Robert Salaam of the blog The American Muslim(yes there are two blogs by that name and both are excellent) asks an interesting question that should be raised in light of the recent terrorist bombings in Boston. His question is the media responsible for some of the anti-Islamic backlash directed towards Muslims and Muslim organizations and places of worship. Take a look at a brief excerpt
What caused a 52-year-old former Marine to leave his home in Indiana and drive for 2 hours to a Mosque in Ohio, with the intention to burn it down? According to Randy Linn, it was television’s constant portrayal of Muslims as wanting to do nothing more than kill Americans. After some heavy drinking, Linn made his way to the Mosque, carrying a firearm. He broke in and started the fire. He went room to room presumably to do God only knows what. Fortunately no one was at the Mosque at the time. Also fortunately, the sprinkler system kicked in and extinguished the flames. Randy Linn was later caught after being identified in surveillance photos.
In court, when asked whether he thought all Muslims were terrorists, Linn responded in affirmation.
As a Muslim and former Marine, this hate crime disturbs me. It disturbs me not so much because Randy Linn—by his own actions and admissions—betrayed that sacred trust and dedication to the values we Marines hold so dear. Instead, it disturbs me because his reasoning behind the betrayal of not only our Marine Corps values, but also the boundaries of common decency and citizenry.
It’s telling and worth noting that Randy Linn, like many others who use terrorism as means of vengeance against Muslims, often cite the Media as a major source in the influence of how they perceive members of the Islamic faith. Some anti-Muslim terrorists like Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 people because of his anti-Muslim beliefs, go so as far as quoting and identifying popular anti-Muslim antagonists by name in their writings such as Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, Daniel Pipes, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Geert Wilders, and many others as the inspiration behind their beliefs. Each of these individuals has found television, print, and political success with their extremist ideologies.
Salaam’s point is a good and valid one. Muslims are always on the defensive, pushed to deny and condemn even the slightest indiscretion made by any Muslim anywhere in the world. Even if the condemnation is accepted it rarely finds any traction in major media, and even more rarely are Muslims given a platform to weigh in on matters that affect the national conscience. However, people with very definite patterns of hate speech and really incendiary rhetoric that borders on hysteria, designed to take the country over the edge to brink of civil war, are given repeated voice in media to promote division among Americans which in the case outlined above drives people to violence. Yet they are not held responsible for this invisible crime and are given a “pass” by the media….nay, some would say an audience. Such is the hypocrisy of American politics and news reporting; be careful America. Don’t give voice to hatred and division. Fix this!
For now, America is a country that allows for the free exercise of religion, but we are also a fairly divisive Nation with different political agendas and interests, some of which clash with one another. That special interest that gains the upper hand is usually the one that has the largest budget and the biggest microphone………usually, except when the interest is one’s personal belief in God. Then for some reason, the religious interest is able to grab the attention of people over the shouting and noise of those who don’t believe in religion or virulently oppose it…..and no where is that more apparent than with the religion of Islam.
Even during a time of national distress after the bombings in Boston, an act alleged to have been committed by radicalized Muslims….a term synonymous with “fundamentalist Christians”, people who’ve chosen Islam out of conviction, not fear, out of a desire to worship their Creator, not kneel before the altar of secular power which could ultimately be more profitable for them, speak to why they accepted a religion that is so vilified by many within their communities.
An article that first appeared on NBC News‘ web page and written by JoNel Aleccia, Senior Writer, NBC News speaks to the experience of three American women who embraced Islam. They did so out of conviction not hatred, out of a desire to express themselves in a way they thought was necessary to worship God and they did so as free thinking citizens of America. Please read their stories
When an American convert to Islam was revealed as the wife of the dead Boston bombing suspect, Lauren Schreiber wasn’t surprised at what came next.
Comments from former acquaintances and complete strangers immediately suggested that 24-year-old Katherine Russell, a New England doctor’s daughter, must have been coerced and controlled by her husband, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who died last week in a firefight with police.
“She was a very sweet woman, but I think kind of brainwashed by him,” reported the Associated Press, quoting Anne Kilzer, a Belmont, Mass., woman who said she knew Russell and her 3-year-old daughter.
That kind of assumption isn’t new to Schreiber, 26, a Greenbelt, Md., woman who became a Muslim in 2010.
“The moment you put on a hijab, people assume that you’ve forfeited your free will,” says Schreiber, who favors traditional Islamic dress.
The Boston terror attack and the questions about whether Russell knew about her husband’s deadly plans have renewed stereotypes and misconceptions that U.S. women who have chosen that faith say they want to dispel.
“It’s not because somebody made me do this,” explains Schreiber, who converted after a college study-abroad trip to West Africa. “It’s what I choose to do and I’m happy.”
Her view is echoed by Rebecca Minor, 28, of West Hartford, Conn., a special education teacher who converted to Islam five years ago. When her students, ages 5 to 8, ask why she wears a headscarf, she always says the same thing: “It’s something that’s important to me and it reminds me to be a good person,” says Minor, who is secretary for the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut.
Muslims make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, according to studies by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. In 2011, about 1.8 million U.S. adults were Muslim, and about 20 percent had converted to the faith, Pew researchers say. Of those converts, about 54 percent were men and 46 percent were women. About 1 in 5 converts mentioned family factors, including marrying a Muslim, as a reason for adopting the faith.
Accusations are ‘harsh’ Women convert for a wide range of reasons — spiritual, intellectual and romantic — says Yvonne Haddad, a professor of the history of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations at Georgetown University.
“Islam is attractive to women that the feminist movement left behind,” says Haddad, who co-authored a 2006 book, “Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today.”
Women like Lindsey Faraj, 26, of Charlotte, N.C., say that wearing a headscarf and other traditional Islamic garb in public often leads people to assume she sacrificed her American life to please a man.
“’You must have converted in order to marry him,’ I hear it all the time,” says Faraj, who actually converted simultaneously with her husband, Wathek Faraj, who is from Damascus, about four years ago.
She’s also heard people say that her husband is allowed to beat her, that she’s not free to get a divorce, that she and her two children, ages 4 months and 2, are subservient to the man. Such concepts are untrue, of course, she says.
“In the beginning, it did offend me a lot,” says Faraj, who grew up in a Christian family in Florida. “But now as my sense of my new self has grown, I don’t feel offended.”
She’s able to joke, for instance, about the woman who screamed insults from a passing car.
“They screamed: ‘Go back to your own country’ and I thought, ‘It doesn’t get more white than this, girl,’” says Faraj, indicating her fair features.
Like all stereotypes, such views are steeped in fear, says Haddad.
“Accusations of brainwashing are harsh,” she says. “They cover up the fact that we don’t comprehend why people like ‘us’ want to change and be like ‘them.’”
Islam ‘entered my heart’ Schreiber, who is a community outreach and events coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says she was drawn to the religion after meeting other Muslims on her trip abroad before graduating from St. Mary’s College of Maryland in 2009.
She grew up in an agnostic family where she was encouraged to discover her own faith.
“It was, whatever you decide to do — temple, church, mosque — I support you finding yourself,” says Schreiber. She’s now married to a Muslim man, Muhammad Oda, 27, whose parents were both converts to Islam. She said came to the faith before the relationship.
Faraj, a stay-at-home mom, says she never saw herself “as a religious person, in the least,” but became enthralled after trying to learn more about Islam before a visit to see her husband’s family.
“The concept of Islam hit me,” Faraj recalls. “It was just something that entered my heart.”
Minor, who is single, says she was intrigued by Islam in college, when she was close friends with a deployed American Marine but had Muslim friends at school.
“I saw a huge discrepancy in the negative things I heard coming from my (friend) and the actions I could see in my co-workers,” she recalls. After spending 18 months learning about Islam, she decided to convert.
The response from family and friends has been overwhelmingly supportive, Minor says.
“The more you can do to educate people about Islam, not by preaching, but by actions, the better,” she says.
Reports that Katherine Russell might have been embroiled in an abusive relationship, or that her husband intimidated her aren’t an indictment of Islam, Haddad says.
“Abusive men come in all colors, nationalities, ethnicities and from all religions,” she says. “No one says that Christianity teaches abuse of women because some Christian men are abusive.”
Schreiber says she frequently gets comments from people surprised to see her fair skin and hear her American accent from beneath a scarf. She says she appreciates it when people actually ask questions instead of making assumptions.
“I just want people to know that there are American Muslim women who wear hijab by choice because they believe in it and it feels right to them, not because anyone tells them to.”
Race is a social construction. There is only one race, the human race.
But race has historically been something negotiated by the courts, something that has legal standing, and something that has impacted people’s lives across the color line. AsCheryl Harris and Ian Haney Lopez have written, to be “white” is to have a type of property in America. Because “whiteness” is property, it can be inherited, passed down from one person to another as an inheritance, and has value — both symbolic and monetary — under the law, and in the broader society.
European immigrants understood (and continue to understand) the value of whiteness. They knew to distance themselves from black folks as a way of becoming fully “white” and a “real American.” The United States government helped to create race and reinforce the value of whiteness when it passed immigration laws that privileged “desirable races” from Europe over those “less desirable” from Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world.
Race is a type of magic and pseudo-science. This makes it no less real or important.
And, of course, the racist implementation of the G.I. Bill and FHA Housing Programs after World War II helped to create whiteness again by creating a segregated place called “suburbia,” and creating a stark divide in the racial wealth and income gap that is still with us today.
Race works through a type of “common sense” that is based on individual experiences, cultural norms, (misunderstandings of) history, the law, politics, as well as psychological motivations and decision-making that operate on both a conscious and subconscious level. In total, the race business is a type of magic and pseudo-science. This makes it no less real or important.
Whiteness is synonymous with “American” for those who have socialized into what sociologists such as Joe Feagin have termed “the white racial frame.” Here, common sense dictates that “those people” look “American” and those “other people” do not.
The U.S. Supreme Court summed up this logic in the Thind case (1932) in which a South Asian man, a former U.S. Army soldier, was denied citizenship because he was not judged to be “white” by the “common sense” standards of the average white person.
Recent experiments in social psychology have demonstrated how test takers identified an image of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is white, as being “American,” and an image of Barack Obama, the President of the United States, and a black man, as being a “foreigner.”
For the white racial frame, whiteness and “white” people are understood be “normal”; those “other people” are “raced” and are somehow “different.” Because citizenship is about the creation of an “imagined community” some groups and types of people are considered “outsiders.” The color line has racialized this process in the United States: to be white is to be considered de facto part of the country’s political community.
History is inconvenient on these matters.
The first great waves of immigrants to the United States were from Africa and not Europe. First Nations peoples were already present in what would later become the United States, when the first white settlers arrived from Europe. The Southwest was already populated when it was claimed under Manifest Destiny after the Mexican American war.
While some will try to suggest the two bombing suspects are not really “white” because they are Muslim, Chechens are considered white under the law in the United States.
Yet European immigrants, the majority of whom came long after those first arrivals can somehow claim to be more “American?” For race, whiteness, and white supremacy to cohere with one another necessarily involves those great leaps of faith.
The two suspects in the Boston Bombing are white Chechens. While many in the mass public–white conservatives and racial reactionaries especially–will try to suggest they are not really “white” because they are Muslim, Chechens are considered white under the law in the United States, and through the pseudo-scientific “common sense” norms of race. Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are also proof that racial profiling does not work as an effective law enforcement measure.
I was not alone in my long-held belief that the next “terrorist” attack on the United States would be conducted by white Europeans. I was also not alone in suggesting that it would be a group of white Chechen women such as the suicide bombers known as “The Black Widows” who would conduct a spectacular attack on the United States or her allies. Why not?
If the state and the public have telegraphed their hand by obsessing over “dark-skinned” Arabs that are a caricature out of a bad 1980s action movie, and the media and conservatives are willfully blind to white domestic terrorists in the U.S., the preferred tactical choice is a clear one.
As the legendary comedian Paul Mooney has observed: “Whiteness is the complexion for the protection” of the U.S. Whiteness will keep white folks safe. Whiteness, as it has long been for people of color, is also a source of terror and fear. However, whiteness and white-skin privilege are not benign. The Boston Marathon Bombing, and the subsequent manhunt and violence, demonstrates this long-standing history reality once again.
On CNN, a man was interviewed about the Boston Marathon Bombing and manhunt. He told the reporter about one of the suspects that, “I thought he was white, you know, a regular American.”
Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are “regular” Americans.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokar Tsarnaev are also white.
And Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokar Tsarnaev decided to kill other “regular Americans” who also happened to be white.
For the TLDR crowd, here are the top ten ways that Islamic law and tradition forbid terrorism (some of these points are reworked from previous postings):
1. Terrorism is above all murder. Murder is strictly forbidden in the Qur’an. Qur’an 6:151 says, “and do not kill a soul that God has made sacrosanct, save lawfully.” (i.e. murder is forbidden but the death penalty imposed by the state for a crime is permitted). 5:53 says, “… whoso kills a soul, unless it be for murder or for wreaking corruption in the land, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind; and he who saves a life, it shall be as if he had given life to all mankind.”
2. If the motive for terrorism is religious, it is impermissible in Islamic law. It is forbidden to attempt to impose Islam on other people. The Qur’an says, “There is no compulsion in religion. The right way has become distinct from error.” (-The Cow, 2:256). Note that this verse was revealed in Medina in 622 AD or after and was never abrogated by any other verse of the Quran. Islam’s holy book forbids coercing people into adopting any religion. They have to willingly choose it.
3. Islamic law forbids aggressive warfare. The Quran says, “But if the enemies incline towards peace, do you also incline towards peace. And trust in God! For He is the one who hears and knows all things.” (8:61) The Quran chapter “The Cow,” 2:190, says, “Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! God loveth not aggressors.”
4. In the Islamic law of war, not just any civil engineer can declare or launch a war. It is the prerogative of the duly constituted leader of the Muslim community that engages in the war. Nowadays that would be the president or prime minister of the state, as advised by the mufti or national jurisconsult.
5. The killing of innocent non-combatants is forbidden. According to Sunni tradition, ‘Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, the first Caliph, gave these instructions to his armies: “I instruct you in ten matters: Do not kill women, children, the old, or the infirm; do not cut down fruit-bearing trees; do not destroy any town . . . ” (Malik’s Muwatta’, “Kitab al-Jihad.”)
6. Terrorism or hirabah is forbidden in Islamic law, which groups it with brigandage, highway robbery and extortion rackets– any illicit use of fear and coercion in public spaces for money or power. The principle of forbidding the spreading of terror in the land is based on the Qur’an (Surah al-Ma’ida 5:33–34). Prominent [pdf] Muslim legal scholar Sherman Jackson writes, “The Spanish Maliki jurist Ibn `Abd al-Barr (d. 464/ 1070)) defines the agent of hiraba as ‘Anyone who disturbs free passage in the streets and renders them unsafe to travel, striving to spread corruption in the land by taking money, killing people or violating what God has made it unlawful to violate is guilty of hirabah . . .”
7. Sneak attacks are forbidden. Muslim commanders must give the enemy fair warning that war is imminent. The Prophet Muhammad at one point gave 4 months notice.
8. The Prophet Muhammad counseled doing good to those who harm you andis said to have commanded, “Do not be people without minds of your own, saying that if others treat you well you will treat them well, and that if they do wrong you will do wrong to them. Instead, accustom yourselves to do good if people do good and not to do wrong (even) if they do evil.” (Al-Tirmidhi)
9. The Qur’an demands of believers that they exercise justice toward people even where they have reason to be angry with them: “And do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness.”[5:8]
10. The Qur’an assures Christians and Jews of paradise if they believe and do good works, and commends Christians as the best friends of Muslims. I wrote elsewhere, “Dangerous falsehoods are being promulgated to the American public. The Quran does not preach violence against Christians.
Quran 5:69 says (Arberry): “Surely they that believe, and those of Jewry, and the Christians, and those Sabeaans, whoso believes in God and the Last Day, and works righteousness–their wage waits them with their Lord, and no fear shall be on them, neither shall they sorrow.”
In other words, the Quran promises Christians and Jews along with Muslims that if they have faith and works, they need have no fear in the afterlife. It is not saying that non-Muslims go to hell– quite the opposite.
When speaking of the 7th-century situation in the Muslim city-state of Medina, which was at war with pagan Mecca, the Quran notes that the polytheists and some Arabian Jewish tribes were opposed to Islam, but then goes on to say:
5:82. ” . . . and you will find the nearest in love to the believers [Muslims] those who say: ‘We are Christians.’ That is because amongst them are priests and monks, and they are not proud.”
So the Quran not only does not urge Muslims to commit violence against Christians, it calls them “nearest in love” to the Muslims! The reason given is their piety, their ability to produce holy persons dedicated to God, and their lack of overweening pride.
The Tsarnaevs have nothing in common with me or other Muslims. But don’t tell that to the political opportunists
So, the Boston bombing suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, are Muslim.
When the news broke, snarky Twitter trolls – are there any other kind? – launched the rhetorical gauntlet of questions, those predictably designed to confirm a biased, flawed narrative that casts “Islam” as the quintessential anti-American antagonist in the endless “War on Terror.”
First, I was asked how I felt knowing “Islam” was behind the bombing?
I felt the same way I did before the suspects were identified: devastated and saddened at the needless loss of life and the chaos that paralyzed a nation for a week. I prayed that the capture of the alleged suspects brings much needed peace and catharsis to the victims, their families and the entire city of Boston.
As far as Islam goes, I’ve never met Islam.
Islam has never asked me out on a date.
If it did, one day it might take me to eat Hyderabadi biryani followed by chai and kheer as dessert. Another night I might be treated to fried chicken, collard greens and bean pies. Islam might even try to make a move at the end of the night or abstain from all physical relations until marriage. Islam might toast me with a glass of champagne or order an overpriced, non-alcoholic mojito. Islam might ask me to pray the late-night Isha prayer or skip ritual acts of worship altogether and go to the local club to holler at some women (or men, or both). Islam might listen to Jay-Z before playing Nusrat or renounce music considering it haram and recite Quran instead. In fact, Islam might want to kick me to the curb for being a heathen because I don’t sport a beard, or label me a fundamentalist for fasting during Ramadan and not eating ham sandwiches.
Islam doesn’t speak – Muslims do.
The Tsarnaev brothers’ criminal and perverse actions do not speak for me or the overwhelming majority of Muslims. I am not compelled to apologize for them or explain their actions. Muslims are not a monolithic, Borg-like collective, who possess a shared consciousness, specializing in counterterrorism knowledge with a telepathic understanding of the perverse mind-set of radicals in their “community.” This is like asking Republican Christians to apologize for Timothy McVeigh or expecting young white males to explain why individuals like Adam Lanza, Jared Loughner and James Holmes used assault rifles to unleash terror on innocent civilians.
We now know the suspected brothers were born in Kyrgyzstan, are ethnically Chechen, and lived in America for several years. They are literally Caucasian since their family originates from the northern Caucasus region. Neither of them were dark-skinned, “Saudi,” bearded or brandished a fiery red trident or horns on their head.
The profile of these two brothers highlights the conclusions of the British Intelligence Agency MI5 report that states Muslim terrorists in the West “are a diverse collection of individuals, fitting no single demographic profile, nor do they all follow a typical pathway to violent extremism.” In the words of Olivier Roy, a French scholar on Islamic societies, “the process of violent radicalization has little to do with religious practice.” In fact, most Islamic fundamentalists are “religious novices” and “there is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization.” A MAPOS study found that Muslims’ religiosity curbs anti-American extremism and “that mosques and religiosity are associated with high levels of civic engagement and support for the American political system.”
Undeterred, the Twitter tribunal persisted and asked why Muslims do not renounce and actively discourage violent extremism? Well, 40 percent of all extremist plots in America were thwarted as a result of Muslim American help. Also, Muslim Americans continue toaid law enforcement, are more likely to reject violence than any other U.S. religious community, and overwhelmingly renounce the extremist ideologies of al-Qaida. A Muslim American community in Virginia proactively tipped off the FBI and turned in five radicalized youths. A Senegalese Muslim vendor was the first to mention the burning car bomb in New York’s Times Square incompetently engineered by Faisal Shahzad. Muslims in Orange County received a restraining order against a mosque attendee who advocated jihad against America. Ironically, he turned out to be a mosque crawler: Craigh Monteilh, an FBI informant, who said he was paid to infiltrate the local community and entrappotential radicals.
Just three months ago, Tamerlan was kicked out during Friday prayer at the Islamic Society of Boston Culture Center for acting “crazy” by standing up and shouting at the imam whose sermon praised Martin Luther King Jr. as an example worth emulating. U.S. imams are currently debating whether to hold Islamic funeral services for Tamleran. “This is a person who deliberately killed people. There is no room for him as a Muslim. He already left the fold of Islam by doing that,” says one Boston imam.
Last Monday, before the brothers’ capture, a few friends and I wondered what the reaction would be if the suspect was a white Muslim. I often joke with my white Muslim friends that they are like the vampire superhero Blade, known as the “Daywalker,” gifted with “all of our strengths and none of our weaknesses.” As long as they hide their Muslimyness, their Whiteness serves as a protective cloak that mainstreams them as “American” shielding them from public interrogations regarding their loyalty and “otherness.”
The emotional press conference with Ruslan Tsarni, the suspects’ estranged uncle, proved that the privileges of Whiteness are lost when the individual is Muslim or born abroad. We all empathized with the uncle who said the suspects brought “shame” to his family. He volunteered to passionately defend his ethnicity, religion and patriotism in front of a sensationalistic court of public opinion for the alleged misdeeds of two family members,whom he called “losers” and not deserving to live on Earth. A reporter then asked, “What do you think of America?” – a question never posed to family members of white criminals. Tsarni passed the loyalty test by responding, “I respect this country. I love this country.”
Muslim mass murderers excluded from “Whiteness” are usually labeled “terrorist” as opposed to being categorized as “lone wolf,” “lone radical/gunman ” or “deeply disturbed.” The latter applies to white men, such as mass murderers Wade Page, Jared Loughner, Adam Lanza, James Holmes and Anders Breivik.
This raises the legitimate question: What’s the difference between the “terrorism” of the Tsarnaev brothers and the “lone radical” violence of white supremacist Wade Page, who shot and killed six Sikh Americans at their temple? What are the definitions and standards for “terrorism”? Who decides?
Apparently, it’s new media, which covered the police hunt for the brothers as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel scripted by amateur Hardy Boys and “CSI” aficionados. Overnight, the world witnessed the birth of a great career opportunity for self-proclaimed experts on Chechnya, jihad, radicalization and counterterrorism, who emerged instantly using Google and Wikipedia to obtain their dubious scholarship.
This includes Chuck Woolery, self-identified conservative and a relic of ’80s game shows, who displayed brilliant, evidence-based, sociological insights with this helpful tweet: “Muslims can’t seem to live in peace with anyone. Even each other. FACT.” He continued his love connections with Muslims by adding, “All Muslims are not terrorists. Most, if not all terrorists are Muslims. Please dispute that.”
No one denies that radicalized Muslim violence is a problem, as evidenced by Nidal Hassan Malik, the unhinged Army major who killed 13 soldiers at Fort Hood and injured 31, and Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber.
That explains why Daryl Johnson, a former counterterrorism expert for the government, submitted a study on the rise and danger of right-wing extremists and white supremacists only to be pressured, criticized, repudiated and ultimately sidelined by conservative members of Congress and the Department of Homeland Security.
Republican Rep. Steve King also exploited the tragedy to delay immigration reform,referencing the national origin of the bombing suspects. If King really cares about national security, then he should insist on profiling and deporting several angry, white males in light of numerous recent shooting massacres.
There are significant casualties in moments of national panic and tragedy. As history has reflected, people would sacrifice the rights and civil liberties of minorities, and in turn their own freedoms, for the illusion of safety. We don’t need more policing, we need effective and intelligent policing that does not automatically transform millions of its Muslim citizens into perpetual suspects.
The casualties also wear a human face, ones that are often not “Muslim.” The first post 9/11 hate murder was of Balbir Singh Sohdi, a Sikh American, whom the murderer chose because he was “dark-skinned, bearded and wore a turban.” This past week a Bangladeshi man was beaten up by Latino men outside a Bronx Applebee’s restaurant. In Massachusetts, a man shouted, “F_ you Muslims! You are terrorists! I hate you! You are involved in the Boston explosions! F_ you!” to a Palestinian American woman. Also, new media is to law enforcement investigations what Scooby Doo’s Mystery Inc. is to detective work: messy, ad hoc, prone to mistakes, but sometimes reliable and effective. Like so many others, I retweeted unverified information by Reddit and news agencies falsely identifying missing Brown student Sunil Tripathi as a suspect. I sincerely apologize to him and his family, who are still searching for Sunil and have launched a new Facebook page requesting supporters to write messages of encouragement.
The Boston Bombing tragedy highlights our intense obsession to know a suspect’s ethnicity, religion and “Americanness” to profile and cast them in our reductive but reliable War on Terror narrative. The resulting collateral damage, aside from thousands killed, includes hysteria, scapegoating and the voluntary exchange of our liberties and freedoms for the transient feeling of safety.
However, the tragedy affords a nation of many faiths and ethnicities an opportunity to pen a new narrative that recasts its diverse citizens as fellow protagonists committed toward healing and mutual understanding. Our actions must live up to the hopes and opinion Uncle Ruslan has of America, his emigrated homeland:
“This country, which gives chance to everybody else to be treated as a human being. That’s what I feel about this country.”
President Obama has repeatedly claimed that the Boston Marathon bombing was an “act of terror” and that its alleged perpetrators are “terrorists.”
It may seem pointless to quibble with this description: after all what could be more “terroristic” than setting off bombs at a peaceful sporting event killing three persons, one a child, and injuring or horrifically maiming dozens more?
But in fact how the act is described is very important in determining government, media and wider societal responses, including ramping up racism and bigotry against Muslims, Arabs or people of color.
There can be no doubt that the Boston Marathon bombing was a murderous act, but does it –– based on what is known –– fit the US government’s own definitions of “terrorism”?
It is important to recall that other, far more lethal recent events, including the mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado and the school massacre at Sandy Hook, Connecticut have not been termed “terrorism,” nor their perpetrators labeled “terrorist” by the government. Why?
Obama’s changing descriptions
In his first statement shortly after news emerged of the bombing in Boston on 15 April 2013, Obama pointedly did not describe the attack as “terrorism.” The term is totally absent from his statement. He does say, “We still do not know who did this or why. And people shouldn’t jump to conclusions before we have all the facts.”
Last night, after 19-year-old suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured by police, Obama made a statement declaring: “We will investigate any associations that theseterrorists may have had. And we’ll continue to do whatever we have to do to keep our people safe.”
In his weekly video address today, Obama reaffirmed, “on Monday an act of terrorwounded dozens and killed three people at the Boston Marathon.”
Title 22 of the U.S. Code, Section 2656f(d) defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
Both definitions of terrorism share a common theme: the use of force intended to influence or instigate a course of action that furthers a political or social goal. In most cases, NIJ researchers adopt the FBI definition, which stresses methods over motivations and is generally accepted by law enforcement communities.
What was the “political” or “social” goal of the Boston bombing?
Based on these definitions, what distinguishes a “mass shooting” such as Aurora or Sandy Hook on the one hand, from an act of “terrorism” on the other, is that the mass shooters have no political goals. Their act is nihilistic and is not carried out in furtherance of any particular cause.
So far, however, absolutely no evidence has emerged that the Boston bombing suspects acted “in furtherance of political or social objectives” or that their alleged act was “intended to influence or instigate a course of action that furthers a political or social goal.”
Neither of the suspects is known to have made any statement of a political or other goal for their alleged action and there has been no claim of responsibility. Obama, in his statement last night, admitted as much:
Obviously, tonight there are still many unanswered questions. Among them, why did young men who grew up and studied here, as part of our communities and our country, resort to such violence? How did they plan and carry out these attacks, and did they receive any help?
So why is Obama calling them “terrorists?
Since Obama has no idea why the alleged suspects may have resorted to violence and no one else has offered an evidence-based explanation, why is Obama already labeling them “terrorists” when he himself warned against a “rush to judgment?”
The only explanation I can think of is the suspects’ identification as ethnic Chechens and Muslims, even though there is no evidence that they acted either in relation to events in their ancestral homeland or were motivated by any Islamist ideology.
True, Obama did switch to calling the Boston attack “terrorism” before any facts were known about the identities or backgrounds of the suspects, but it was also before anynew relevant facts were known. Once those identities became known, Obama’s statements have only fed careless, prejudiced assumption so common on cable television: they’re Muslims, so they must be “terrorists.”
This may be the easy and populist way of looking at it, pandering to prejudice as Obama so often does, but it is irresponsible and violates official US policy that Obama seemed, at least on the first day, willing to observe.
How acts are labeled is highly political: recall the controversy over whether Obama was quick enough to label the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last September as “terrorism,” and the continuing demands that the government designate the November 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood, allegedly perpetrated by Major Nidal Hasan, as “terrorism.”
All of these cases reinforce the widely noted observation that acts of violence, especially mass shootings, carried out typically by white males are immediately labeled as the acts of “disturbed individuals” while the acts of a person identified as “Muslim” are to be labeled “terrorism” regardless of the facts.
These are unsafe assumptions and foreclose the possibility of full understanding. Moreover, by reinforcing popular stereotypes, they give new force to the anti-Muslim backlash that seems only to be growing stronger and more poisonous as the 11 September 2001 attacks recede into the past.
Let’s consider another possibility. Exactly 14 years ago today, 20 April 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold executed a carefully-planned attack on Columbine High School in Colorado, using guns and bombs.
The two seniors murdered 12 fellow students and one teacher before shooting themselves.
Like the Boston Marathon bombing allegedly was, the Columbine attack was carried out by two persons, and it involved some of the same methods: homemade explosives.
But the Columbine attack is remembered as a “school shooting” or a “mass shooting” – perhaps the most iconic of a sad litany of such events – but not a “terrorist” attack.
In his essential 2009 book Columbine, Dave Cullen tells the story of the attack in meticulous detail, debunking many of the popular stereotypes that persist to this day that the attack was meant to avenge bullying by “jocks.”
The evidence that emerged is that Harris was a clinically sadistic sociopath who had no ability to empathize with other human beings. Klebold was a depressive whom Harris was able to manipulate. These facts lay at the heart of what happened.
It is definitely not any more desirable in the wake of such atrocities to have a media frenzy stigmatizing all people with mental illness as potential killers any more than we want them to stigmatize all Muslims as potential terrorists – in fact people with mental illness are no more likely to be violent than anyone else, and are indeed more likely to be victims of violence. And contrary to popular stereotypes fed by the media it is exceptionally rare for Muslims to become “terrorists.”
What we do need is patient, serious and informed analysis: could the relationship between the Boston suspects be similar to those of the Columbine killers? What other factors are at at play? I don’t know, but I cannot rule anything out.
Just like President Obama, I do not know what drove the alleged Boston bombers. What I do know is that when the media and the government, egging each other on, rush to judgment, the possibility of alternative scenarios is ruled out and getting to the truth is harder.
If Boston was “terrorism” based on the little that is known, then we must be able to answer these questions: can only white or Christian males be sociopaths, or suffer from other mental illnesses that under certain conditions lead to violence?
Can only two white Colorado high school students act as a pair without “terrorist” motives? Can “Muslims” or ethnic Chechens, or Arabs never be subject to the same kind of conditions or analysis?
Surely the survivors and families of the Boston bombing deserve no less of an accounting of what happened than the victims of Columbine?
We cannot and should not rule out that evidence will emerge that the alleged Boston bombers had a political motive. But it hasn’t so far.
What we have seen is the usual rush to judgment that has left Muslims and many people of color once again fearing collective blame and the governmental and societal retribution that comes with it.
Update, 21 April: Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz on Boston Marathon bomb and “terrorism” definition
A few hours after I published this post on 20 April, I heard Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz on the 20:05 GMT edition of the BBC World Service Newshour making some of the exact same points I made in this post, a jarring experience since I usually strongly disagree with his advocacy on Israel.
Dershowitz was responding to members of Congress who called for the government to treat surviving Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as an “enemy combatant” and to deprive him of his constitutional rights. Already, the Obama administration has deprived Tsarnaev of his Miranda rights. I have transcribed Dershowitz’s key comments:
Dershowitz: Well if they [the members of Congress] were in my class they would flunk out of law school … It shows a complete and total ignorance of the United States constitution. This is an American citizen being charged with committing a crime on American soil against Americans.
It’s not even clear under the federal terrorism statute that this qualifies as an act of terrorism. In order to prove it’s an act of terrorism they have to prove that they had certain kinds of intentions and motivations. But it’s a perfect trial to try in the civilian courts. There’s no plausible argument that would take this case out of the civilian courts and would put it into any kind of a military tribunal.
BBC: They’ve referred to the US Supreme Court decision Hamdi vs. Rumsfeld which said that there is no bar to the US holding one of its citizens as an enemy combatant. That part they say is certainly established in law.
Dershowitz: Well yeah, an enemy combatant but who’s the enemy here? These are two young men, we have no idea what their motivation was, particularly the young man who was captured alive. As far as we know he has never been in direct contact with anybody from any foreign country. They’re just making it up. And they’re allowing their perception of bias to influence the facts of the case. This case, this will be tried in a civilian court in front of a jury…
A terrible thing happened on Monday, 15 April at the Boston Marathon. Three people were killed and scores maimed and injured towards the close of the Marathon by two brothers. The act was atrocious; bodies were strewn everywhere and victims were young, old, male or female and from places all over the country and the world. To begin this post let us remember the names of the victims, who were Martin Richards, 8 years old; Krystle Campbell, 29 and Lu Lingzi, a Boston University graduate student. There are others who have been forever damaged by this senseless act of violence; they, corporeally, will never be whole again and neither will the Nation; scarred beyond recognition despite the slogans of resilience and courage. No doubt there was plenty of that which was demonstrated that day; people helping and saving the lives of strangers in ways that tested the endurance of both the helper and the victim. Such displays are what make America great and humanity even greater, we reach across cultural divides and help those who need it without regard to race, color or creed.
However, just as I began by mentioning the names of the victims of America’s latest tragedy without any regard to where they come from, what they believe and the color of their skin, no such consideration is given to the perpetrators of this heinous crime, Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev,19 and his 26 year old brother Tamerlan who have had their ethnicity and faith dragged into the fracas of this brutal and callous act of murder in attempts to further demonize the perpetrators, their ethnicity and their faith. Indeed such identification in today’s American jargon is just as calculated and fatal meant to cut through bone and flesh and spirit as any pipe bomb or drone missile. Taking a page from age old, proven concepts, words are the first weapon used to denigrate and ease the way towards genocide and cultural extermination and they have been used with precision and skill.
It began with President Obama’s first speech about the bombing where he was remiss in not saying the word “terrorism“. Pundits, reporters and the general public hung on his every word at the first speech just hours after the bombing and they all made sure to point out that this one word, terrorist was missing from his vocabulary at that time, as if somehow the deaths of three innocent lives was less important without have that word uttered. Every speech thereafter was flooded with the buzz word enough that it obscured any other point or lesson to be learned from this latest tragedy and instead returned America to its roots of racist ideology which points to “others” as being unworthy of consideration, or the rights and privileges of citizenship. Somehow, the purveyors of this brutal form of 21st century America punditry are able to parlay all of what’s negative about our diversity and turn tragedy into a plethora of causes it seeks to push at the expense of our civic cohesiveness. Terrorism, immigration, radical Islam, government have become piggy back issues detractors have seized upon to push before the deceased have even been accorded their rights to an eternal rest.
Radical Islamic terrorism of course was the first cause which was promoted to an anxious audience before the last bomber was even captured. That mantle of “radical Islam” was hung around the necks of the two brothers simply because of where they hailed from or what videos they might have added to their YouTube channels and yes it is true there are Muslims who embrace an ideology of violence to address what they consider are injustices but that is not relevant to Islamic beliefs as much as it is to their own personal demons. That Muslim organizations the world over denounced for the umpteenth time the brothers’ murderous rampage and the expulsions the older brother faced twice from Muslim masajid in his area because of his virulent rhetoric should speak to the legitimacy of Muslim condemnation of what took place that fateful week. It’s impossible to find, outside of the imagination of the two suspects any rationality for their murderous impulses, among ANY community much less America’s Muslims. That seems to go unnoticed however, as the events of the week invigorated a smoldering Islamophobic community that has been practicing its craft since 911.
No one could see that this violence so closely echoes all the other episodes of mass killing that have become sporadic constants in our lives, borne out of rage and disenchantment with things personal and social? How could a fan of movies kill scores of people in his object of obsession a movie theater; how could an emotionally dependent young man kill his doting, loving mother on his way to seek revenge on others who were not guilty? The Boston suspects’ actions sprouted from a rage that began with a dysfunctional family dynamic that was no more clearly evident than during the “interview” given by Ruslan, the uncle of the suspects. Even his act of contrition seemed filled with rage……his staccato cadence dripping with anger towards his nephews and family. Yet the painfully obvious was ignored by most who weighed in on the side of fear and racial animus in describing what happened in Boston. “He was a Muslim”, declared Tom Brokaw, the implication nothing else matters; to some not even the crime he committed was important absent reference to his faith. Indeed , even being white offered the two no escape from the curse of being Muslim. Joan Walsh in one of her pieces for Salon.com noted,
Over its long history America has regularly featured a process of sorting white from non-white, even among European immigrant groups. I’m not a huge admirer of the now-dated whiteness studies academic movement, but those scholars did help illuminate the way various groups of European immigrants, particularly the Irish, but also Jews, Italians and Eastern Europeans, “became” white over time, in a complicated process of determined assimilation, gradually lessening prejudice by existing “white” society, and most important, the arrival of newcomers to take the place of the scapegoated non-white other, alongside the definitive non-white scapegoats, African-Americans. Embracing racism and xenophobia, sadly, could be a shortcut to white status for previously non-white European immigrants.
…..or disavowing one’s faith. America is in the firm grip of racism and xenophobia towards Muslims. It doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, American, European, Caucasian, Arab, Asian…..you are all lumped into the one category of being a terrorist and therefore the rules of civilization no longer apply to you.
Which brings me to the final point of this tragedy and that is how quickly everyone seems to talk about abandoning the rights we’re given by our Constitution and codified over the years. The ugly specter of torture and waterboarding has resurfaced….some claiming the younger brother should have been tortured to extract information. Mention has been made of declaring him an enemy combatant, indefinite detention, not allowing him access to a lawyer, trial by military tribunal in essence making him persona non grata effectively disappearing him from our view. How many of us know what has happened to Jose Padilla, another American who was subjected to labyrinthine exegesis of a judicial system determined to strip him of his humanity because he is Muslim. The fear index has produced in all of us this desire to rid ourselves of undesirables by any means necessary, including illegal and unconstitutional ones in order to feel safe. What’s unfortunate about that is we falsely apply our fear to groups of people with a very large bull’s eye on their collective backs while ignoring other groups we’re not so interested in targeting at this time. Honestly, we are a Nation awash in violence. It plagues our cities and communities on a daily basis. On the normal scheme of things killing three people is about the average for violent deaths in America. Not even a week after the Boston bombers were corralled five people were murdered in Seattle, Washington in a domestic violence dispute that barely made the news and we don’t even know who they are or why they died. Moreover after hearing about such news one would not even suggest that we resort to the types of punishment now being mentioned in media that should apply to the lone Boston bomber suspect in custody. No race, tribe, group of people are immune to the ravages of violence and Muslim Americans are no exceptions, but just like we don’t do in 99% of the violence we encounter as a Nation daily, ascribing a motive to that violence that centers around ethnicity or religious belief or imparting to an entire group of people the sins of some one of its wayward members is as evil an act as any perpetrator of a crime. Fix this America!
A twenty-year-old man who had been watching the Boston Marathon had his body torn into by the force of a bomb. He wasn’t alone; a hundred and seventy-six people were injured and three were killed. But he was the only one who, while in the hospital being treated for his wounds, had his apartment searched in “a startling show of force,” as his fellow-tenantsdescribed it to the Boston Herald, with a “phalanx” of officers and agents and two K9 units. He was the one whose belongings were carried out in paper bags as his neighbors watched; whose roommate, also a student, was questioned for five hours (“I was scared”) before coming out to say that he didn’t think his friend was someone who’d plant a bomb—that he was a nice guy who liked sports. “Let me go to school, dude,” the roommate said later in the day, covering his face with his hands and almost crying, as a Fox News producer followed him and asked him, again and again, if he was sure he hadn’t been living with a killer.
Why the search, the interrogation, the dogs, the bomb squad, and the injured man’s name tweeted out, attached to the word “suspect”? After the bombs went off, people were running in every direction—so was the young man. Many, like him, were hurt badly; many of them were saved by the unflinching kindness of strangers, who carried them or stopped the bleeding with their own hands and improvised tourniquets. “Exhausted runners who kept running to the nearest hospital to give blood,” President Obama said. “They helped one another, consoled one another,” Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, said. In the midst of that, according to a CBS News report, a bystander saw the young man running, badly hurt, rushed to him, and then “tackled” him, bringing him down. People thought he looked suspicious.
What made them suspect him? He was running—so was everyone. The police reportedly thought he smelled like explosives; his wounds might have suggested why. He said something about thinking there would be a second bomb—as there was, and often is, to target responders. If that was the reason he gave for running, it was a sensible one. He asked if anyone was dead—a question people were screaming. And he was from Saudi Arabia, which is around where the logic stops. Was it just the way he looked, or did he, in the chaos, maybe call for God with a name that someone found strange?
What happened next didn’t take long. “Investigators have a suspect—a Saudi Arabian national—in the horrific Boston Marathon bombings, The Post has learned.” That’s the New York Post, which went on to cite Fox News. The “Saudi suspect”—still faceless—suddenly gave anxieties a form. He was said to be in custody; or maybe his hospital bed was being guarded. The Boston police, who weren’t saying much of anything, disputed the report—sort of. “Honestly, I don’t know where they’re getting their information from, but it didn’t come from us,” a police spokesman told TPM. But were they talking to someone? Maybe. “Person of interest” became a phrase of both avoidance and insinuation. On theAtlas Shrugs Web site, there was a note that his name in Arabic meant “sword.” At an evening press conference, Ed Davis, the police commissioner, said that no suspect was in custody. But that was about when the dogs were in the apartment building in Revere—an inquiry that was seized on by some as, if not an indictment, at least a vindication of their suspicions.
“There must be enough evidence to keep him there,” Andrew Napolitano said on “Fox and Friends”—“there” being the hospital. “They must be learning information which is of a suspicious nature,” Steve Doocy interjected. “If he was clearly innocent, would they have been able to search his house?” Napolitano thought that a judge would take any reason at a moment like this, but there had to be “something”—maybe he appeared “deceitful.” As Mediaite pointed out, Megyn Kelly put a slight break on it (as she has been known to do) by asking if there might have been some “racial profiling,” but then, after a round of speculation about his visa (Napolitano: “Was he a real student, or was that a front?”), she asked, “What’s the story on his ability to lawyer up?”
By Tuesday afternoon, the fever had broken. Report after report said that he was a witness, not a suspect. “He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time,” a “U.S. official” told CNN. (So were a lot of people at the marathon.) Even Fox News reported that he’d been “ruled out.” At a press conference, Governor Deval Patrick spoke, not so obliquely, about being careful not to treat “categories of people in uncharitable ways.”
We don’t know yet who did this. “The range of suspects and motives remains wide open,” Richard Deslauriers of the F.B.I. said early Tuesday evening. In a minute, with a claim of responsibility, our expectations could be scrambled. The bombing could, for all we know, be the work of a Saudi man—or an American or an Icelandic or a person from any nation you can think of. It still won’t mean that this Saudi man can be treated the way he was, or that people who love him might have had to find out that a bomb had hit him when his name popped up on the Web as a suspect in custody. It is at these moments that we need to be most careful, not least.
It might be comforting to think of this as a blip, an aberration, something that will be forgotten tomorrow—if not by this young man. There are people at Guanátanmo who have also been cleared by our own government, and are still there. A new report on the legacy of torture after 9/11, released Tuesday, is a well-timed admonition. The F.B.I. said that they would “go to the ends of the earth” to get the Boston perpetrators. One wants them to be able to go with their heads held high.
“If you want to know who we are, what America is, how we respond to evil—that’s it. Selflessly. Compassionately. Unafraid,” President Obama said. That was mostly true on Monday; a terrible day, when an eight-year-old boy was killed, his sister maimed, two others dead, and many more in critical condition. And yet, when there was so much to fear that we were so brave about, there was panic about a wounded man barely out of his teens who needed help. We get so close to all that Obama described. What’s missing? Is it humility?
The two bombs that ripped through the 2013 Boston Marathon re-opened wounds that had begun to heal since 911 and no where was this fresh scab more apparent than in the airwaves and bandwidth of Main Stream Media. Throwing aside conventional wisdom which includes waiting for things to reveal themselves, pundits began almost immediately with speculation about whodunnit. It didn’t help matters that a young and innocent Saudi student was tackled at the scene of the blast and scooped up by authorities who had to admit after a period of time that he was just as much a victim as everyone else who was in the vicinity of the blast, media trumpeted the interest authorities had in him as if he was the main suspect who was about to be charged with the crime. Media didn’t bother to wipe the egg off their collective face when Boston and no doubt federal authorities admitted the young man was not a suspect or player in the events of that dreadful day….they just simply ignored their faux pas and moved on, but the tension their errant speculation caused revealed the problem with America today and the obsession too many have with placing collective blame on people and especially those who are Muslim.
Over time this has produced an opposite and equally repulsive reaction from Muslims who start condemning acts of violence as if there life depended on it. In today’s America it probably does since the knives of Islamophobes are sharpened with the venom of their own special brand of racism which they hope will drive America into an apocalypse whose goal is grander and broader than anything Hitler imagined in pre WWII Germany. Eric Rush’s tweets of ‘kill all Muslims’ within hours of the bombings are the most nerve racking and persistent sentiment voiced by ‘phobes and it has America’s Muslims ready to do and say anything to distance themselves from any tragedy.
About this tendency to obsequiously deny acts of violence ad nauseum, Tasbeeh Herwees had this to say
This is modus operandi for any Muslim organization in the U.S. after a terrorist attack: condemn, condemn, condemn. This is how we’re expected to respond. It doesn’t matter that no Muslim or Arab has been implicated in the attack. It is inconsequential that no other religious organizations are called on to do the same. In a post-9/11 world, Muslims and Arabs have become the default scapegoats for all terrorist plots, hence the pre-empting of the accusations.
Muslims for the present are the only group expected to make this kind of absolution; they require it from themselves as much as their non-Muslim citizens. It has become their role in today’s America to assure people even when such assurance is not required that they are against an act of violence that may be attributed to one of them. Muslim America has accepted the cloak of collectivism whereby any one person no matter how heinous, villainous, obnoxious the act may be, no matter how reprehensible and outlandish can be even remotely connected to the body and thus equal in guilt. No other group in today’s America has taken or accepted that mantle.
In today’s news cycle we’ve heard of a prison official in Colorado gun down in his home by a white supremacist; a young mass murderer who took revenge against a school that housed people who bullied him many years before and a husband and wife team who killed Texas prosecutors for some perceived injustice they felt murder was the appropriate punishment, yet not one white male or Christian group has volunteered to condemn the actions of this body of people who share their ethnicity. Their silence, in the face of this news onslaught was defeaning and caused me to tweet on 14 April, ‘white males need to be profiled’ in order to bring attention to the fact that real crime does occur at the hands of people other than swarthy complexioned people with strange accents; that there are terrorist minded white people in places of close proximity to us who are just as lethal and scary and perhaps we should keep a closer eye on them than we have in the past. Of course no such thing will happen and Tim Wise in a very nice piece says why
As the nation weeps for the victims of the horrific bombing in Boston yesterday, one searches for lessons amid the carnage, and finds few. That violence is unacceptable stands out as one, sure. That hatred — for humanity, for life, or whatever else might have animated the bomber or bombers — is never the source of constructive human action seems like a reasonably close second.
But I dare say there is more; a much less obvious and far more uncomfortable lesson, which many are loathe to learn, but which an event such as this makes readily apparent, and which we must acknowledge, no matter how painful.
It is a lesson about race, about whiteness, and specifically, about white privilege.
I know you don’t want to hear it. But I don’t much care. So here goes.
White privilege is knowing that even if the Boston Marathon bomber turns out to be white, his or her identity will not result in white folks generally being singled out for suspicion by law enforcement, or the TSA, or the FBI.
White privilege is knowing that even if the bomber turns out to be white, no one will call for whites to be profiled as terrorists as a result, subjected to special screening, or threatened with deportation.
And white privilege is being able to know nothing about the crimes committed by most of the terrorists listed above — indeed, never to have so much as heard most of their names — let alone to make assumptions about the role that their racial or ethnic identity may have played in their crimes.
White privilege is knowing that if the Boston bomber turns out to be white, we will not be asked to denounce him or her, so as to prove our own loyalties to the common national good. It is knowing that the next time a cop sees one of us standing on the sidewalk cheering on runners in a marathon, that cop will say exactly nothing to us as a result.
White privilege is knowing that if you are a white student from Nebraska — as opposed to, say, a student from Saudi Arabia — that no one, and I mean no one would think it important to detain and question you in the wake of a bombing such as the one at the Boston Marathon.
And white privilege is knowing that if this bomber turns out to be white, the United States government will not bomb whatever corn field or mountain town or stale suburb from which said bomber came, just to ensure that others like him or her don’t get any ideas. And if he turns out to be a member of the Irish Republican Army we won’t bomb Belfast. And if he’s an Italian American Catholic we won’t bomb the Vatican.
In short, white privilege is the thing that allows you (if you’re white) — and me — to view tragic events like this as merely horrific, and from the perspective of pure and innocent victims, rather than having to wonder, and to look over one’s shoulder, and to ask even if only in hushed tones, whether those we pass on the street might think that somehow we were involved.
It is the source of our unearned innocence and the cause of others’ unjustified oppression.
That is all. And it matters.
The next time a crime is committed that captures the public’s attention perhaps the first thing we should do is turn off the television, radio and laptop and just wait for the dust to settle. If we can’t do that then we should demand that every group in America who has a member that has committed a violent crime in the past should take turns collectively condemning and distancing themselves from an unknown perpetrator. We certainly cannot expect any ONE group to continue to carry this burden. It’s not just so fix it, America!
I HAVE been a practicing Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world. So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.
This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries.
At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.
The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives. They help explain why in many countries boys are educated before girls; why girls are told when and whom they must marry; and why many face enormous and unacceptable risks in pregnancy and childbirth because their basic health needs are not met.
In some Islamic nations, women are restricted in their movements, punished for permitting the exposure of an arm or ankle, deprived of education, prohibited from driving a car or competing with men for a job. If a woman is raped, she is often most severely punished as the guilty party in the crime.
The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in the West. The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but its impact is felt every day. It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us. The evidence shows that investing in women and girls delivers major benefits for society. An educated woman has healthier children. She is more likely to send them to school. She earns more and invests what she earns in her family.
It is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these self-serving and outdated attitudes and practices – as we are seeing in Iran where women are at the forefront of the battle for democracy and freedom.
I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and sensitive areas to challenge. But my fellow Elders and I, who come from many faiths and backgrounds, no longer need to worry about winning votes or avoiding controversy – and we are deeply committed to challenging injustice wherever we see it.
The Elders are an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by former South African president Nelson Mandela, who offer their influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. We have decided to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights and have recently published a statement that declares: “The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.”
We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasise the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world’s major faiths share.
The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.
I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same Scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.
The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.