The Muslims Are Coming!

By:  J.F. Sullivan

When Religion Nerd suggested a possible follow up article to FatwaPhobia   (http://wp.me/pTCyD-eW ) focusing on the reactive viral phenomenon “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” I was not feeling particularly motivated.  This idea about drawing Muhammad in an effort to protest Comedy Central’s decision to censor that episode of South Park felt a bit strange to me.  While I agree that Islam should be subject to both the same satire, as well as critical scholarship as every other religious tradition, it felt like something different to go out and intentionally attack the prohibition about depicting Muhammad.  After all, the issue was not ultimately with Islam, it was about freedom of expression and censorship.  The issue in that case was not that a radical Islamist group threatened the creators of South Park; it was that Comedy Central caved-in to it.  In the end, “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” seemed like something both retaliatory and anti-Islamic vs. solidarity in opposition to censorship.

The creators of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” have since discontinued the call after the movement went from a Facebook gag to a viral phenomenon. (See LA Times article below) What is intriguing is how rapidly the idea spread and inevitably got out of control.  Whether intentional or not, “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” plugged into an already existing anti-Muslim sensibility in America that has been smoldering after its initial wave following 9/11.  Even though we have mostly moved on from the initial shock of the attacks, the anti-Muslim sentiment has fallen in with the same “we’re losing the country” mentality that led to the Arizona anti-immigration laws. The issue at the heart of these challenges is identity.  For many people, America is a heterosexual, white Christian male.  When that image begins to change, people begin to react in opposition to that change, while others embrace it.  An additional difficulty arises when those who support the changes tend to also not resemble the dominant image while many that resist the change do.  The result is an increasingly polarized conflict that is drawn along many of the same lines of identity: ethnic, racial, religious, economic, cultural.

Two additional events this week have shown the light on this growing anti-Muslim sensibility and its roots in identity conflict.  The first was the plan to build a mosque and Islamic center in the area around Ground Zero.  Obviously this met with some significant public opposition, encapsulated by this quote,

This is an insult,’ said one of the more than 150 people at the meeting. ‘This is demeaning. This is humiliating that you would build a shrine to the very ideology that inspired the attacks on 9/11. (See Ray Sanchez article below)

The second development was the deployment of New York Bus ads from Pamela Geller and the Stop the Islamization of America Group (http://sioaonline.com/). 

What is happening amidst all of this is a growing reaction to diversity and religious pluralism.  Fueled by continual fear from 9/11 and coupled with the changing face of America, there are those who are not responding well.  In this way, anything that is seen to support the continued diversity and pluralism of America is suspect.  We now have an African-American president that is suspected of being a Muslim and a socialist, as well as a foreigner.  The entire birther movement seems to be rooted in the fear that the President is a foreigner.  This nascent xenophobia is fueled by reports about changing demographics, the most frightening being the suggestion that by 2050, most of the world will be Muslim.  To get a sense of how significant this concern is, take a look at the following video clip. 

This is not just an American problem, it is happening all over Europe as mostly homogeneous populations interact with growing immigrant populations and the institutions and cultural differences that come with them.  Look no further than France’s burqa disputes and Switzerland’s minaret legislation for evidence.  Indeed the entire Danish cartoon and Theo Van Gogh incidents that inspired the recent South Park debacle likely originated as a reaction to Muslim immigration into Europe.

Diversity and pluralism are a fact.  And as Europe and America continue to attract immigrants, the issues raised by changing population demographics are not going to change.  What we can change is how we respond to these new developments.  The current way of coexisting, tolerance and multiculturalism, may no longer be effective.  Recognizing difference and tolerating those unlike you works as long as the tolerant group remains in the majority, once that starts to change, friction and factionalism is often the result.  What we may need to do then is seek out a new way to engage diversity and pluralism that doesn’t threaten identity or status and allows for a looser way of coexisting that does not require clearly defined lines of identity that split us along ethno-racial, religious, cultural and economic lines and offers a more cosmopolitan approach.  If indeed the world is changing and all of our identity lines are moving and becoming less and less stable, now is the time to start revising our thinking about identity, history, culture, religion, and society and seeing if we can do more than simply tolerate diversity and pluralism and start appreciating and even participating in line-crossing and identity breaking activities that will allow us to thrive as a global society. 

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