny, because the only other place I’ve seen this story covered is on Fox News and other right-wing news sites, and it’s the same thing—how dare those uppity Muslim immigrants be so entitled. But that’s not what this is about at all. Since when is organizing a food pantry and petitioning public officials to help obtain startup funding a bad thing?

I dare say the same might be true for Mr. McLaughlin, a representative of the secular government, who doesn’t seem too thrilled about being called a violator of human rights—by religionists claiming special treatment, no less.

Firma seems to be referring to Minnesota’s Somalis as “religionists” in order to more easily dismiss them. Is it that hard to call them Somalis? They are people too, just like you and just like me, and all they are asking for is access to food that conforms to their cultural traditions.

Now Firma may be unaware of this but the United Nations holds that access to culturally appropriate food is a human right, not “special treatment.” It describes this right as follows:

The right to have regular, permanent and free access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.

So yes, this is a human rights issue. And while you could argue that Minnesota’s Somalis have this right to food already because they can walk into a Halal store and make a purchase, it doesn’t seem like a stretch that this same human right should apply to the city’s food pantries.

It’s also worth noting that McLaughlin, the county commissioner for the district with most of the city’s Somalis, has said he will help the Somalis introduce their plan in an attempt to get it into the budget. I watched the video and read several articles and didn’t see anything to support Firma’s claim that McLaughlin “doesn’t seem to thrilled about being called a violator of human rights.” What I saw was him working hard to work with his constituents and help them move their proposal forward.

I see two workable solutions here.

One is that the protesters, perhaps mindful of the old adage that beggars can’t be choosers, learn to content themselves with the plentiful food-shelf products that already do not contain pork. A more than decent selection of the foods on offer (all fruits, vegetables, breads, beef and chicken dishes, and desserts, for starters) is perfectly unaffected by pig cooties.

Let’s imagine that there is a humanitarian crisis—say a famine—in an area that is predominantly Muslim—an area where eating Halal is part of the culture. Would Firma suggest that those shipping food in should pay no attention to whether it is Halal or not? Again, the UN holds that this is a human right. They would consider shipping in food that does not correspond with the people’s cultural traditions a human rights violation. All Minneapolis’s Somalis are asking for is similar consideration when it comes to the city’s food pantries.

Flippant remarks about “pig cooties” obscure what’s actually going on here. Do we find it strange that Muslims don’t eat pork? Sure. But other groups find it strange that we don’t eat dogs and cats. If you were to move to a fictional country where many dishes contained or was cooked with dog or cat meat, would you like access to food that is in keeping with your own culture—food that does not contain dog and cat meat? I know I would. Is this feeling rational? No, but it’s there nonetheless. Now yes, there is a difference in that for Muslims, their objection to eating pork is not just about culture but also about religion. But shouldn’t they have the freedom to practice their religion, including their dietary restrictions? If a combination of poverty is making finding food in keeping with their religion difficult, shouldn’t we support them when they make efforts to remedy that—or at least not attack them?

Also, we really need to retire the phrase “beggars can’t be choosers.” Because why can’t they? Why can’t the poor demand food that is healthy, or that corresponds with their cultural traditions? They’re people too. They need food too. I don’t get this idea that to be poor must mean to suffer. Life is hard enough for the poor without compounding it by denying them access to basic human needs.

Finally, once again, eating Halal is more than just not eating pork. It is also not eating meat that was not killed properly, and not eating products that have pork in them (and many canned foods contain pork or food that was cooked in pork). And as one of the Somali organizers pointed out, there is a literacy issue—68% of Somalis 25 and older don’t have high school diplomas, and not all of them speak English. In other words, the problem Somalis are facing (and trying to remedy) is more common than Firma’s suggestion that they simply take non-pork foods suggests.

Not good enough (for whatever reason)? Fine. Then the other solution is that the Muslim community in the Twin Cities recognizes the apparent need for a separate halal food shelf, and provides just that using donations–that is, private money, without claiming a made-up entitlement of hundreds of thousands of dollars in government funds.

It is very common for food pantries, religious or not, to receive grants and other funding from the government, and money is of necessity especially scarce in communities like the Somalis’, with 82% living near or below the poverty line. What is “entitlement” about this anyway? There are government funds for food pantries, and the Somali community in Minneapolis would like to start one from scratch. One of their own community organizations, Insuroon—directed by a woman, I might add—has spearheaded the initiative. They are simply asking for government funding for their project, just like everyone else does. This is not “entitlement.”

Also, in the name of accuracy, the group is asking for $150,000 in startup funding, not “hundreds of thousands.”

P.S.: I can’t help but wonder if some of these folks don’t have jobs—in retail, or in transportation, or in the hospitality industry, etc.—because they believe their religion forbids them to handle alcohol, or pepperoni pizza, or dogs.

Somalis hold a variety of jobs, driving cabs or working in the meat packing industry, and many Somalis are entrepreneurs who own their own businesses. After all, they moved to Minneapolis because there were jobs. In 2012, Minneapolis’s Somalis had an unemployment rate of 26%, not much higher than the city’s 18% unemployment rate for blacks. If Firma wants to chalk that 8% difference in employment up to the Islamic prohibition of alcohol and pork, she is free to do so, but when we already know the city’s Somalis face low education, a language barrier, and Islamophobia, that seems like a very big stretch—especially when we are also talking about a group suffering the trauma of decades of war in their country of origin.

Perhaps by now you understand why I found Firma’s article so troubling. Is this is what organized atheism is about—denouncing underprivileged immigrants’ efforts to obtain access to food that conforms to their cultural traditions? I would rather work against Islamophobia and for justice for the underprivileged, regardless of their religion. Snarking about “pig cooties” and throwing around words like “religionist” won’t make Minneapolis Somalis’ lives any better, but a food pantry that serves Halal food just might. Further, these sorts of positions play into negative stereotypes about atheists, and make it look as though atheists care more about taking pot shots at religion than about they do about people.

somalifood0922You may have noticed that this effort is being spearheaded by a woman. If you watched the video linked earlier, you might have noticed that almost every single Somali show—both holding signs outside and sitting around the board table in McLaughlin’s office—are female. Atheists often criticize Islam for its treatment of women. Can we not then stand up and support these Muslim women as they organize for access to the food they need?

What of the separation of church and state issue? As I stated earlier, the local government gives grants and other fundings to a variety of organizations operating food pantries. There is already an organization operating a food pantry catering to the city’s Asian residents, and a number of the city’s food pantries are already run by churches and religious organizations. All of these are eligible for—and receive—government support. Provided it abides by local government requirements for food pantries that receive public funds, there is nothing about a Muslim organization running a food pantry that caters to the city’s Somali residents that poses any separation of church and state issue.

There are so many issues that get lost if we look in the world as a dichotomy of religion v. atheism. There are structures surrounding culture, race, gender, and economics that are erased by such a simplistic framing. When religion is the enemy rather than systems of power that disadvantage the poor across the globe, or women, or people of color, we lose focus on what is really important—people. Human beings. You and me—and the Somalis in Minneapolis, and everyone else from country to country across this huge world we live in. Our lives and the forces that shape them may not always fit simple narratives, but they are beautiful in their intricacy. I find myself yearning for something larger, something more holistic. I find myself tiring of simple narratives.

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