I know that people are frightened of “the other”, and I know that, since at least September 11, 2001, primary alien number one for the west has been Islam. But I am still astounded by the racism (or religionism, as the case may be …) that is directed towards Muslims by people in North America and Europe.
Last week, I read an article about a Michigan town that has put in a bid to have the Guantanamo detainees housed in their empty jail. The fact that this plan to save the town from economic ruin is controversial is not, in and of itself, surprising. There’s always going to be NIMBYism associated with prisons. What is surprising, though, is some of the rhetoric coming from the townspeople who oppose the plan. Regarding the jail’s former inmates – murderers and rapists – one of the locals is quoted as saying: “well at least they're human, they're just like you and I, American citizens.” In other words, what dehumanizes terrorists and “enemy combatants” is not their acts of violence, but their foreignness.
Next on this week’s anti-Islam hit-list is the recent Swiss referendum to ban minarets on mosques. What we’re talking about here is an architectural feature that identifies mosques as, well, mosques. According to my trusty sources at wikipedia, the minaret is used for the call to prayer. But that is not the case in Switzerland, so what we’re really talking about is a physical identification of a building as a mosque. The ban is weird for several reasons: there were only 4 mosques in Switzerland; and there apparently aren’t problems with Islamic militancy there. The purported reason behind the ban is pure fear-mongering: the argument is that the minaret is “the thin of the wedge” of allowing Islam to take a foothold in Switzerland, and will lead to covered women, sharia law, etc etc. And, despite the strong opposition to the ban by many Swiss leaders, the public bought it – voting 57% in favour of the ban.
One of the things that strikes me about both of these reactions to the stranger in our midst is that they are irrational. Justifying that some anti-social killers are “human” because they come from the same place as you, while others aren’t, because they don’t, doesn’t make any sense. Neither does restricting the practice of a religious freedom that is not causing anyone harm. And so the question is, why? Is it because people need a “them” so there can be an “us”? Is it because the thought of seeking commonalities, rather than focusing on differences, is somehow a threat to our own identities? Or maybe it’s just because these people don’t know any Muslims, and it’s easy to dehumanize when you are considering a concept, rather than actual people. Whatever the cause, this conflict between civilizations, or whatever it is, is never going to end, as long as people on both sides react to “them” with visceral fear, rather than reason.