Speak Out Against Bigotry

posted by Scott Schaeffer-Duffy on July 25th, 2010

In August, 1993, I found myself waiting in line at the post office in Split, Croatia. I was there as part of an international peace effort called Mir Sada (“Peace Now” in Serbo-Croatian). Yugoslavia was breaking up. Slovenia was the first to declare its independence, followed by Croatia. Bosnia proclaimed itself a multi-ethnic state and was being dismembered by Serbs and Croats. Millions of people were displaced, over 97,000 killed. The peace activists from 18 countries who made up Mir Sada hoped to set up a peace camp in the no-man’s land surrounding Sarajevo, the besieged capital of Bosnia.

Although this lofty goal was my broad purpose for being in the Adriatic port city, my specific purpose at that moment in Croatia was to buy a stamp to send a postcard to my wife. While waiting in line, I asked an English-speaking native next to me, “What’s the best way to say ‘thank you’ in Serbo-Croatian?” A stony silence fell upon the entire room until my formerly-friendly neighbor said, “There is no such language. We speak Croatian.” Fair enough. I pressed on, “So how do you say ‘thank you’ in Croatian?” “Hvala,” she replied. But I couldn’t let it go there, so I asked, “And how do they say it in Serbia?” Everyone looked a bit sheepish because the Serbs also say “hvala.”

This exchange highlighted for me the insanity of the Bosnian war. Serbs, Croats, and Muslims coexisted in Yugoslavia, despite significant favoritism toward Serbs. In 1990 almost 4 million Yugoslavians, 13.6% of the population, came from mixed marriages. By 1993, millions of neighbors, family members, and friends were fighting a ferocious war against one another, a war which was defined by a euphemism for genocide, “ethnic cleansing.”

Overlapping the Bosnian nightmare was the Rwandan Genocide and the ethnic displacement of Palestinians by Israelis. Tutsis and Hutus, indistinguishable Africans to outsiders, found their identities a matter of life and death. Palestine, a land where Jews and Muslims had lived in peace for over a thousand years, found itself divided by race and religion into Jewish communities of wealth and power versus Arab communities of poverty and oppression. The irony of this division is that it is occurring in a land both communities call holy.

In 2004, as part of a Catholic Worker Peace Team, I saw the insanity of human bigotry ravage Darfur, Sudan, where people who shared the same religion were nonethe less ripped apart by their identification of themselves as Arab or African. As an out sider, I could see no difference between the sides and yet, almost a half a million Africans had been killed and two million dis placed. And now, in 2010, 80,000 Uzbeks have fled their homes in Kyrgyzstan where thousands were killed in orchestrated at tacks by Kyrgyz militias and troops.

What causes a relatively affluent and educated country like Yugoslavia, a nation which hosted the Winter Olympics games in 1984, to devolve seven years later into an ethnic charnel house? What causes Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Holy Land, believers in the same merciful God, to tear each other apart? How can human beings become so alienated from each other?

History, religion, politics, and economics are often blamed for the transformation of ordinary people into monsters who kill displace and kill their neighbors. But I believe that leap is engineered and escalated by greedy and ambitious cynics. The Nazis rode to power on the backs of anti-semitism. The affluent Jewish state of Israel was secured by the displacement of 800,000 Palestinians. Croatian and Serbian nationalists seized political power by recalling 50-year-old atrocities from World War II and 700-year-old wounds from wars with Islam. The road to ethnic and racial violence is usually gradual, but, during hard economic times, can be short and steep. Communities can go insane with alarming speed.

This is why Americans need to be especially vigilant. Here in Massachusetts, on May 27, after Governor Deval Patrick met with representatives of the Bay State Muslim community and promised “cultural awareness training” for police, he was denounced for “political correctness run amok” by Treasurer Timothy Cahill, an independent candidate for governor. Pointing out that his daughter lives near Times Square, the site of a recent bomb attempt, Cahill went on to say that “Governor Patrick should stop playing politics with terrorism and focus on protecting the citizens of this commonwealth.” Governor Patrick’s visit to the Islamic Cultural Center in Roxbury was one of many similar visits he has made to various ethnic and religious groups this year. His promise to work to end racial profiling and discrimination against Muslims was consistent with what his aides called Patrick’s “lifelong commitment to civil and human rights.”

Cahill’s comments were condemned the next day on the steps of the Roxbury mosque by prominent Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim leaders. Rev. Hurmon Hamilton, president of the interfaith organization and pastor of Roxbury Presbyterian Church said, “Not in Massachusetts! No bigotry!” Rabbi Eric Gurvis of Temple Shalom in Newton said that members of the Islamic Society were among the first to help when his temple was defaced with a swastika. He called Cahill’s remarks an “act of hatred and bigotry.” In the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, a spokesperson for the Worcester Islamic Society, Tahir Ali, called Cahill’s comments “dishonorable and pitiful.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Cahill did not retract his remarks or apologize for them. Even after a closed door meeting with ecumenical religious leaders, the candidate stood by his anti-Islamic charges. Apparently, his advisors believe that bigotry against Muslims plays better at the polls than tolerance.

If we had any doubt that the we were entering into a dangerous time of Muslim-baiting, just three days after Cahill’s remarks were denounced as intolerant, the Telegram & Gazette ran a cartoon suggesting that New York City’s approval of a mosque near ground zero was akin to allowing Muslim street vendors to sell “Authentic 9-11 box cutters autographed by Mohammed Atta.” The suggestion that every mosque is a center for terrorism was so offensive to us that we organized a phone tree to complain to the newspaper’s editor. To our dismay, he saw nothing offensive in the cartoon and refused to issue an apology to the local Islamic community.

There were no subsequent letters to the editor criticizing the cartoon and no ecumenical leaders standing on the steps of the newspaper building denouncing bigotry. I told the editor that the cartoon incited people to believe that all Muslims are terrorists and that, in the current economic, political, and military climate, such accusations were seeds of violence. He wasn’t moved. Perhaps like Cahill, who made a political calculation, the editor made an economic one. Anti-Islamic material, just like anti-semitic material in Nazi Germany, sells papers.

Scapegoats soothe frayed nerves and deflect attention from genuine economic, military, and political problems. Yesterday, I went to Concord with my son Aiden to read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Sitting on a stump overlooking the site of the philosopher’s cabin, we read, “It’s never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking, however ancient can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow. . . .” (Catholics are slaves of the pope. Jews are moneygrubbers. Muslims are terrorists. . . .)

The deceit of bigotry is fueled by ignorance and dispelled by knowledge. Let us not let bigotry run amok here in the United States. Get to know people of different religions, nationalities, and cultures. Welcome them. As Thoreau asks, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” And finally, when bigotry raises its ugly visage, speak out! For the love of a God, who loves all humanity, speak out!

(This article appeared in the August 2010 issue of the Catholic Radical, published by the SS. Francis & Therese Catholic Worker community, 52 Mason St, Worcester, Massachusetts 01610.)

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