The email subject line asked the question “This is America?” So, intrigued, I clicked for the message to come on screen. Several photos came up, and below them the wildly out-of-context warning, “The further away from God we go as a nation, The closer evil will come to us.”
Well yes, this is America, and the images showed men praying at the beginning of New York’s annual Muslim Day. And thereby hangs my tale.
Some people seem to be utterly incensed that such scenes can be witnessed in America. Yet parades have long been adopted as a way of celebrating a number of the United States’ many cultures. New York regularly offers similar street space to the Irish, Germans, Brazilians, Puerto Ricans, Romanians, Latinos, the Sons of Italy, Gay Pride, and other such sectors of our nation’s richly diverse population. This photograph, and similar images of Muslim people praying in the streets, an unusual but hardly an un-American practice, have been used repeatedly to illustrate abusive talk that vilifies and spreads fear of Muslims, penned by those who hope to make such tactics “go viral.”
This year’s New York Muslim Day begins with prayer at 12:30 on Sunday, September 14, at the corner of 38th Street and Madison Avenue. And so this is the time that these photos and their tired but inflammatory messages are sent in greater numbers into the internet ether, seeking out anxiety-prone readers. One version featured this outright lie under the photo above: “This is an accurate picture of every Friday afternoon in several locations throughout NYC where there are mosques with a large number of Muslims that cannot fit into the mosque.” It concludes, “they are claiming America & Canada for Allah. . . It’s time to make some changes people!” Then, in capital letters, “Please send this to every Canadian and American you know!!!!”
Truth-seeking organizations, including Snopes, attempt to remove the sting of such propaganda by offering unbiased explanations, but it continues nevertheless.
My particular copy of the mass-mailed letter started, including blaring capitals: “Not only London, Paris and Barcelona . . . This is in NYC on Madison Ave., not in France or the Middle East . . . FRIGHTENING SITUATION – OBAMA IS CHANGING THE FACE OF THE USA.” The Muslim Day parades started in 1985, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, but the statement is merely another lie, a non-sequitur, or at least a scrap of deliberately misleading political innuendo. There are more significant reasons to be concerned about this sort of propaganda.
Let’s remember a couple of key pieces of information. First, freedom of religion is a constitutionally guaranteed right that is provided in the religion clauses of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Second, the Constitution does not designate the United States a Christian nation. If we feel threatened by Islam, we should learn more about it (as should I), and for that matter the moderate mosques should be more outgoing in explaining their faith – though every day this becomes more difficult for them. They are being driven into increasing seclusion by the hideous behavior of Middle Eastern extremists and the fear/anger their behavior is causing among Westerners and others. It is a dangerous fact that, as we have seen through history, fear and anger provide rich opportunities for scaremongers and social manipulators who thrive on their own brands of evil.
The text of the email is clumsily anti-Islam and ridiculously hyperbolic. Celebrations such as this are not against the law and permits to stage them are issued by municipalities. Sure there is reason for concern, especially at a time when Islam is in such turmoil, but not for panic. Though Muslim Day is promoted as a peaceful getting-to-know-you affair, which would be a good thing, anti-American declarations have at times been voiced by a few paraders. Incidentally if I were in one of the security agencies I would be glad to have the opportunity to have a flytrap that would help identify those who disparage and may even favor the overthrow of the American republic.
That said, we need to do our best to support Muslims of moderation. About.com provides a very basic but helpful primer to start learning about this faith. Islam is not an evil religion as suggested in the first two lines of the diatribe that appeared yesterday on my computer monitor; rather, Muslim communities have fragmented into many splinters, some of which war bitterly against each other, some of which commit or support acts that are horrifying to members of their own faith as well as non-Muslims of the industrialized world. It would be good if Americans could get to know the moderate Muslims in their communities, socialize, and learn at least the basics of their faith, which springs from the same roots as the Christian and Jewish faiths but which has so many revisionist offshoots. If Moslems are antagonistic or militantly hostile to Western tradition they should be reported; if not, they ideally will be accepted as friends. And they will become more comfortable and more contributive Americans.
It’s interesting and instructive to reflect on how aware present-day Muslims are of the crusades, which peaked in 1099 when European warriors overwhelmed Jerusalem and slaughtered everyone they could find inside, regardless of race, religion, age, or sex. In his historiography of the crusades, Giles Constable reminds us that Voltaire called the crusaders “adventurers and brigands who were moved by ‘the thirst for brigandage’ and for Edward Gibbon their principle was ‘a savage fanaticism,’ though he expressed some grudging admiration for their spirit and achievements.”
These comments remind me of today’s self-named Islamic State, which has the characteristics mentioned by Voltaire and Gibbon and is moved by religious forces (though the crusaders did not seek converts), re-kindled in the 21st century. The general threat posed by this young movement with its Halloween uniforms, accelerated to an alarming extent by its capture of Mosul, has even prompted nearby Iran to suggest that it may wish to cooperate with the US in dealing with a mutual foe.
The cross implanted in the word crusader means nothing to modern Europeans. But Middle Easterners, encouraged by President George W. Bush’s misspoken call for a crusade soon after 9/11, have a different take on it. They proudly remember Saladin’s creation of an independent sultanate and his victories over the crusaders in the late 12th century. Indeed, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president of Syria, all styled themselves after the Kurdish Saladin. Some will remember Lord Allenby’s seizure of Jerusalem after the subjugation of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, in 1917; all will remember that the current map of the region was marked out three years later by the League of Nations; the 1948 creation of Israel within their midst by the United Nations provided an increasingly problematic new target for regional hatred. The greatest tragedy is that the youth of the stricken Islamic lands will never forget these blighted years. They will carry its psychological and social scars for generations, along with the belief that the United States and its close allies greatly worsened, and did not not improve, living conditions in the Middle East.
The Islamic culture has a very long memory. Armed with this, its people have reason to be unhappy about their history and resentful of their present condition. It seems to me that when we come across people who honor Western democracy while following the Koran, we should be ready to offer friendship and fellowship.
Finally, just for the record, like the anonymous writer of the anti-Muslim propaganda mentioned at the beginning of this article, I regret the disappearance of Christmas scenes from U.S. public buildings. It’s irrational for me to feel that way, and confusing since I believe strongly in (nonviolent, nondestructive) freedom of expression, art appreciation, and the separation of church and state. But the world has changed, and continues to change. I’ll get along with the change. We all will. But those who bemoan or decry the influx of immigrants, whether Arabs or, say, Baltic peoples, are hindrances to the new America that is always evolving, bringing qualities that we don’t at first understand as well as those that will immediately benefit our evolving culture.
There you have my rant for the day. Amazing how a shard of propaganda can get the writing juices flowing. It’s hard to believe that in my last ruminations on the Middle East, on February 9, 2011, President Hosni Mubarak was still in charge of Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya, and Bashar al-Assad was our friend in Syria. Which nations would topple next? “What would be the outcome if there were a domino effect in the Mahgreb and Middle East as there was in eastern Europe?” I asked back in 2011. And who would pay the bills? Now we have the inkling of an answer and the region is racked with the sharp pains of expanding, chaotic revolution and the fear of what might happen next.