The Climate for Muslims, After the Boston Bombings

In the wake of the Boston bombings, Muslim parents fear for their children at school. Muslim women are discussing whether it is necessary to "pass" (remove their headscarfs), to be safe. How many innocent people will be teased, harassed or assaulted?
04/22/2013 12:49 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2013

Anya Cordell, the recipient of the 2010 Spirit of Anne Frank Award, imagines what Anne Frank would say about growing anti-Muslim sentiments.

"How soon do we expect that Muslim children should renounce or denounce their parents, and how are they to arrive at the supposed wisdom of this renunciation?"

The Climate for Muslims, After the Boston Bombings

The horrific Boston bombings were perpetrated by individuals who called their religion "Muslim." Various hateful zealots and perpetrators of violence call themselves "Christian." But our culture responds very differently to these parallel facts.

At a conference I recently heard a father say: "Every day, my son asks, 'Daddy, why do we have to be Muslim?'"

Imagine our heartbreak if our children routinely asked: "Why do I have to be [black, Jewish, Catholic, Italian, Mexican, short, tall or whatever they simply are]?" because they felt culturally shamed, bullied or even endangered to be who they are.

In the wake of the Boston bombings, Muslim parents fear for their children at school. Muslim women are discussing whether it is necessary to "pass" (remove their headscarfs), to be safe. Sikh males who wear turbans are on the alert; having already experienced murder and mayhem perpetrated by those who believe they are Muslim, or who simply view them as guiltily foreign. How many innocent people will be teased, harassed or assaulted?

The following piece remains all too pertinent, revised in light of the Boston tragedy (originally, "Where the Anti-Muslim Path Leads"):

If I Were Muslim, I'd Kill Myself

"If I were Muslim, I'd kill myself." 

No, that's not what was said. It was: "If I looked like him, I'd kill myself."

The speaker was my favorite uncle, commenting on an overweight man, across a hotel pool.  Considering how much self-talk I had engaged in to convince myself to be seen in a swimsuit, visiting my California relatives, I absorbed this pronouncement in shame and silence, trying desperately to hold onto shreds of self-worth.

Appearance-ism

This statement by a member of my fashion and beauty obsessed family epitomizes why I've devoted myself to efforts against what I call "appearance-ism," or appearance-based judgments of ourselves and others. On some level, I feel that my life is at stake, at least a life with any sense of worth and joy, in the "imperfect" body I have. I've also discovered that appearance-ism is a universal experience, that even great beauties are objectified in our culture, that almost everyone can relate in some way to the injustice of judgments based on appearance and thereby come to deeper understanding regarding other forms of bias.

So that became my mission; to teach what I most need to learn.  It's taking me a long while, and I'm not done yet.

The man at the pool could have been a cancer-curing scientist, but apparently that didn't matter in light of his fatal flaw.  Although the man and I could have fixed ourselves up with diet, exercise, spray-on tans and liposuction, I often think of the ways in which we humans are, AS IS; the size, shape, color, configuration and ethnicity we naturally are, with which we need to make peace in order to walk in the world, not feeling we'd be better off hidden or even dead.

Babies, As Is

Babies are born, as is, into families, with genetics, histories, heritage and, often, religion, and they haven't any choice about most of that for a very long time, if ever.  Is it a crime to be born a particular color, or into a particular culture or religion?  Was it a capital offense to be born a Jew, at the time of the Holocaust?  In essence, it was.  Is it now the fault of every child born to a Muslim family to have the audacity to be what they simply are?  How soon do we expect they should renounce or denounce their parents, and how are they to arrive at the supposed wisdom of this renunciation?

Many pronouncements about "all Muslims," flying fast and loose, seem to hold some hope that Muslims magically disappear, or just stop being Muslim.  I heard a renowned "expert" on Muslim affairs say that getting rid of all Muslims wasn't "practical," while he inferred it was desirable.  (Surely the world would then be almost perfect.) Fox News pays a pundit who suggested "killing all Muslims" -- an unthinkable pronouncement, if any other group were substituted.

There are those asserting that all Muslims, worldwide, are more concerned with hating, converting and destroying others than with simply living, eating, supporting their families and doing what most everyone on Earth does.  If so, wouldn't they be achieving vast amounts of destruction in communities worldwide? 

All Muslims? All Jews?

When I hear the presumptions about all Muslims, I, a Jewish woman, silently substitute "all Jews" and then I know how terrifying and incendiary this language is, because we've seen how these scenes play out, in all too horrific reality.

Will those screaming the stereotypes the loudest take responsibility when people accept their cues and assume they have license to target innocent Muslims, presumed "multi-culturalists" and others in hate-crimes, or worse?  The horrific attack in Norway, in which the perpetrator credited those who inspired him, answered this question.  No, they won't acknowledge responsibility.  So why are they screaming; what are their goals?  Obviously, to get elected or make fortunes selling books and speaking engagements. Surely, also to affect policies, and influence thought, and become more influential. But apparently, without care of consequences.

I'd like to ask the Muslim-bashers "Then what?" after every pronouncement, and push them to follow their vision further down the path.  After our culture makes it clear that we abhor all Muslims, and we abhor everything we believe that they believe, then what?  After we've pronounced that all who are born Muslim, that all who call themselves Muslim, (we don't bother to ask them what this means to them), are unwelcome in our midst, then what?  After we've made it clear that unless they cease to be themselves, we're not sure they deserve to be, at all, then what?

Many apparently wish that Muslims would disintegrate into thin air.  When this doesn't happen, then what?  After Muslims worldwide have absorbed progressive shock waves of hatred and condemnation, and after some of them internalize the trauma and respond, then what?  What do we imagine happens next when people are treated as Muslims are, currently?

On a Precipice

We are on a precipice, looking over the edge.  Humans have stood on this precipice before.  We know about the times when people were willing -- or were manipulated -- to push others, many others, over the edge.

The perpetrators of 9/11, and now the Boston bombings, were at this precipice, and they were willing to generalize that their victims and the sanctity of those victims' loved ones, were worth sacrificing for some bigger vision.  They didn't care about the particulars of the individuals, even of the Muslims, they destroyed.  They weren't bothered by facts.  Whether their targets were doctors, scientists, artists, children or extraordinarily kind individuals was irrelevant.  They had no willingness to be thoughtful of the consequences of their actions.  They felt some crisis required them to act immediately and unquestioningly.  How then, does frantic, careless generalizing and stereotyping in any way contradict the horrific suffering they engendered?

White Guys

Some white guys have committed extraordinary destruction -- guys like Norway attacker, Anders Breivik, or Jared Loughner, who wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed others, or uncounted hooded Klansmen, or Jim Jones, or Timothy McVeigh.  Guys like Benjamin Smith, the white supremacist targeting the "mud races," who killed a black father and a Korean student in 1999, or Frank Roque who murdered an innocent Sikh man on Sept. 15, 2001, because he wore a turban and Roque was out to "kill the ragheads," or Mark Stroman who murdered two innocent men, one Muslim and one Hindu, and blinded a third man, after 9/11, claiming he was a patriot, doing what others wished to do, if they had his "nerve."  Or Wade Page, who committed murder and mayhem in the Sikh temple in Wisconsin last year.

I know the families of five of these victims.  I know their "ground zeros" and how the exigencies of daily public life reclaimed these locales where their lives shattered into pieces.  No memorials set them apart as hallowed sanctuaries.  In innumerable "ground zeros" the world over, families have clawed at earth with bare hands, desperate to rescue or recover loved ones, but these families asked for nothing beyond the hope of putting one foot in front of the other and moving sadly forward from unspeakable tragedy.

In response to these acts of terrorism there are not wholesale smears of white guys.  That would be absurd, because we know that white guys are individuals; no two are alike.

But isn't religion a common, shared belief in basic tenets?  Judging from the disagreements in every family, organization and religion -- sects within sects, differences of interpretation and practice -- how can we possibly ascribe unanimity of belief to a fifth of the world's population?  Do we insist that all Jews and Christians are in complete accord with every line of the Old and New Testaments, with no variables in interpretation, as the Quran is now selectively quoted as supposed proof of every Muslim's flawed makeup?

Muslims won't simply disappear.  So what do we really expect or want of them?  What is our assessment of what some now chillingly, reminiscently, characterize as "the Muslim problem"?

All the Muslims I know grieve 9/11 and this terrible new tragedy.  They grieve because they are decent human beings.  Additionally, they feel constant suspicion directed at them as they try to live their lives while absorbing the shame and blame now heaped upon all Muslims, worldwide.  They are between a rock and a hard place, damned for whatever they do or don't do.

Afraid

And they are afraid.  Following a school presentation, a student whispered to me, "Thank you so much for your program.  I'm Muslim, but no one here knows it."  Again, chilling.

Since 9/11, the anti-Muslim drumbeat has impacted vast numbers of innocent Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Arabs, South Asians and others. We, who despair when our children are teased and bullied, are accepting and repeating despicable slurs about others, ricocheting through our culture.  I felt compelled to stand up against people being attacked, even murdered on the basis of snap judgments.  I felt compelled to reach out to the families of people I didn't know, across the country, and to speak about their losses.  For these efforts and for my work against appearance-ism and the designating of any group as "Other," I received the 2010 Spirit of Anne Frank Outstanding Citizen Award from The Anne Frank Center USA

So what should we say of those who are reaping money, power, prestige or votes via the incendiary vitriol with which they are soaking the culture like gasoline, requiring a single match to become a conflagration?

What Would Anne Frank Say?

I imagine what Anne Frank would tell us, if she could, about the smears, stereotypes and generalizations now being shouted so incessantly, and about the times when people have had to try to "pass," or hide, to be safe.  I believe she would say that just because many people scream something does not make it true.  I believe she would point out the tremendous disparity between the Nazi stereotypes of Jews, and the real Jews, like her, who were destroyed by such propaganda, and the practices and policies that flowed from it.

I believe she would remind us of what happens when generalizations are carried to their conclusions.  I believe she would denounce leaders cuing one another that this is in accord with the tenor of the time. 

I believe she would beg us to be allies for those who are not our ethnicity, our religion, our "tribe" -- as the non-Jewish friends who supported her family in hiding took extraordinary risks to be her ally.  I believe she would exhort people who have never even met a Muslim not to accept wholesale characterizations, and to befriend Muslims.

I believe she would warn us of a very slippery, very dangerous slope, and she would remind us what happens next, and next, and next, as the progression unfolds incrementally but inexorably -- the progression that starts with offhand remarks, then slurs, then stereotypes, then diatribes, then what? 

We ought to have a clear idea of such a progression by now, hopefully not one we'll only grasp later from a left-behind diary of a Muslim adolescent, who simply desired to walk in the world safely and openly.

Anya Cordell is a speaker, writer, activist.  She is the recipient of the 2010 Spirit of Anne Frank Award, bestowed by The Anne Frank Center USA and author of RACE:  An OPEN & SHUT Case which unravels presumptions of what we call "race"; named among the "books to change your life" by N'Digo Magazine. Anya, who is Jewish, founded The Campaign for Collateral Compassion, and has passionately countered post-9/11 hate-backlash against Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and others.  Articles include "Sikhs Bearing Pizza" and "Hate Speech Against Muslims Incites Violence". Her programs for children through adults tackle "appearance-ism", xenophobia, Islamophobia, and all stereotyping. See www.Appearance-ism.com