Muslim-Baiters Don’t Want To Be Treated Like Muslims

Over the weekend, I posted the following message on Twitter: “When a Muslim commits terror, every Muslim in the world somehow shares responsibility. When a crime is committed by a white Christian, it’s always a lone wolf.” I wasn’t commenting on the tendency of commentators to use different words to describe the same vicious act, such as using the word terrorism to only describe violence perpetrated by Muslims, (or how post-Hurricane Katrina looting was referred to “finding” when whites were involved) but rather, trying to express my frustration with scapegoating tendency to assign collective blame: the idea that one person’s crimes/sins can in anyway be partly blamed on those who didn’t commit, endorse, fund, or encourage the nefarious act.

Collective blame was the curse of the 20th century. It inflicted untold carnage on hundreds of millions of people and it has no place in the modern world. But it persists, partly, I think, because it’s a reflex among people who feel vulnerable or fear some sort of inferiority to rationalize that those whom they perceive to be their enemies all agree on the same basic evil ideas. When some fanatical Muslim blows himself up in a crowded market, those who already feel uncomfortable about the presence of Muslims in their countries rationalize that all the Muslims – regardless of who they are and what they do – are somehow culpable in the act. The silence from Muslims, many of these people will tell you, means that they tacitly endorse terrorism. These are the same sorts of people who will tell you that a Muslim in, say, Utah has to specifically denounce every act of violence committed by a fellow Muslim somewhere else on the other side of the globe. It’s nonsense, but the simple thinking behind it makes it difficult to combat.

And it isn’t just Muslims who are on the receiving end of the illogical practice of placing collective blame. It’s pretty widespread. For instance, when an Israeli soldier mistreats a Palestinian, you won’t be shocked to hear some commentator placing the blame on all Israelis or even all Jews. In every case, a very broad demographic category is used to indict millions (or billions) for the sins of the few people who committed the particular act.

Either way you slice it and dice it, collective blame is wrong. As Slate’s William Saletan writes, “That principle—that no one should be held responsible for another person’s sins—is the moral core of the struggle against terrorism.” I couldn’t agree more.

Which is why I was surprised by the reaction I got. For whatever reason, the tweet took off and people from all around the world started sharing it with their networks. I don’t know how or why it happened, but it did and as I am writing this, the message was shared more than 5650 times. At first, I was astonished by all the attention my message was getting. But that feeling was soon overtaken by the surprise that people actually objected to what I had written, which I believe to be largely uncontroversial. The statement is nothing more than an uninsightful observation. The response I was expecting was for people to say, “Yeah, well, duh.” Instead, people argued that Muslims were responsible for the crimes of coreligionists that they didn’t know or whose views they didn’t support. Some even read it as if I was arguing that collective blame should be placed on whites for the sins/crimes of other whites rather than what I was actually saying, which was that collective blame in all is not right in any circumstance.

What prompted my message, of course, was last week’s massacre in Norway. On Friday, a man detonated a massive bomb in downtown Oslo and massacred scores of teenagers on the tiny Norwegian island of Utoya. When news first broke here in the United States, it was described as an act carried out by terrorists. When it was discovered that the attacker’s ideology was, as the Economist notes, “a form of reactionary Christian fundamentalism, fuelled by hatred of Islam, Marxism and non-whites,” the perpetrator started being described not as a terrorist but as a “lone wolf.”

I’m not one to get into the discussion about what word should or should not be used. Clearly, when people talk about terrorism, they are talking about a specific act that has an intended political motive. A mass shooting, such as the Virginia Tech massacre, clearly doesn’t fall into the same category as an attack on an embassy that was intended to terrorize people into implementing some sort of change. Some acts of violence have terror motives and others just simply don’t. But it’s a good discussion to have and Glenn Greenwald offers some perceptive criticism of the way the word terrorism is, and isn’t, used. That being said, Breivik’s actions were clearly terroristic and politically/ideologically motivated.

Breivik’s manifesto copiously cites some of the most nefarious Muslim-baiters here in the United States. As such, there has been a healthy debate about what impact these people – who literally devote their entire lives to writing about the very things that Breivik sought to bring to a halt: the so-called “Islamization” of the West and the loss of Western culture to Arabs and other foreigners – had on Breivik. As the New York Times explained, “The man accused of the killing spree in Norway was deeply influenced by a small group of American bloggers and writers who have warned for years about the threat from Islam, lacing his 1,500-page manifesto with quotations from them, as well as copying multiple passages from the tract of the Unabomber.”

These people are now on the defensive and are pushing back against any suggestion that their years of fear-mongering about how the political left is allowing Europe to be overtaken by bearded religious zealots had anything to do with the motives of a guy who attacked the Norwegian left for what he received as their willingness to let the country be overtaken by bearded religious zealots. They had nothing to do with the motives of the terrorist, they charge, because they don’t condone violence and are all about peace. Any attempt to link them to Breivik is part of an agenda to silence their loud voices, they complain.

That defense is natural. People who didn’t commit a specific crime quite naturally object to being associated with it.  But remember, these are the same people whose existence is defined by the very exact same thing they now denounce: collective blame. They don’t want to be associated with someone who clearly shared almost all of their views. But they have absolutely no problem making the charge that Muslims in the United States are somehow linked to each and every single act of terrorism that occurs, anywhere in the world.

What they now demand of the public is something that they viciously deny Muslims, and in particular, American Muslims, some of whom have never set foot in another country, let alone the Middle East. As Adam Serwer observes, “While it’s obvious that few if any of them will take this lesson to heart, the rest of us should — terrorist acts are committed by individuals, and it is those individuals who should be held responsible.”

But that sort of humane treatment and respect, some of the Muslim-baiters seem to contend, is only for them.


More Al-Jazeera Coverage of Sami Al-Haj Release
May 2, 2008, 11:52 am
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Sami al-Haj Speaks
May 1, 2008, 10:39 pm
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Sami Al-Haj released from Guantanamo
May 1, 2008, 8:24 pm
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(AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)

Sami Al-Haj, an Al-Jazeera cameraman who spent 6 years in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay, has just been released. I wrote about Sami’s detention a week ago (here) and he is now a free man!!!  After 6 grueling years, he finally gets to see his son Muhammad.

From the Associate Press.

KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) – An Al-Jazeera cameraman was released from U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay and returned home to Sudan early Friday after six years of imprisonment that drew worldwide protests.

Sami al-Haj, who had been on a hunger strike for 16 months, grimaced as he was carried off a U.S. military plane by American personnel in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. He was put on a stretcher and taken straight to a hospital.

Al-Jazeera showed footage of al-Haj being carried into the hospital, looking feeble and with his eyes closed, but smiling. Some of the men surrounding his stretcher were kissing him on the cheek.

“Thank God … for being free again,” he told Al-Jazeera from his hospital bed. “Our eyes have the right to shed tears after we have spent all those years in prison. … But our joy is not going to be complete until our brothers in Guantanamo Bay are freed,” he added.

“The situation is very bad and getting worse day after day,” he said of conditions in Guantanamo. He claimed guards prevent Muslims from practicing their religion and reading the Quran.

“Some of our brothers live without clothing,” he said.

The U.S. military says it goes to great lengths to respect the religion of detainees, issuing them Qurans, enforcing quiet among guard staff during prayer calls throughout the day. All cells in Guantanamo have an arrow that points toward the holy city of Mecca.

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Terror by Another Name

An excellent news piece from Australia’s Herald Sun describing the recent massacre of 21 people by Ethiopian troops. What do you call this if not terrorism? The U.S. media has remained hush about this. As Chris Floyd points out, both The New York Times and the Washington Post ran the same Reuters story which was more about Ethiopia’s denial of the killings than about the actual killings. Floyd writes: ‘Except for a two-sentence summary of Amnesty’s charges, the entire top half of the story dealt with statements from minions of the Ethiopian dictator, denouncing Amnesty’s “lies.”‘ Imagine if this occurred in Venezuela. Every newspaper in the U.S. would publish the story and every Representative and Senator would be enraged, calling for President Chavez to resign. The American people would cheer on! Yeah, we are against the violation of human rights, they would say.

Of course, not the human rights of Somalis. That is a whole different matter…

AMNESTY International has accused Ethiopian soldiers of killing 21 people, including an imam and several Islamic scholars, at a Mogadishu mosque and says seven of the victims had their throats slit.

The rights group said the soldiers had also captured dozens of children during the raid on the al Hidaaya mosque in the north of the Somali capital earlier this week during operations against Islamist insurgents.

Ethiopia has thousands of soldiers in neighbouring Somalia to bolster a Western-backed government against rebels fighting an Iraq-style insurgency in the Horn of Africa nation.

The Ethiopian and Somali governments have not responded publicly to accusations of atrocities at the mosque. But they have frequently denied abusing human rights in the fight against groups they call al-Qaeda-backed terrorists.

Amnesty said those killed at the mosque included imam Sheikh Saiid Yaha and several scholars of the moderate Tabligh group that operated there.

“Eye-witnesses report that those killed inside the mosque were unarmed civilians taking no active part in hostilities,” Amnesty said.

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Blame The Media? No, Let’s Blame Ourselves!
April 24, 2008, 10:00 pm
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The discussion on Guantánamo Bay has lost all importance to Americans. The candidates are not asked the serious questions and in the interim, hundreds of innocent captives continue to languish, without fair trails and without the ability to see their loved ones. How many people are outraged at the desecration of that sacred value we proudly claim our liberal democracy rests on?

Those few who are outraged blame the media and neglect to blame the real culprit: ourselves. Yes, we the people are not only complicit in this, we in fact perpetuate this. The media asks questions about lapel pins and Rev. Jeremiah Wright not because they want to brainwash us, it is because that is what we as a society deem important.

I always hear people lamenting about how more people watch American Idol than know what is occurring in Iraq. Yes, that is a problem, but it is not the media’s fault. We as a society would rather discuss Simon Cowell than David Petraeus. In fact, I would go so far as to say that more people know who Simon Cowell is than who David Petraeus is. Is that the media’s fault? No. The media is only a reflection of the culture which it serves. To be fair, the American people are slowing realizing this and perhaps, the latest debate opened peoples eyes to this chicanery. Poet’s Musings calls ABC All But Comatose and I think a lot of people were taken back by the questions asked of the candidates. He writes

Two wars, economic collapse, environmental collapse, the largest prison population in the industrial world, a chasm between rich and poor, no solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, a Vice President who wants to be a dictator and who got liquored up and shot his friend in the face, a circus clown as president, a Congress that seems to be on a permanent morphine-drip, a Supreme Court that looks like the Spanish Inquisition, a concentration camp in Guantanamo, a Justice Department that argued in favor of torture up to the brink of organ failure, the use of ethanol helping to worsen famine worldwide (feed cars, not people), the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and so on–and what do Fatuous Gibson and George Boretheshitoutofus ask about?:

Flag pins, the Bosnian tarmac 15 years ago, a retired pastor, and the word “bitter.” I’m now convinced that all journalists except Helen Thomas have been taken over by the pod-people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and are incapable of asking pertinent questions.

Unfortunately, most of us do not actually see a problem with making lapel pins an actual election issue.  As unimportant as he and I may see that issue, the fact remains that many Americans actually do care a lot about lapel pins and the like and so, in that regard, the truly comatose are you and I.

Back to subject at hand. Guantánamo has lost its place in the dominant discourse because it has always remained on the periphery of what we as a culture see as important. For the most part, when the issue is raised by Democratic Congressman, it is only for the sake of tarnishing Republicans. It is all about political semantics and that is all that we as a culture are concerned with. Tackling the morality of the issue would make most of us realize that we are indeed complicit in this.

So in one of my classes, we discussed the status of prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. In particular, we discussed a book edited by Professor Marc Falkoff of Northern Illinois University, who has put together a collection of poems written by detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak offers us a glimpse into the minds of those who we could not empathize with even if we tried.

Most of us say we care, but how can we feel what they feel? How can we sit behind a computer screen and attempt to understand what people dehumanized feel? I guess, the only way possible is to read their words and get into their minds and in this regard, these poems allow us to develop some frame of reference.

While I attempt to care, no amount of reading can actually open my eyes to the reality. As those who read my blog are well aware, I watch a lot of Al-Jazeera. So naturally, the story of Sami al-Haj strikes close to my heart. Sami was a cameraman for Al-Jazeera when, in 2001, he was taken into custody and stripped of his passport and press card. Tortured at both Bagram and Kandahar, he was transferred to Guantánamo Bay in June 2002. He has been there ever since. As of this writing, that is 2139 days. 2139 days without seeing ones family. He has also been on a hunger strike for the past 465 days. According to Reporters Without Borders, “Aside from the fact that Guantanamo Bay is a legal and humanitarian scandal, the Americans seem to be holding Al-Haj simply because they have it in for Al-Jazeera. How else can you explain the fact that he has been held for four years without being charged while other journalists have been cleared and released in no time at all ?”

Many liberals here in the United States find it much easier to be outraged by what is happening in Venezuela. Millions were shocked that President Hugo Chavez had the audacity to not renew the license of RCTV (and force them to…hold your breath…move to cable). The fact that we have held an Al-Jazeera cameraman without trail for almost 7 years now seems to not matter much because we like enemies, we as a people want someone else to blame for what is going on. Defending press freedom is essential when supposedly unfriendly regimes are violating freedoms, not when we do it. Sure, many are angry at what is occurring at Guantánamo Bay, yet, very few see their role in perpetuating this madness.

This is more of a rant than it is a concrete entry, but these are the things that go through my mind. Why have we allowed this to go on? Frankly, because as much as we support PETA and donate to the ACLU, we still would rather blame the faults of the world on others than turning the mirror towards ourselves. Doing that would reveal a decrepit soul consumed by consumerism and interested only in sound clips.

So, here is Sami al-Haj’s poem.

When I heard pigeons cooing in the trees,
Hot tears covered my face.
When the lark chirped, my thoughts composed
A message for my son.
Mohammad, I am afflicted.
In my despair, I have no one but Allah for comfort.
The oppressors are playing with me,
As they move freely about the world.
They ask me to spy on my countrymen,
Claiming it would be a good deed.
They offer me money and land,
And freedom to go where I please.
Their temptations seize my attention
Like lightning in the sky.
But their gift is an evil snake,
Carry hypocrisy in its mouth like venom.
They have monuments to liberty
And freedom of opinion, which is well and good.
But I explained to them that
Architecture is not justice.
America, you ride on the backs of orphans,
And terrorize them daily.
Bush, beware.
The world recognizes an arrogant liar.
To Allah I direct my grievance and my tears.
I am homesick and oppressed.
Mohammad, do not forget me.
Support the cause of your father, a God-fearing man.
I was humiliated in the shackles.
How can I now compose verses? How can I now write?
After the shackles and the nights and the suffering and the tears,
How can I write poetry?
My soul is like a roiling sea, stirred by anguish,
Violent with passion.
I am a captive, but the crimes are my captors’.
I am overwhelmed with apprehension.
Lord, unite me with my son Mohammad.
Lord, grant success to the righteous.

To find out more about Sami Al-Haj, visit Prisoner 345