Speaking of Islamophobia…

In September 2001, I was living in Boston, forty seconds out of college, trying to be an adult. I heard about the attack on the World Trade Center while listening to NPR on the air mattress I slept on for an entire year.
My friends and I were decidedly radical, we worked hard at it (most of us still do). On the same day as the attacks, we crowded together in an auditorium at Brandeis for a teach-in on what has happened and the implications of it. We imagined World War III. In that moment, it seemed very possible.
A few weeks later, I was on a crowded train at rush hour. There were still rumors;“they” would attack Boston, Cleveland, anywhere that was accessible and unprepared. I wanted to run back to college. Instead, I watched a man with light brown skin get onto my T car, and proceeded to freak out. I actually got off the train. I waited for the next one, and as I stood there, I thought about how sometimes you just know you’ll be thinking about a certain thing for the rest of your life, like the moment you no longer recognize yourself. I actually got off the train because I’d decided in a moment of absolute, random terror, that that passenger was Arab, and that he might blow us all up.
I did the same thing a few years later in Jerusalem, on a particularly packed bus into the center of town. I supposed that sort of thing happens often in Jerusalem, although maybe less so now, along with things that are much worse. After I got off that bus, I took a long, sweaty walk. I hated myself that day, but ultimately, of course, hating yourself, feeling guilty is nothing if not completely unproductive.
What I remember in retrospect was how hotly, how effectively my fear and adrenaline concentrated, like gasoline, and completely overran my ability to be rational, clear thinking and not knee-jerkily racist. Fear can turn you into a lot of things. People who spend their time capitalizing on fear, on perpetuating it, know this.
Islamophobia was gaining momentum long before September 11th. The Jewish community has been injecting it in various shades into curricula, shul sermons, Kiddush conversations, Israel education, but it isn’t that simple. We are certainly very culpable in its perpetuation, but we aren’t alone. An insidious concoction of our own desire to assimilate, the debasement of Islam and the Arab world in the media, and the creation of a climate of fear as to the nature of the Koran is at work. The thing is, knowing that, dissecting it from all its angles is valuable, but ultimately, not so helpful on the ground. What we need is a different arsenal, which comes from dismantling the fear and hate that lives inside all of us.

6 thoughts on “Speaking of Islamophobia…

  1. While many Jews have indeed perpetuated Islamophobia, others have made a concerted effort to eradicate it. I am curious to know where you have heard these “sermons” that speak out against Islam or the Koran. As a secular Jew, I can’t say that I have ever sat in a sermon that spoke out against Islam or Muslims. In fact, I remember clearly that the sermon this past Yom Kippur in our progressive synagogue was decidedly FOR the mosque being built at Ground Zero (the Rabbi cited our nation’s freedom of religion as a precious right that each Jew is obligated to protect for any and every citizen of this nation).
    Remember how 79% of Jewish voters in the 2008 election voted for Obama, when the right-wingers were calling him a Muslim?
    You may think that “hate lives inside all of us,” and that might be true for you, but that is not the case for everyone. Saying that “we”–that all of us–are responsible for the spread of racism against Muslims is as much of a generalization as stating that all Muslims are terrorists.

  2. @Jew: As an Orthodox Jew, I have sorrowfully been in the room during many sermons that speak out against Islam, Arabs, Muslims, and the Koran. My general policy is to get up and walk out as the rabbi is speaking in as minor a protest as possible. I do not wish to give specifics of time and place, but I have heard the same repeated often in a modern Orthodox synagogue on the Upper West Side of NYC.
    Kol ha’kavod to your progressive synagogue for actually being progressive on the issue of “the other” when “the other” is Islam/Muslims. I know too many people who are liberal and progressive in all of their political views (regardless of whether or not they are secular or religious), except for when it comes to Arabs/Islam/Muslims/Zionism etc.

  3. @Jew, the larger point here is that while “we” as individuals may vote for Obama and consider ourselves liberal and not racist on individual terms, the voice of many prominent Jewish organizations, which by and large speak for The Jewish Community at large (because we let them) are not. Think ADL. It’s worth, then, stopping and asking ourselves how this continues when most of us are, as you say, decidedly un-Islamophobic. I think this is what chaneld1621 is talking about.

  4. while “we” as individuals may vote for Obama and consider ourselves liberal and not racist on individual terms
    Because of course we are defined as racist according to whether or not we voted for President Obama.

  5. This is just beating a dead horse. The only thing stopping the Islamic center from being built is a lack of funding, not permits or structural Muslim hatred. Personally, what I found interesting about this entire issue is the massive public relations failure of national Muslim/Arab-American organizations.
    In addition, the parallel, or lack thereof with anti-semitism, should be explored. Islamophobia means fear of Islam. The term was coined by activists to describe sentiments and people they consider “anti-Muslim”, whether those people are actually “against Muslims” or not. Anti-Semitism means hatred of Jews. The term was coined by people who hated Jews to describe themselves.

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