Jewish Journal


November 11, 2009

Underestimating America’s Religious Understanding


Last week, in the wake of the tragic murders at Ft. Hood, I heard news reports of a local press conference involving Salaam al Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, LA County Sheriff Lee Baca, and the acting chief of the LAPD, Michael Downing. The thrust of the gathering was to decry the senseless violence at Ft. Hood and to “reassure” Muslim Angelenos that police cars had been deployed to Muslim institutions around the county and city to guard against a possible anti-Muslim backlash for the Texas mayhem and murder.

There was something strangely troubling about the press conference and the subsequent local coverage of the Ft. Hood tragedy.

One listened to the spokespeople and could almost believe that the Muslim community had been victimized—-not dozens of innocent soldiers at Ft. Hood—- and that there was an inchoate blood lust on the part of the American public to blame the Muslim community for the terror perpetrated by Nidal Malik Hasan.

References were made to “threatening calls and e-mails” that were directed at MPAC and then to the oft-recycled, and mostly apocryphal, stories of hate directed at the Muslim community after the murder of three thousand innocent Americans on 9/11. In fact, there was precious little hate evidenced after 9/11 and there was no effort to “take it out on the Muslim community” after Ft. Hood.

The media went out of its way (irrationally in most instances) to avoid drawing the fairly obvious conclusion of what animated Nidal Malik Hasan’s murderous rampage (see our blog of November 10).

A notable exception was yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, which bravely editorialized about balancing security demands with religious tolerance in the military:

But it would be equally tragic if the armed services allowed an insistence on religious tolerance to stand in the way of detecting and rooting out extremism in the ranks. It’s essential to avoid profiling people on the basis of their religion, but that doesn’t require us to deny the existence in this country, as elsewhere, of a dangerous and anti-American ideology that identifies itself with Islam and seeks to recruit believing Muslims.

What most of the media, and most clearly our local officials, did was to unfairly short-change the American public. We were treated as if we were vengeful bigots who generalize from an individual to the group from which he/she comes without giving it a second thought. This viewpoint holds that unless we are admonished not to give in to our base instincts, all hell will break loose.

The fact is that when Seung-Hi Cho, a young man of Korean origin, massacred dozens of students at Virginia Tech in 2007, Newsweek headlined, “Korean Americans Brace for Backlash”, Newsday’s front page blared, “Koreans Fear a Backlash.”

It didn’t happen then and won’t happen now; Americans have actually absorbed many of the civil rights lessons of the past fifty years.

After this past week and the message that was sent both overtly and subtly, the recent Gallup poll which found that, despite a brief and notable bump after Obama won election last year, optimism (or lack thereof) about U.S. race relations is back to its pre-2008 election levels makes sense.

While virtually every poll of actual racial attitudes shows unprecedented levels of understanding, people are, nevertheless, convinced that things aren’t good, in no small measure because the media and much of our chattering classes refuse to recognize the transformation of America. At almost every opportunity they warn of our potential misdeeds (as in this case), they assume that we are animated by our most base motives (court mandated gerrymandering assumes we vote primarily on parochial ethnic/racial grounds), they invoke the specter of hate crimes and bigotry as if they were omnipresent phenomena, and they ignore the good news in the amelioration of racial and ethnic relations because it alters the accepted narrative of victimhood and history.

This persistence in viewing us as closet bigots waiting for the opportunity to act out our intolerance—-overtly and covertly expressed—-is itself altering our communities, but in the wrong direction.

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