On Tuesday, 9/11, two days after we
posted our essay on America vs. Islam, an angry mob attacked the
U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing J. Christopher
Stevens, Washington's ambassador to Libya, as well as three
other Americans at the compound. The violence erupted out of
mass protests in Libya, Egypt, and other Muslim nations over a
little-seen, straight-to-YouTube anti-Islam film called
“Innocence of Muslims,” which depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a
womanizer and pedophile. The “film,” which is actually just a
sub-amateur video posted to YouTube by what appear to be
extremely ignorant self-professed “Christians” (whose shameful
acts demonstrate they are not Christians at all) was further
promoted by Terry Jones, the hate-mongering ignorant,
Quran-burning pastor of less than fifty ignorant folk in
Gainesville Florida, at what he called his “Judge Muhammad Day,”
a “Christian” hate event. That a relative nobody could post a
stupid, home-made “video” to YouTube and another relative nobody
could promote it, inciting global violence which led to murder,
and neither “Christian” express even the slightest regret or
remorse only further underscores my point about the scourge of
religious bigotry, ignorance and extremism in this country.
One of the steepest prices we pay for liberty and freedom is our having to put up with ignorant hate-speech. Freedom means precisely that, that each of us is entitled to our own voice, no matter how hateful that voice may be. A major problem with the so-called Arab Spring is that oppressed people, yearning for freedom, usually do not fully understand what freedom actually means or the price they all must pay for that freedom. The protestors and rioters, having only recently won their own freedom from oppression, are demanding only free speech they agree with or free speech which does not offend them (or, in this case, blaspheme God). There is no freedom if you pass a law banning speech you disagree with. In the hands of those who have only known cruelty and totalitarianism, freedom is a much more fragile, much more complex, and far more costly thing than many of them understand.
In 38 years of ministry, I have never once heard any teaching on
Islam (general) or even The Nation of Islam offered from a black
pulpit. These days, when a white person hears the word “Muslim,”
they think of bin Laden or Muqtada al-Sadr. I imagine the
overwhelming majority of white Americans, when they hear
“Muslim,” think “terrorist.” And, thus, Americans of Middle
Eastern descent, of all faiths, routinely fall under the shadow
of suspicion just by being who they are. This is a familiar
story to Black America. Only, I’d imagine when most black
Americans hear the word “Muslim,” we think “Farrakhan,” whom
many of us see as a great black leader, whether we agree with
him or not. Most black people I know associate the word
“terrorist” with a specific person or behavior and do not
slander an entire ethnic group. We certainly don’t blame Islam,
a religion the black church in America has lived in peaceful
cooperation with for half a century. The so-called “Black”
Muslims of the United States are not known for acts of terrorism
beyond political rhetoric and civil disobedience in defiance of
social injustice, so my guess would be that Black America is
having a much different Muslim experience than White America.
I have no quarrel with the Nation of Islam or its leader, The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, though I must preface my embrace of my brothers and sisters with my conviction that our paths diverge at Hagar, Abraham’s concubine who bore him the son Ishmael and from whom the Islamic faith evolved. I am a Christian, whose path travels through Isaac and Judaism to the virgin birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Which should and must not make me an enemy of Islam any more than I am an enemy of, say, Republicans. As Rick Warren profoundly said, “We are all betting our lives on something. I’m betting that the Word of God is true.”
That preface notwithstanding, it is without question that Minister Farrakhan is the most prolific, demonstrably profound and effective voice in African American leadership today. Which is not to in any way impugn intellectuals such as The Reverend Dr. Michael Eric Dyson (whose voice I pitifully attempt to mimic in my own writing), Dr. Cornel West, or even The Reverend Jeremiah Wright. However, what separates Minister Farrakhan from the crowd is his unflinching willingness if not eagerness to wear the villain’s black hat. His is an uncompromised and undomesticated voice. Frankly, you never know what the minister is going to say next. He seems to have made peace with the uncontested fact of his being an outcast from mainstream society, and even politically feared by blacks as well. I have seen no evidence that the minister can be bought, coerced, compromised, intimidated, threatened, or mitigated in any way. I have not heard his comments on the now-infamous Reverend Wright sound bite, but my instinct suggests Minister Farrakhan’s biggest problem with the “God Damn America!” rant was that he himself didn’t think of it first.
We may not agree with everything the minister says, and, yes, this may be me hedging a little because, frankly, I have not listened to every single word ever spoken by him. But there is an undeniable quotient to the minister’s speech: he says things most of us are afraid to say. He says things virtually all black Americans have thought at one time or another but have choked down because of the society in which we live. Much like comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who has made millions by drawing attention to everyday things we all see and observe, Farrakhan’s electric, watchable quality is he draws attention to the distressed humanity that comprises the black experience in America. And, we distance ourselves from him and hedge a little against him not out of some genuine disagreement with his positions but because of the very engine that powers his dynamism: the overwhelming power of whites in America and Black America’s forced acceptance of mainstream values. Hang all the posters of Rick Warren you like: a public embrace of Farrakhan can cost you your job.
This musing is not intended as a defense of Minister Farrakhan. Like Mark Antony, I come neither to praise nor bury Caesar but to jot down my observations on this phenomena of “Islamic Evil.”
Putting Us In Our Place
Since its inception in Detroit by Master Wallace D. Fard
Muhammad in 1958, White America has been suspicious of the
Nation of Islam and America’s *black* Muslims, mainly because
the Honorable Elijah Muhammad preached black independence in
forceful propaganda of his own which was deliberately tinged
with hateful rhetoric about “white devils” and so forth. The
Nation of Islam has toned down much of that rhetoric but the
faith itself (which is not specifically the same as the
extremist fundamentalism practiced by Islamic Boogeyman figures
like the Taliban and al-Sadr) and its leader, Minister Louis
Farrakhan, are still largely demonized by “mainstream” America
because of the Nation’s unapologetic black nationalism and
Farrakhan’s insensitive public remarks. Precious few whites
bothered to review The Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s “God Damn
America” sermon in any context. It is a sermon not untypical of
a Sunday morning in a black church. The demonizing of Wright was
a kind of violence against Black America as they did to Wright
what they’ve yet to successfully do to Farrakhan: put a powerful
black leader in his place.
The church, for Black America, has historically been the one place we’ve always felt comfortable to speak our mind—within our own temple of worship. The harsh rhetoric, routine in our experience, can be shocking to White America, who seize the most incendiary phrases and broadcast them out of context. This practice deeply wounds Black America, who feel invaded and stripped of our one place of safety. We are now accosted and ordered, under threat, to explain ourselves—parsing and translating—to a biased and impatient audience none of us were addressing in the first place. Which, of course, only increases racial resentment and widens the gulf between the two Americas.
I have expressed the exact same sentiments Wright does in his now-infamous sermon, and may have used the same language myself had I been clever or gifted enough to have coined the phrase. Taking a sound bite from a black preacher, be it Wright or Farrakhan, and presenting it to whites—to those of another culture, especially one predisposed to receive black nationalism as an act of hostility toward them—is a capricious act. Good preaching, good black preaching most especially, contains eloquent flourishes of rhetorical arguments which require context an analysis. Context requires patience and an open mind. Our present fast-food, Persian Bazaar flash flood of alleged “news” does not allow for either. Whites were shocked by Wright’s words, but I know of no blacks who were. I knew some who were puzzled or curious, but this language, while incendiary and certainly ratcheted up a notch, was not uncommon in our experience. I, frankly, failed to see what the big deal was. While I certainly understood then-Senator Obama’s need to distance himself from Wright, and his near-disavowing of Farrakhan, I disagree with either choice. In order to be elected, the president has had to play the game, to distance himself from two of the most profound voices in African American culture. This, of course, is a mark of weakness: the most powerful man in the world is forbidden to embrace Minister Farrakhan, arguably one of the most powerful if not the most powerful man in Black America.
War On Islam
I don’t know if black people understand Islam any more than
white people do, but I would guess most black Americans have a
higher comfort level with their Muslim neighbors than most white
Americans do. I would speculate that most urban blacks have a
personal relationship with at least one person of Muslim faith,
and that that person is welcome in his home, at his place of
business, and, yes, at his church. I have friends and relatives
who are members of the Nation of Islam. I have no quarrel with
them. I’ve never experienced Muslims to be evil or violent, and,
despite the schism in our religious beliefs, we are not in
conflict with one another. Both Islam and Christianity have
roots in Abramic monotheism (faiths which recognize a
spiritual tradition identified with Abraham), but Islamic
tradition denies the deity of Jesus Christ and holds that Jews
and Christians distorted the revelations of God by either
altering the text, introducing a false interpretation, or both.
I am willing to guess I am likely much more comfortable around
persons of Muslim faith than many whites who not only have no
Muslim friends but no black friends. In the Nation of Islam they
see only violence and hate, in spite of the fact the Nation
tends to serve the community even moreso than many Christian
groups do. But this is the Republican (if not the American)
party line: Muslims are evil, dangerous people out to kill us.
This is the latest concoction from America’s political machine
who, once or twice a generation, labels some ethnic group
(Germans, Japanese) or ideology (Communism) as an enemy of
America. This helps them sell whatever war they are selling at
the moment and, at the moment, hating Muslims has been good for
business. White America’s irrational fear and hatred of Muslims
is every bit as wrong as the hatred taught in Islamic madrassas
all over the globe: America is evil and dangerous and out to
We fear and hate Muslims, I suppose, because Muslims are evil and violent. So are nutty, radical, fringe Christians. Most of the people who hate Obama, who continue to insist Obama is a Muslim (which they take as some kind of condemnation, using the word “Muslim” in the same context as they once used the word “Communist,” as if the president actually being a Muslim would somehow be “bad”), also claim to love Jesus, which they demonstrably do not. The Holy Spirit does not foster ignorance or inspire violence. Radicalized, ignorant Christians are every bit as dangerous as radicalized, ignorant Muslims. Fanaticism is fanaticism, whether it’s about Ishmael or Isaac.
America’s traditional disavowal of Black Muslims, including but not limited to the Nation of Islam, has traditionally excluded “regular” Muslims, i.e. of Arabic or middle-eastern descent. We seemed to more or less ignore Muslims as some negligible oddity from barren worlds of sand. Growing up, I do not recall ever drawing a straight line from Elijah Muhammad to, say, Lawrence of Arabia, or 1981’s The Lion Of The Desert. I’m not sure I (or anyone else) paid Muslims all that much attention before a little-known radical cleric named Ayatollah Khomeini took 50 American diplomats hostage in Iran in 1978. The Iranian Hostage Crisis introduced America to a new kind of Muslim. Not the docile sheep herders of Hollywood film but young, hip, college kids with a legitimate complaint against the United States whose CIA had imposed a cruel dictator, The Shah of Iran, upon their people. However, at the time, America’s complaint was with Khomeini, not Islam.
Post 911, despite politicians’ claims to the contrary, America is demonstrably engaged in a war against Islam. The specific villainous figures come and go, but the Pentagon war machine has successfully if not ingeniously managed to vilify not a person but an ideology. Ideologies, whether religious or political, cannot in and of themselves be either “good” or “evil.” They are ideologies, a way of thinking, a belief system.
The Great Debate:
Pastor Gino Jennings takes on all comers at a conference with
members of the Nation of Islam.
The Latest Bat-Villain
The motivating factor for most any movement is the existence of
a villain. Regardless of your cause, if you want to get people
marching, focused, and/or writing checks, you have to hang
something or someone out as an antagonist. Somebody with a black
hat or mustache twirl you can point to and demonize as the
enemy. During World War II the villain was, of course, the Nazis
and virtually all Japanese. During the McCarthy era the enemy
was Communism, an ideology.
In the early 1990‘s, George Herbert Walker Bush fought a successful Gulf War by buying the friendship of a wide swath of Middle Eastern and European states, successfully ejecting Iraqi dictator Sadaam Hussein from his unlawful annexation of Kuwait. For Gulf War I, there was an obvious bad guy: Hussein. Not even his Arab allies liked him very much, and nobody approved of or supported his Kuwait invasion, least of all the rich, spoiled Arab princes this precedent certainly threatened. Bush’s son, George W., however, prostituted his father’s ingenious diplomatic and military success by claiming to repeat it. In reality, the junior Bush’s “Coalition Of The Willing,” was a fraudulent, hollow mockery of his father’s brilliance, consisting of a few reluctant European states and a smattering of tiny sovereign territories bought off by U.S. loan guarantees and other incentives.
Bush 43 attempted to focus on Sadaam once again as the villain of the piece, but America was not all that interested in or concerned about Sadaam. America had suffered a devastating and shocking attack from a little-known radical Islamic group called al Qaeda, which was led by a Saudi millionaire who bore a striking resemblance to the character Kramer from the NBC sitcom Seinfeld. Try as he did to place Sadaam Hussein at the center of America’s ire, America was focused on Osama bin Laden. Every thinking American was wondering why we were spending hundreds of billions going after Sadaam, when bin Laden was the villain of this new movie. And, as the Iraq war devolved into folly and quagmire, the emergent critical voices of radical Imams like Muqtada al-Sadr, with his uncompromising and unbridled hatred for all things American, his TV-news-perfect black robes and demonic scowl, grew in the American conscience, echoing the scariness and presumed evil of radical Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini.
Khomeini can likely be held historically responsible for creating The Islamic Fundamentalist Boogeyman, but by the time of 911, America had largely gone back to ignoring Muslims in general as an oddity, racked up alongside the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses as simply odd or misguided religious choices outside of the Christian mainstream.
911 changed all that, though it did not in and of itself create the myth of Islamic Evil in our minds. As late as a year later, most of us were still predisposed toward hatred not toward Islam but toward those Islamic guys who attacked us. The villains were the human men who committed heinous acts, not the faith itself. The demonizing of the faith—despite America’s transparently disingenuous claims and denials—was, I believe, collateral damage from Bush 43’s tragic Iraqi misadventure. Using the Arab bin Laden as an excuse, Bush invaded Iraq and killed, by conservative estimate, a minimum of thirty *times* as many people as bin Laden is accused of having killed on 911. That the demonic-seeming (to our culture) al-Sadr emerged as a forceful principle in that conflict, ratcheting up hatred for America (if not specifically love for bin Laden, a disconnect most Americans ignore), was no surprise. Al-Sadr and his fellow hate-spewing imams made great TV. The Radical Imam icon, therefore, overshadowed both bin Laden and Hussein as the villain of our show. And our fear and hatred applied itself not only to these specific individuals but to the optics —the black robes, the burning US flags, the fundamentalist propaganda—and ultimately blurred into a fear and loathing of the faith itself.
Politicians, Republicans most reliably, use fear to motivate ad manipulate the American public. Despite a dismal first term that placed us in two wars and a spiraling economy, America reelected George W, Bush in a 2004 squeaker by drowning out Democratic challenger Senator John Kerry with politically-timed changes to the ridiculous and useless color-coded Terror Alert Level (see the essay The Fear Merchants). Any time Bush seemed to be foundering, they’d raise the alert and that’s all you’d see on TV: law enforcement agencies across America scrambling (and, as it turned out, bankrupting city budgets) to comply with this meaningless, moronic coloring book. The Republicans just scared everybody to death, making the tall, handsome, athletic war hero Kerry seem like a dilettante as compared to the draft-dodging slacker Bush, whose failure to act upon early warnings of bin Laden’s attack is what brought on 911 in the first place. This is what Republicans do: appeal to the most ignorant among us and play on innate fear: vote for us or else. Democrats have traditionally appealed to our hope and aspirations, which is a stupid thing to do. Hope and aspirations send us off in 200 million directions. Fear unites us into a huddled mass frightened of whatever the Boogeyman of the moment happens to be.
Making not bin Laden, not Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, not Muqtada al-Sadr, but their *religion* our national enemy is a stroke of marketing genius as evil as the nonsense idea that Listerine actually kills germs or that spinach makes you strong. It is a lie. A vicious and cruel lie that continues to cost hundreds of thousands of lives and amass entire continents of bereaved and thus resentful people, every one of whom wishes death to America. But Muslim Hate sells. Sells big. It keeps the military hardware rolling off the assembly line and smoothes the way for every self-serving military incursion or political assassination our government desires. Politics relies on propaganda and propaganda relies on our being stupid and simply believing whatever we hear in the over-saturation of talking points within the media echo chamber. Anyone who actually opens a book or looks something up, asks a question or expresses a differing view is usually considered fringe and, thus, discounted as some crazy person with a blog.