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May 10, 2011

Some in the atheist community are planning to participate in Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, a campaign that seeks to promote free speech by inviting people to create drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, again this year on May 20th.

EDMD began last year and created a good deal of controversy — particularly when several college atheist groups decided to create depictions of the Prophet Muhammad with chalk on their college campuses’ sidewalks. Unlike drawings posted to the internet, where people can elect not to view them, those were done in a shared public space, and thus created a lot more tension.

Still, I have major concerns and reservations about a campaign that could easily be seen as targeting an already marginalized community, whether it occurs solely online or not. And, as I’ve written about in the past, it has very real ramifications — Terry Jones cited it as an inspiration for “Everybody Burn a Koran Day,” and Molly Norris, the initiator of EDMD who later backed off the campaign and asked for Muslim-atheist dialogue instead, was forced to go into hiding as a result of the controversy.

To explain why EDMD concerns me (aside from the violence or threats of violence mentioned above), I’m reposting one of several blogs I wrote on the topic last summer. Below is a piece I wrote for the Secular Student Alliance:

Picture this: you’re headed to the final exam of your least favorite class. If you’re anything like me, you’re stressed out and running late. You miraculously get there with a minute to spare and stop to catch your breath. You close your eyes and collect yourself. When you open your eyes you notice something scrawled in chalk at your feet. This isn’t just another campus group trying to recruit members; this chalking is a direct affront on your identity and values. Suddenly a final exam doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the world.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about something that started as a joke but has become larger than life: Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (EDMD). Near the beginning of the EDMD fray, I wrote a blog post on my website, NonProphet Status. In it, I identified several problems with the campaign, but the crux of my critique was this:

We secularists need to think long and hard about what lines we’re drawing—and who we’re boxing out in the process. We say we want free speech; now let’s recognize that with freedom comes responsibility and the need for respectful dialogue despite differences. In other words, as my mom might say: just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Chalk may wash away but the divides we build often don’t. Let’s talk the talk, not chalk for shock.

In my work for the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) I’ve labored alongside Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims. My biggest takeaway has been the notion that people of different religious and philosophical identities have a lot more in common than we instinctually imagine. Sure, my Muslim collaborators think Muhammad was the prophet of a God that I don’t even think exists. But, I don’t care much about that difference between us. Our deeper convictions—that all people have the right to dignity, that we need to find a way to achieve a more peaceful world—are the same and, frankly, they matter more.

One of these Muslim collaborators, IFYC founder and White House advisor Dr. Eboo Patel, wrote in an op-ed on EDMDThis isn’t about Free Speech vs. Fundamentalist Islam. This is about Actions that Build an Inclusive Society vs. Actions that Marginalize a Minority Community. Similarly, Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein wroteAs a Humanist, I hope I do not exist solely to advance the Humanist cause. I want to advance the human cause. In this case, the way to do it is to keep the chalk on the blackboard, where, perhaps one day soon, Humanist and Muslim college students will use it together in inner-city elementary schools, teaching understanding and cooperation between members of different religious and moral traditions. What both Epstein and Patel rightly suggest is that this is about priorities; it’s about people, not just principle. Epstein highlighted in his post that Muslims have experienced challenges to their freedoms in recent years, from hate crimes to decreased citizenship rights in Europe. This context informs how actual living, breathing people will interpret the intent of EDMD, and it cannot be ignored.

This campaign is intended to take a stand against extremism, which I applaud, but I’d like to propose an alternative. A more powerful statement would be to reach out to Muslims who also disagree with such violent threats. Combining resources through coalition-building results in a wider impact. When we move forward with an initiative while knowing it will alienate people who would be our collaborators, we can only blame ourselves for the missed opportunity, and have only ourselves to blame when they decline to advocate for us in the future. We have every right to draw Muhammad, but realize that by doing so we limit our community’s ability to make real change on issues like anti-atheist bigotry and free speech by alienating potential allies.

The significant disagreement among secular folks around EDMD isn’t a new phenomenon. Our community is an oft divided bunch. This diversity can be an asset as often as it is a weakness. But the only way this will be a source for strength is if we can come to a consensus on some ground rules. The first of these must be respect for our ideological differences, a respect we must extend to communities beyond our own.

I hope that someday free speech will be a universally allowed human right. To that end, there is no question in my mind that everyone should be free to draw Muhammad. But, if we are empathic and engaged citizens, we will take that right and choose not to exercise it in a way that divides. We ought to seek to build bridges whenever possible, not draw the lines darker and darker until even the most ardent eraser cannot remove them.

Picture this: someday we live in a world where none of us feel the need to do things knowing that they’ll offend just because we can. Where we stand alongside peers and see them as worthy of listening to when they say, this offends me, even if we don’t understand why.

Now that’s a picture I’d like to draw.

July 1, 2010

Last month, I was invited to write an opinion piece for the Secular Student Alliance‘s eMpirical on “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” and explain why I disagree with it so strongly. Head on over to their website to check it out!

Many thanks to the SSA for asking me to weigh in on this; I’ve been honored to work with the organization several times now, and am really looking forward to speaking at their National Conference at the end of this month. Speaking of: you should come!

May 20, 2010

It’s “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” — today’s guest post is from Nicholas Lang, and it addresses this controversy.

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” -Dr. Martin Luther King, “I Have a Dream Speech.” August 28, 1963, Washington D.C.

In 2007, students at Clemson University and the University of Arizona honored the memory of the great Dr. King by holding blackface parties on MLK day. The Clemson students called their party “Living the Dream,” but campus groups and university administration quickly labeled it something else: incredibly racist. Ironically, the King speech that the students were lampooning preaches racial inclusiveness, pushing us to look past social schisms and judge others on the content of their characters. In his toil for the Civil Rights Movement and interfaith work with Gandhi, King’s own life stands as a powerful model of looking past these divides to create real societal change.

But three years after these events, two years after we elected a black president, two years after we started talking about how to create a movement for change, I must ask: how are we doing this in our own lives? Have we made America safer, stronger, more inclusive? I have seen t-shirts informing me that “Yes, We Did,” and the bumper stickers tell me we did. My mother, my family, my friends say that Yes. We did. But upon hearing the news that three different Midwest campuses championed our rights to free speech, the foundation of America’s ethos of liberty and equality, by marginalizing Muslim students on their campuses, I wonder: What did we, the people, do? And what are we doing now?

For those unfamiliar with the context, these aforementioned demonstrations are a part of Everybody Draw Muhammad Day (EDMD), a nationwide movement to protest against the censoring of images of the Prophet Muhammad on South Park. Muhammad’s depiction was part of an episode in which Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, featured all of the religious prophets. In the episode, Muhammad was drawn in a bear costume. Although this was not the first time that Muhammad had been featured in the show, two bloggers from the radical site Revolution Islam warned that Stone and Parker should expect to be murdered for this particular affront against the Prophet. To support their claims, they cited the case of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was assassinated following the release of his short film “Submission,” which told the stories of four abused Muslim women.

Comedy Central replied to these threats by censoring subsequent episodes of the show, citing that the network’s utmost priority was the safety of its staff, but writers, artists and cartoonists across the country went further, responding with outrage. For them, the issue here was one of free speech. Our constitution endows us with the creative license to say what we want, even if our choice is to say things that offend others. Although this is a problematic position on a fraught issue, the artists’ feelings were understandable. However, Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris took her anger further, by creating a national “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” on May 20 to speak out against censorship.

“But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

Through the power of Facebook, this idea grew into an astoundingly pervasive grassroots movement to combat Muslim extremism by drawing stick figures of Muhammad and labeling them “Muhammad.” Many of those participating feel that Little Stick Men are not offensive, although others have been more creative in their licenses. The Swedish artist Lars Vilks made Muhammad into a canine which Vilks then named “Modog.” Other drawings have shown Muhammad to be a suicide bomber, a pig, Freddy Krueger, Michael Jackson and the Kool-Aid man. One shows him engaging in sexual relations with a sheep, and in another, he is sodomized by Jesus. One of them really strives for every target possible: the artist alleges that only a “violent, illiterate pedophile” could have composed the Qu’ran. Another is much simpler, equating Islam to nothing but a piece of shit.

chalkmuhammadThis is not simply exercising an inalienable right. This is hatred and bigotry. The University of Madison-Wisconsin’s student group stated in a letter to their school’s Muslim Student Association that their “Chalking for Freedom of Expression,” in which they drew Little Stick Men on their campus sidewalks in chalk, was not meant to be offensive. Their actions were not “intended to mock or intimidate” anyone. Many bloggers have been in the same boat as the University of Madison-Wisconsin students, deciding to participate in the movement, despite its increasing tones of religious hatred. One specifically stated that she had to participate, to fight for free speech, even if she didn’t like EDMD.

However, UW-M campus’ Muslim group responded, in a wise and patient letter, informing the secular group that they were, crazily enough, offended by these drawings. And we must also remember that, as Americans have the right to engage in hurtful acts, the objects of that vitriol and their allies have the right to be offended by them. Molly Norris herself rescinded her participation in a campaign that has veered far from her satirical intent, one that has been taken over by anti-Muslim groups like Stop Islamization of America. When a movement is increasingly designed to attack our Muslim classmates, our Muslim neighbors, our Muslim friends, we have the right to speak out.

“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy… It would be fatal to overlook the urgency of the moment.”

This campaign has made every Muslim accountable for the actions of two, and many of the Muslims that the Stop Islamization of America movement and its borrowed campaign have demonized responded with tolerance and love. The Muslim Student Association from the UW-M responded by “politely” requesting that the secular group revoke its participation in EDMD and join UW-M’s Muslim students to discuss this issue. Although many Facebook users have lobbied to get all EDMD-related pages and events removed from the site, sweeping the campaign under the rug is not enough. We must do more than account for a single digit on a social networking site. We have a duty to bring this issue to our classrooms, schools and communities, many of which will be as divided as the America that the EDMD’s discordant call to action represents.

In 2008, after Obama had been elected our first black president, the collective we came together for a short while to celebrate the incredible potential of the American people. The potential we have of coming together to realize impossible dreams. We had a dream of a people united, and for a moment, we were the singular people that our forefathers addressed us as. The honeymoon may be over and Obama’s approval ratings may have fallen back to Earth, but do we have to stop dreaming? Do we have to engage in offensive, divisive acts, ones we don’t even like, when we could devise others that might help us come together? Do we have to stir up more controversy and create more hatred and misunderstand, when a simple dialogue could generate understanding and engender friendships out of assumed enemies?

This controversy underlies an America divided: one angry that, despite progress made, we still have such a long way to go. We are still segregated, we are angry, we are scared, but we still long for more, we still hope. However, in tearing down the schisms of a divided America, King urged that we do not have to wait to act, we can realize our festering dreams today. If we are going to inspire others to speak out against marginalization, we must inspire ourselves. For we, the people, have the power to come together for dialogue today. We, secularists and religious folk alike, can work with our Muslim brothers to create change today. All we have to do is dream bigger.

“We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”

Want to start a discussion for interfaith cooperation on your campus today? Then check out the Interfaith Youth Core’s resource, “Talk the Talk, Don’t Chalk the Chalk,” here.

NickNicholas Lang is the Social Media Intern for Interfaith Youth Core and a Senior in International Studies at DePaul University. Nick just started up DePaul’s first film club, the DePaul A.V. Club, and will be the lone agnostic among 2010-2011’s Vincent and Louise House residents, who represent DePaul’s Catholic intentional living and social justice community.

May 4, 2010

Yesterday The Friendly Atheist reported that a student group, the Atheists, Humanists, & Agnostics (AHA) at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is engaging in a “Draw Muhammad” project today. They are not the first; other campus groups have done the same. But this group did something a little different — they reached out to the Muslim Student Association on their campus one day in advance with this letter warning that they would be drawing images of the Prophet Muhammad in chalk on their campus in response to the protests of extremist Muslims over a recent South Park episode.

The MSA responded, saying that they were, in fact, offended. The MSA’s response was thoughtful and patient, pointing out that sending a warning does not absolve one of being disrespectful: “To slap someone in the face, despite warning the person in advance and assuring them of you good intentions, does not make slapping someone in the face ok.” Their letter did nothing more than point out that the AHA’s planned activity was misguided — “Why do you not direct your protest to the groups in question instead of engaging in acts that you yourself acknowledge will offend the vast majority of Muslims, on this campus and off” — and suggest that it was in violation of the campus’ discrimination policies. How did the AHA respond? By saying that the MSA was “using fear and intimidation to suppress criticism of their religion.” Did I miss the fear and intimidation buried in there somewhere?

The idea behind the campaign is to advocate for free speech. It seems to me, however, that the campaign is masking an attack on religious identity with a martyrical “free speech” claim. There are other ways to go about this that don’t knowingly target a specific belief of a particular identity. The Friendly Atheist blog wrote, “It’s a stick figure drawing. Chill. Out.” Instead of recognizing the ramifications of offensive images — let’s say they were chalking swastikas or, more specific to this issue, something anti-Atheist — we secularists seem far too keen to tell people to “just get over it.” Because that’s an effective approach, right?

The AHA at UW Madison has made an enemy where they could have had an ally. And over what? “Principle”? It seems like a way to stir up negative feelings, an immature approach to a complex situation. Why not instead reach out to the MSA and plan an activity that condemns the extremists who threatened the creators of South Park while still acknowledging that it is a complex issue? Oh, right — because then you couldn’t draw pictures of Muhammad in chalk and create controversy on your campus.

The American Atheists wrote on their “No God” blog on April 29th that “Muslims have been in the news lately with their ridiculous behavior… One thing we need to keep in mind is that Muslims are particularly barbaric and primitive.” This isn’t just bad and oversimplified writing; it is lazy, dangerous, and divisive. Two entries before they too promoted “Everybody Draw Mohamed [sic] Day.” It seems so basic to ask: is this really the best use of our time and resources?

People who engage in such activities are drawing a line (or as Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel might say, a “faith divide“) between themselves and others, and it is not something as impermanent as one made in sand or etched with chalk. It cannot be so easily erased.

We secularists need to think long and hard about what lines we’re drawing — and who we’re boxing out in the process. We say we want “free speech;” now let’s recognize that with freedom comes responsibility and the need for respectful dialogue despite differences. In other words, as my mom might say: “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Chalk may wash away but the divides we build often don’t.

Let’s talk the talk, not chalk for shock.

August 15, 2013

Photo credit to Monica Harmsen
Photo credit to Monica Harmsen

Tony Lakey, former president of the University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, and Agnostics (MU SASHA), has a post up at Columbia Faith and Values (FAVS) about the CFI conference I went to last month. Tony shared similar feelings, and he touches on a few of the points I discussed in my talk (in fact it more or less serves as a nice summary):

When Muslim extremists sent death threats to the writers of South Park over their depiction of Muhammad, students and figureheads in the secular movement celebrated an event like “Draw Muhammad Day,” where students chalked images of Muhammad around their campus. Though the event was ostensibly intended to display the need for freedom to dissent, it effectively targeted the minority Muslim communities on campuses – students who had nothing to do with death threats and violence perpetrated against dissenters.

This year, such events were called out as an example of poor criticism. Vlad Chituc, a blogger at NonProphet Status, was part of a panel on effective religious criticism, and he cautioned us not to use moderate Muslims – an already marginalized religious minority – as a convenient proxy for the fundamentalists that are the proper targets of our criticism. Such behavior “punches down,” effectively bolstering ourselves at the expense of targeting the proverbial “little guy.” Instead, we should act for social progress by “punching up” to attack oppressive systems.

I encourage you to read the whole post here. 

February 17, 2011

Today is my first guest post as a regular contributor to NonProphet Status. My name is Nico Lang, and I’ve previously written for Chris on such topics as Everybody Draw Muhammad Day and social divides between religious and queer people.  I was honored to be asked to come aboard NonProphet Status and am proud to share as my first piece for the blog an article also featured on the Washington Post’s Faith Divide. The protests in Egypt inspired me to write a piece on using media as tool for Muslim engagement in America, looking at the impact of “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World” in starting dialogues on black issues. Here we go:

 

 

 

In middle school, I learned first-hand the ways that media diplomacy can profoundly affect our lives. Growing up queer in a community hostile to difference, watching “Will and Grace” every week with my NASCAR-worshipping stepfather ended up being a formative part of my adolescence.  Upon living, laughing and loving with these stereotypes of LGBT persons, my stepfather would beam with admiration about the “gay guy” he worked with, priding his ability to tolerate people different from himself.

Although I may not have known it at the time, this was the first moment that I got to dream bigger and imagine a society where my sexuality was accepted rather than excoriated.  These dialogues made my struggle to assert my identity one worth fighting for.  This would have been impossible unless the television brought people like me into my living room.

As Egypt dreams bigger, this moment is a challenge to Americans that support Egyptian democracy, a challenge to use that cultural diplomacy to create a better society for Muslims at home.  Last month, Katie Couric looked at America’s Muslim problem and offered her own remedy.  Her idea was simple enough.  To help combat Islamophobia, Couric suggested a “Muslim ‘Cosby Show.’”

For the most part, her input went from soundly attacked to flatly ignored.

However, some Muslim bloggers are ardently defending Couric.  In a recent article, Los Angeles Times writer Firoozeh Dumas recalled the effects that watching “The Brady Bunch” had on her childhood.  As a 7-year-old immigrant from Iran, watching the Bradys live, laugh and love on television was formative in breaking down her preexisting prejudices against American families.

And as Couric suggested, the Huxtables had a similar effect on American households during the 1980s, many of which had never truly gotten to know a black family.  Although “The Cosby Show” was an incredibly problematic representation of blacks in America, we must not forget that the Huxtables opened the door for much more telling depictions of black life.

Before the Huxtables came into our living rooms, the only TV blacks Americans knew were folks like Amos, Andy or Aunt Jemima.  However, just three years after the launch of “The Cosby Show,” its spinoff, “A Different World,” brought audiences to the historically black Hillman College, a fictional institution modeled after Howard University.

For its first four seasons, “A Different World” ranked as one of the top five most-watched television shows in America.  During this run, the program tackled such hot-button issues as the Rodney King riots.  In the culturally segregated 1980’s, watching “A Different World” was a way for Americans to enter into dialogue on black issues at a crucial time for the black community.

We are living in a moment where the varied medias of our era give us the extraordinary opportunity to start conversations and unite people on a limitless scale.  On Friday, Egypt proved it can be better together, but their nation cannot prove it alone.  If we are to continue to stand with them, we can only do that by standing up for our Muslims at home and by inviting their families into our living rooms each week.

We all have the power to dream of a different world.  Sometimes that starts by turning on our televisions.

Nico Lang is an intern at Interfaith Youth Core and a senior at DePaul University.  Lang co-founded the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and is the Change Coordinator for LGBT Change’s The Faith Project.

January 17, 2011

Today’s guest post is a submission from Nico Lang, a regular NPS contributor. An intern at the Interfaith Youth Core and a senior at DePaul University, Lang co-founded the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and is head of campus outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. His previous writing for NPS includes”Through Common Struggle, Hope,” “Talking the ‘Hereafter’ With Atheists and Believer,” as well as posts on his personal journey as a queer agnostic interested in interfaith workabout Park51 and the state of American dialogue and on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.”

On January 8th, I found out about the shooting of Representative Giffords the same way that most millenials probably did: through a Facebook status update.

At a sharp 3:00 P.M., Cormac Molloy was “shocked that someone shot rep. giffords!”

Initially, I sat unfazed, as the constant barrage of celebrity and semi-celebrity Facebook eulogies can leave even the most dedicated techie in a stupor. I didn’t know whom Giffords was, who shot her or what state she represented, and so I let the moment pass me by with a simple refresh.

However, what my mini-feed would soon explain was that on that very morning, a man by the name of Jared Loughner shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. As a Congresswoman, Giffords was many things: the fair-skinned wife of an astronaut, a Democratic holdout in an increasingly conservative state, and, most unfortunately, the object of a deranged man’s obsession.

Five were slain that day by Jared Loughner and two injured, and years from now, none of us will remember where we were when we heard the world was looking for answers. If we ask others about the events that took place that day, what will matter was how you followed the tragedy and what outlets you listened to.

Just hours later, as the world attempted to put the pieces together, we began to assign blame based on scattered details of a murderer’s life, the political affiliations of those involved or a misbegotten map that placed crosshairs over her district.

For the Fox News inclined, Jared Loughner was a “radical leftist.” However, the left saw him as a mobilized Tea Partier, and many of my friends labeled Giffords a victim of Sarah Palin’s violent rhetoric. For them, Giffords quickly became just another casualty in an increasingly toxic American political culture.

Through times of turmoil, many people look to the Seven Stages of Grief for guidance, which can be a telling way to define our trauma. In coping with the violence that erupted in Arizona, Americans quickly moved to that third stage, a place of anger. However, if we as a people desire to move from our initial shock to that final stage of hope, we must do much more than what the next stage asks of us, which is to simply reflect.

We must fully examine the state of our national anger.

Oddly enough, this is exactly what I was doing when I found out about the Giffords attack. When the bullets struck, I was researching the birther movement, a political substratum comprised of individuals who believe that Obama was not born in America, despite evidence to the contrary. For the unfamiliar, many of these citizens likewise resolutely believe that Obama is a Socialist, Hitler, the anti-Christ or any combination of the three.

In researching the role that such opinions might play in their lives, I concluded that such mechanisms allowed birthers and their ideological cousins to deal with the trauma of the 2008 elections. I found a people not only venting on message boards, but I also saw them coping with the fear of a president and an America that no longer looked they did. Out of this chaos, they constructed meaning. They made someone responsible. They found someone to hate.

Although a recent Time article suggested that we are most likely to believe negative information about others when they are of another race or religion, the problem runs deeper than that. When I hear that an online petition is “circulating to [indict] former Alaska governor Sarah Palin for incitement to violence,” I know that such mourners are seeking more than answers or resolution.

They are seeking blood.

At this time of crisis, we should ask questions about the state of America today, but making our neighbors into sworn enemies will never us help to comfort the grieving or make our nation stronger. After September 11th, the Fort Hood massacre, and the Park51 controversy, demonizing Muslims didn’t make us any safer and likely alienated potential allies and radicalized potential friends. Thus, if we continue to make America into a nation divided, we will likely incite the very extremist violence many seem to believe this tragedy is a symbol of.

On his Monday broadcast, Jon Stewart instead asked Americans to use this moment as an opportunity to envision a better world, one not defined by the hatred and name-calling that defined our nation over the past week. We will never know what demons drove Jared Loughner to pull the trigger that morning, but we cannot heal by continuing to invest in our own partisan phantoms.

As a nation, we have the ability to tear down the divides that ail us, and at a time when ideologies drive us apart, we must remember to live the example of Dorothy Day, the immortal founder of the Catholic Worker. On the subject of political divides, the once Communist Day famously remarked that she gave up the revolution because it kept her from loving her neighbor. According to her, the more meaningful challenge was instead how to bring out a revolution of the heart.

Recently, reports indicate that Gabrielle Gifford finally opened her eyes. Let us hope that our grief-blinded country can soon do the same.

NickNico Lang is the Communications Intern for Interfaith Youth Core and a Senior in International Studies at DePaul University. Nico just started up DePaul’s first film club, the DePaul A.V. Club, and represents the lone agnostic among 2010-2011′s Vincent and Louise House residents, who represent DePaul’s Catholic intentional living and social justice community. He is also the co-founder of the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance, an initiative between Chicago’s LGBT campus groups; a writer for the DePaulia newspaper; and head of Campus Outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. Occassionally, Nico sleeps.

December 6, 2010

Today’s guest post is a submission from Nico Lang, a regular NPS contributor. An intern at Interfaith Youth Core and a senior at DePaul University, Lang co-founded the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and is head of campus outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. His previous writing for NPS includes “Talking the ‘Hereafter’ With Atheists and Believer,” as well as posts on his personal journey as a queer agnostic interested in interfaith workabout Park51 and the state of American dialogue and  on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.”

When looking back over the year that was 2010, I am constantly bombarded with this phrase from media analysts, news commentators and interests on all sides of the spectrum.  As just about anyone with a television knows, anti-Muslim and anti-gay hate were notable presences in the final half of our calendar year.  “Bullying” became the buzzword du jour, as the media scrambled to respond to an epidemic of LGBT suicides, most notably epitomized by the Tyler Clementi scandal.

However, rather than seeing bullying as uniquely targeting the queer community and queer youth, shouldn’t we also be using it to describe what’s happening to American Muslims?  For me, this year showed that homophobia and Islamophobia are not so thinly divided, that hate binds us all.

In the Muslim case, we started out the year by drawing blasphemous depictions of the Prophet of Islam.  Then Fox News told us “they were building a Mosque on Ground Zero,” and even that “liberal elite” New York Times scrambledto interview people who felt like that gosh darned “Mosque” didn’t belong there.  Now, Newt Gingrich wants to make America safe from Shariah law and, by extension, from Muslims.

Ask yourself: Is this not bullying?

Of course, it is.  This was the year of mid-term elections so bullying and demonizing minorities once again became incredibly profitable for the Right, notably the Pam Gellers and Tea Partiers of America.  Islamophobia wasn’t just spreading across the country.  Groups with an interest reanointing Islam the Supreme Evil had to be spreading it.

Gays understand this phenomenon well, especially those that lived through the 2004 elections.  When a right-wing group wants to drum up support for their platform, that wily homosexual agenda acts as a simple scapegoat.  Although linking Tinkie Winkie’s purse to 9/11 and the downfall of America may a relic of the past, the industry of homophobia is alive and well.  Just ask Tony Perkins, the American Family Association or Sarah Palin’s daughter.

Although FBI data showed that actual hate crimes are decreasing, gays still remain the most retaliated againstminority group in the country, joined by Jews and, yes, Muslims.  Analysts warn that gay rights victories may increase the amount of anti-gay violence across America, just as increased Muslim visibility after Park51 led to unspeakable acts of hate.  After events like stabbing of a Muslim cab driver in New York, many Muslims stated that they had never been so scared to live in America.

Gallup data further proved that their fear is justified.  A majority of Americans now hold an unfavorable view of Islam, and more than a quarter identify as extremely prejudiced against the religion.

At a time when a majority of Americans likewise still believe that homosexuality is a sin, activists like Sherry Wolf believe that our struggles make gays and Muslims natural allies.  Although we surely cannot excuse the anti-gay policies of fundamentalist Islamic countries like Iran, this in no way represents all or even most Muslims, and Wolf states that we must look past these divides to find common ground.  Doing so is crucially important for “any oppressed people, whether…black, LGBT [or] immigrant” to fight for equality for all.

Last Spring, a dialogue between notable Chicago Muslims, like Hind Makki of the Interfaith Youth Core, and members of the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago (SHAC) proved that we can find the common language to be able to articulate our shared struggles.  Discussing the Everybody Draw Muhammad Day controversy, the event’s Muslims and LGBTQA members of SHAC found that our perspectives were motivated by the same thing: a need to feel safe and secure in our communities.

Recently, Hind Makki put it even more succinctly.  Recently, Makki devised a Twitter hash tag around the topic of “Gays and Muslims Have a Lot in Common,” and the response in the affirmative has been incredible.

As a queer activist and intern at Interfaith Youth Core, I find commonality in the struggles of Muslim allies like Hind, who chooses to wear the headscarf at a time when one simple expression of her core identity is sadly unpopular. Although choosing to lead my life as an out queer man led to some harassment and hatred, I can only imagine what life is like for Hind’s queer co-religionists.

Whether Muslim, queer or queer and Muslim, all of us just want to be true to our selves and to be respected for exactly who those people are.  We want to live in a society where we aren’t wedge issues, where we have the ability to create the homes, the families and the communities we so badly want.

What this year has shown us is that we must work together to build them.

This post was originally featured on The New Gay.

NickNico Lang is the Communications Intern for Interfaith Youth Core and a Senior in International Studies at DePaul University. Nico just started up DePaul’s first film club, the DePaul A.V. Club, and represents the lone agnostic among 2010-2011′s Vincent and Louise House residents, who represent DePaul’s Catholic intentional living and social justice community. He is also the co-founder of the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance, an initiative between Chicago’s LGBT campus groups; a writer for the DePaulia newspaper; and head of Campus Outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. Occassionally, Nico sleeps.

November 17, 2010

Today’s guest blogger is Nicholas Lang, an intern at Interfaith Youth Core and a senior at DePaul University. Lang co-founded the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and is head of campus outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. He’s previously written for NonProphet Status about his personal journey as a queer agnostic interested in interfaith workabout Park51 and the state of American dialogue and  on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Without further ado:

A couple weeks ago, I attended the launch of the Faith Project with my friend, Miranda. We sat in the back, in close proximity to the tasty treats, and listened to amazing religious people talk about how their backgrounds inspire them to fight for justice and equality for all. Although we stood in solidarity with these interfaith activists, Ms. Hovemeyer and I came from a far different perspective than our religious compatriots did. We both identify as agnostics, and together, we help make up the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago.

And as I expected, one puzzled audience member interrogated us as to our involvement in interfaith. As an agnostic passionate about work erroneously perceived as only involving religious people, I get questions like his all the time: Why do you care about religious work?

And another personal favorite: Aren’t you guys against religion?

A: We’re not.

 

In fact, Miranda and I both label ourselves as People of Faith, although that faith happens to be an indefinite one. As a Humanist with a Unitarian Universalist background, Miranda’s tradition taught that religions share more commonality than difference. In her understanding, this overlap has the power to unite disparate communities.

Working both in interfaith and within the queer community showed me that we have a duty to build these bridges ourselves. The only way to create tolerance and religious plurality in society is by actively working toward it. I might not have a label to describe what tradition I ascribe to, but I believe in the power of people.

I believe in us.

At an interfaith event that Miranda and I helped moderate last week, we once again stood surrounded by religious people. Organized by the DePaul A.V. Club and DePaul Interfaith, this “Dinner and a Movie with Interfaith” utilized art as dialogue to start a discussion around religious difference. Our screening of the Clint Eastwood film “Hereafter” drew around 50 guests, from an incredible diversity of campus religious groups. Among many others, I stood with Protestants from DePaul InterVarsity, Catholics from University Ministry, Muslims from DePaul’s UMMA organization.

But more importantly, non-religious people joined us at the forefront of this discussion. That evening, we welcomed guests from the DePaul Alliance for Free Thought, our university’s organization for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers. Also known as DAFT, the group is just over a year old and new to interfaith dialogue on campus. The evening’s discussion centered on perspectives on life and the afterlife, and in joining the conversation, I sensed a lot of hurt and resentment from my non-religious friends. As an agnostic, I understood exactly where they were coming from.

I would be lying to you if I told you that religion is always good, that faith always acts as a tool for empowerment. Scott, the evening’s most vocal DAFT member, lamented the damage that religion can inflict when he pointed out that any discussion of a religious afterlife meant little to him. As a gay man, he believed his Catholic background had already condemned him to Hell.

However, something incredible can happen when religion does help people to heal the divides that ail them. Although many of us disagreed about what happens to us when we die, we found out that the value our traditions place on death tells us each something about how to live. For many agnostics and atheists, nothing awaits us after our death, and this reality acts as a powerful incentive to live life to its fullest now. Our school’s UMMA representatives discussed the role of our others in keeping the memory of the departed alive after they die. According to their tradition, we spiritually live on in those we impact in our lifetime.

Whether we were discussing Heaven or a “fluffy Soul Cloud in the sky,” we were articulating the same needs in our lives: the need for purpose, for community, for connectedness. We all desired to find something, whether in this life or this next.

All of us have a role in creating conversations in our lives that work towards creating common ground. At the end of the discussion, Scott asked if those around him felt that all of us could truly be friends, despite our stark ideological divides. The room resoundingly answered yes.

At moments like these, I know that non-religious folks belong in the interfaith movement. If faith is to unite build bridges across faith lines, skeptics have a key role in ensuring that religion acts as a force for good in the world. Although this was not the case when he began working in interfaith, Huffington Post columnist Chris Stedman recently mentioned that we agnostics and atheists are now “hard to miss.” That’s because we have a unique perspective that is increasingly impossible to ignore, even if what we bring to the table can sometimes be difficult to talk about.

And if last week’s event showed anything, there’s another reason that today’s non-religious folks stand out in interfaith work:

We’re helping lead it.

This post originally appeared on the Washington Post Faith Divide.

NickNicholas Lang is the Communications Intern for Interfaith Youth Core and a Senior in International Studies at DePaul University. Nick just started up DePaul’s first film club, the DePaul A.V. Club, and represents the lone agnostic among 2010-2011′s Vincent and Louise House residents, who represent DePaul’s Catholic intentional living and social justice community. He is also the co-founder of the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance, an initiative between Chicago’s LGBT campus groups; a writer for the DePaulia newspaper; and head of Campus Outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. Occassionally, Nick sleeps.

November 8, 2010

Today’s guest post in our ongoing series of guest contributors comes once more from Nicholas Lang, who previously submitted guest pieces considering Park51 and the state of American dialogue and reflecting on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Today’s piece is a personal triumph; searing, sobering, and terribly relevant. There’s really nothing more that I can say about it, besides the fact that you must read it. Seriously. Read it:

When I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I looked into the face of a stranger. I didn’t know his middle name or what he was really like, but when I heard that he had leapt off of a bridge to take his own life, I cried. When I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I saw that many commentators and bloggers were confused by this sudden suicide, said that they couldn’t fathom the incredible loneliness that leads to such a drastic action.

When I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I cried because I did understand. I cried because America is full of Tyler Clementis. I cried because I was Tyler Clementi.

When I heard about Tyler Clementi for the first time, I thought about the first time I pondered committing suicide.

It was 7th grade; I was in gym class, wearing shorts ten sizes too big for me and a thick gold chain with a cross at the end. Thinking about suicide was surprisingly easy.  I knew exactly which pills I would take.  I knew what my body would look like when my grandmother discovered it in the morning. I knew the words I would write to my family, knew I would take the longing looks I sent to a certain male classmate with me to my grave. I couldn’t name my feelings, but I knew I wasn’t like everyone else. I knew I wanted to be the same, to cover up the Agatha Christie books I read in secret, to feign interest in the bland rap songs the other students were blaring.

And if I couldn’t minimize my difference, I would execute it.

Throughout high school, I would devise a number of ways to kill myself, some melodramatic, others rather macabre; my preferred method involved a simple revolver to the head in my stepfather’s dilapidated pick-up truck. I even made it into a favorite pastime, finding myself surprisingly adept at doodling my Rube Goldergesque strategies in my notebooks. For me, suicide was the only way to sublimate the secrets I couldn’t share, to minimize the hurt of having my backpack thrown in a garbage can, to deafen the “gay jokes” of a father who had to know what he was doing to his oldest son.

When I came out in my Very Southern Baptist church at sixteen, a few of my fellow churchgoers were wildly supportive: one boasted that he had been fired from his job at a car wash because of the HRC Equality Symbol that rested proudly on his windshield. However, I was largely met with indifference or scorn, and the week after my sexuality’s unveiling, the subject of Sunday’s sermon was something akin to “San Francisco: How the 21st Century Sodom and Gomorrah is Destroying Your Family.” Although all sinners were in the hands of an angry God, the head pastor sat me down that day to explain to me that God reserved his most special brimstone for us “flamers.” In particular, God was waiting for me specifically, waiting to “cut me down” like a Johnny Cash song.  God may have been loving and forgiving for normal folks, but He doomed gays to a life of ostracizion and depression.

In conclusion, my pastor sent me away with a simple homework assignment: change. He asked me to read those Bible passages about my “abomination” and gave me some helpful anti-pornography literature. With a little help from Jesus’ friends in the publishing industry, I was to turn from a sinner into a winner.

After that day, I never went back.

In my case, and in many other cases, religion was used as a tool to divide us, a way to mark “others.” For extremist Salafi Muslims, labeling fellow Muslims as “kafirs,” which translates to apostates or non-believers, allows these radicals to wage violent jihad against their own people.  In my case, labeling me a sinner allowed my co-religionists to wage spiritual violence against me, to rhetorically put me to death. I once went to a service where the pastor told us that God loved all of His weeds, but I wondered why I was labeled a “weed.” Why was my difference so pejorative, so ugly? Why was my difference always in need of heavenly forgiveness?  Everyone else seemed to agree that weeds like me needed to exterminated, that AIDS was God’s lawnmower. They were so busy telling me to die that I never got around to wondering about how to live.

Years of Pat Robertson condemning me to Hell, Jerry Falwell condemning me to Hell, my grandmother condemning me to Hell only served to further support their argument. When I read about Anita Bryant telling good, God-fearing Americans that they had to “Save the Nation” from people like me, I understand that it’s our culture that teaches LGBT kids to hate themselves. How can we truly speak of change in our society when Focus on the Family ads still proclaim to be saving Americans from us, when Bush’s outspoken opposition to gay marriage largely got him elected in 2004? We uphold the loneliness of LGBT kids when we tell them that their love doesn’t belong in this church, their love can’t go to this prom, their love isn’t legal in this state.

In his seminal book, “Acts of Faith,” Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel speaks of a “Faith Divide” that permeates today’s society, a religious intolerance that leads people of separate faiths to blow each other up. To borrow from Mr. Patel, what I see in the midst of the LGBT suicide epidemic is a Gay Divide:  One which arms good Christians, good Jews, good Muslims to destroy people they don’t know. In a letter published in the Salt LakeTribune, William Germain writes that recent events show a growing “divide in the way we treat each other, whether with religion, race, sex or politics. We have become a people of hate…It’s almost like we’re fighting a bunch of civil wars, and for no reason.”

In an article for the Washington Post, columnist Mitchell Gold likewise finds that these divides can “have deadly consequences. Gay youth who are rejected or ostracized by their families are at high risk of depression, substance abuse, HIV infection, and dropping out of school. They are also at least four times more likely than other youth to commit suicide. For gay youth who are sent to a therapist who tries to change their sexual orientation, that risk is even higher. Let me emphasize, it is not their being gay that puts them at risk but rather how they are treated by their parents and clergy.” Gold’s column was in response to recent remarks by media demagogue Tony Perkins, who has used the “bullying” controversy to publicly insist that it’s not society’s intolerance that leads to the suicide of kids like Tyler. Perkins affirms that what drives them to suicide is an understanding of their own immorality.

Although people like Tony Perkins, and the many others like him, many be on the front lines of this conflict, Gold seems to insist that an entire system of religious teaching and preaching is implicit in perpetuating the Gay Divide. Gold writes, During my visits with people of faith in all parts of the country, I have spoken with Evangelicals, Catholics, Protestants and Jews who have been taught that homosexuality is immoral and wrong. Almost invariably, they are surprised and concerned when they hear about the harms caused by those teachings. Many have told me they had not fully considered the impact on a gay young person of being told that he is sinful and abnormal, or that he will be cut off from God’s love unless he can do the impossible and change who he is.”

Certainly, the members of my church never stopped to consider what the effect that their condemnation would have on me, the years of psychological damage that thinking God didn’t, couldn’t possibly, love you would cause. I spent years hating God because of the bigotry of one man, and I was lucky that such sentiments didn’t have the same ultimate effect on me that it had on Tyler. Although I am no longer at the point where I call myself a believer, I know what my travails made me believe in: the power of communities to heal. In high school, I didn’t have God, but I had friends to lift me up, friends who understood what being an outcast was like.  I had the guidance of a history teacher, who was deterred from taking his own life by the kindness of a complete stranger. These allies were living proof of Dan Savage’s assertation that “It Gets Better.”

And I’m here to tell you: it does get better. I don’t believe in a God, but as a member of theVincent and Louise House, which is DePaul’s Catholic intentional living community, I have nine faithful housemates that I do believe in. As a queer man, I believe in the power of allies like these to help heal the hurt we that we share, to build bridges across social divides. At a recent DePaul vigil to honor the number of LGBT youths who have taken their lives in recent months, a mother from PFLAG came to talk about her unfailing support for her gay son, and another speaker related that their mother’s support in a time of crisis saved their life. But the incredible diversity of attendees showed that this mantle has been taken up by more than just our mothers. In the crowd, I saw teachers, students, friends and lovers standing together, people committed to a better world, committed to making America a safer place for our “weeds” to grow in.

Just as importantly, I stand in solidarity with people of faith committed to speaking about intolerance and calling for change.  Following these controversies, religious leaders like Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach preached understanding and tolerance, wrote that our congregations have a place for all people, regardless of sexuality.  But what really inspires me are the people who have come together to take action towards building a culture where people of faith and LGBT people are not seen as diametrically opposed. An ideological cousin to the “It Gets Better” project, the “Faith Gets Better” campaign, an initiative by Faith in Public Life, argues that hatred and bigotry divide us, not religion. These courageous religious folks — some queer, some allies — show us that religion can be a force for good in this conflict.

The “queer people of faith” involved in LGBT Change’s The Faith Project likewise testify to the fact that religion does have the power to affirm people of all backgrounds and sexualities. But at the initiative’s launch on Oct. 20, the evening’s speakers preached a far more important message: faith cannot get better all on its own. If we want a world where religion unites rather than divides, where LGBT kids are safe in their own communities, we have to build it.

As an intern for Interfaith Youth Core, we recently launched the Better Together campaign, where we are asking people a similar question: “What If?” What world could we build if “we took action together?” I already know what this world could look like. I see it every day when people come together to dialogue around difference, when people decide that we are better than inherited hatreds.  I see it in the faces of my ever-loving brothers, who never had to work to “accept me” for who I am, whose support and solidarity was as easy as an embrace. I look in their eyes and know that this better world is there, waiting for us to fight for it.

We all have a role in building a society where we love past difference: where we teach our children not to hate each other, where we teach adults not to hate each other, where we are not alone. To be Better Together, all it takes is to be an ally to someone. So, all of you reading this — people of faith, people of no faith — tell someone today that you love them for exactly who they are. Tell them that they don’t need to die for you to stand in solidarity with them. Rather than waiting until it’s too late to honor a loved one, hold up a candle for them today. Taking action now might save a life.

It saved mine.

This post originally appeared on DePaul Interfaith and was refeatured on NonProphet Status at the author’s request.

NickNicholas Lang is the Communications Intern for Interfaith Youth Core and a Senior in International Studies at DePaul University. Nick just started up DePaul’s first film club, the DePaul A.V. Club, and represents the lone agnostic among 2010-2011′s Vincent and Louise House residents, who represent DePaul’s Catholic intentional living and social justice community. He is also the co-founder of the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance, an initiative between Chicago’s LGBT campus groups; a writer for the DePaulia newspaper; and head of Campus Outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. Occassionally, Nick sleeps.


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