Confronting Islamophobia

An op-ed for Seattle’s Real Change paper (Apr. 14, 2011)

Thank you for the important article “Debunking the myth of the violent Muslim” (Real Change issue April 13-19). The day before your story came out I attended an event directly related to this issue – or so I thought.

My exceptional local theatre company, the Taproot Theatre at 85th & Greenwood, organized an exceptional program: an audience participation discussion about the subject of their current play, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German Christian theologian who spoke out against the Nazi regime and was killed by that regime near the end of WWII.

The evening, with four speakers and a completely filled audience of participants, was titled “Why Bonhoeffer? Why Now? Discussing the Cultural Relevance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” The panelists began and they spoke of the German churches being busy debating fine theological points while Jews were being led away to their deaths in concentration camps. And how the German Christian churches largely stood with the government and failed to stand in solidarity with the Jewish people.

After more than an hour of presentations and questions I was disappointed: the most obvious and important topic, I thought, had been left unsaid. So I raised my hand.

As a Jew who’d been twice to Auschwitz and lived five years in Israel, I said, I had a personal connection to this issue. But the most obvious group in a parallel situation today are … Muslims.

I pointed out that the U.S. is now fighting three wars in Muslim countries, occupying two of them; that we have off-shore prisons where we torture, even to death, prisoners who have no basic legal rights, and they are essentially all Muslims; and that a decade before 9/11 we had bombed all of Iraq’s electrical plants knowing it would shut off water and sewage processing, which led to an extra 46,900 Muslim Iraqi children’s deaths in the first eight months of 1991 (New England Journal of Medicine).

Since no one else had raised this “cultural relevance” of Bonhoeffer to the cultivated Islamophobia in the U.S., I didn’t know what to expect. But I said it clearly and cleanly, without anger or hatred, and I was glad that I did … whatever the reaction would be.

One woman in the balcony said she needed to speak. She said these people, these Muslims, wanted to kill us and to impose Islamic Sharia law on the United States — and we needed to defend ourselves.

But the response from the panelists was sympathetic. And, of the dozens of people who passed by me after the program on the way out, not one gave me a dirty look or said a mean word — while a significant number of them stopped to thank me for what I’d said.

There was a lesson from this experience for me: While people may be reluctant to talk about demonizing Islam and Muslims in our country, once it is pointed out many (at least in the select audience in the theatre) will recognize that truth and the danger in our doing it. My lesson is that I need to continue to speak out, in whatever skillful ways I can, and not to become a person of whom someone in the future will ask, “Where were the ‘good Americans’” when this was happening.

I think we all need to do this. I thank Real Change and Sean Hughes for their contribution to the effort. Keep it up!

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