Engaging the religious “Other” is only a matter of life or death.

In the interests of full disclosure, a few points as preface to the following:

  1. As a freshman in college, I gave serious thought to converting to Islam. While I’d like to think that I was stopped mainly by my concern for the status of women in some Middle Eastern nations, the facts are that I feared rejection by my family and I really love pork.
  2. That thought arose again nearly 20 years later in my first year of seminary – along with the idea of becoming Baha’i – but I once again stopped because of my strong support for LGBT equality (along with support for women). But at the same time, the rise of Islamophobia in the United States has led me to join CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations), to participate in the #MyJihad campaign at Twitter, and to financially support Muslim groups that are targeted by bigots.
  3. I’m left of the Democratic Party. Indeed, I am a registered socialist.

All that said: I think CAIR was a little off the mark today (March 11, 2013) when sharing this Tweet:

Glenn Greenwald: Democrats don’t cares about drones because they only kill Muslims… http://fb.me/2xsiBijvP

First off, that’s taking one very small part of Greenwald’s column out of context to make it sound like it represents the totality. The 140-character limit aside, it’s like saying Star Wars was about black market trade in a desert. Yes, he talks about “progressives and their ‘empathy gap’” and the notion that Muslims (especially non-American Muslims) are The Other, so even bleeding-heart liberals don’t care about drone strikes if the victims are “just Muslims” and we’re not, but that’s only one point in a three-part argument about the real topic: how Democrats have done a lousy job responding to the moral quandaries of killing people on a list using a remote-controlled plane. It’s a good analysis when not misrepresented.

Second, though Muslims are the victims here, to say that Americans don’t care about dead Muslims in other countries is giving us way too much credit. Sad to say, we Americans do not limit our apathy only to dead Muslims. Seven or eight decades ago, it was the plight of European Jews that we were ignoring. Let’s not overlook our consistent blind eye toward the people of Tibet, the victims of the Rwandan massacre, or closer to home, the general unwillingness to address the abuses of indigenous persons on the North American continent or to prosecute Catholic officials implicated in sex crimes.

(The child abuse issue is not limited to Catholicism, of course. But the Vatican’s bureaucracy and deep pockets have given its errant priests an air of impunity that your Sunday school teacher in a Protestant or evangelical church lacks. We fail miserably as a country to prosecute sexual assaults of all forms, but we fail less often when the predator isn’t wearing a Roman collar.)

And if President Obama called off the drone program tomorrow, that might make Sen. Rand Paul happy, but there would be some in the Republican base who would throw up their hands and say, “See? Our Muslim president is going soft on terrorists because he’s one of them!” I don’t even know if he’s still alive, but I well remember the bile that rose in my throat years ago when I was working at a small-town weekly newspaper and had the “pleasure” of typing in the latest handwritten column from our resident Cranky Old White Guy, who was opining on how President Clinton should not be sending our troops into the former Yugoslavia because the people being raped and killed were “just Muslims,” not real people whose deaths mattered.

My fourth-grade teacher was a Christian lady with an Iranian expatriate Muslim husband, who would later be my high-school economics teacher. (I absolve him of responsibility for my finances.) As an undergraduate, my friends and I spent many long nights in a pizza parlor owned by a Jordanian couple whose young daughter, Sima, knew no strangers, and I’ve spent years hoping that her kindness was not spurned by people after the Twin Towers fell. In the final days of my job at a daily newspaper, I often got take-out food from a restaurant owned by Egyptian immigrants who’d stuck it out in a rough neighborhood even after the man’s brother was shot, beaten, and nearly killed in a robbery, and I still remember his son Amir’s small face lighting up across a bulletproof barrier when I remembered his name from a previous visit as I handed him money and he handed me a gyro.

I do not have the answers to all our foreign policy and defense matters. But I do know the world is generally a better place when people acknowledge the humanity of other people, when people of faith don’t take the maxim that humanity is “created in God’s image” to mean a specific type of humans were created in that image, and when believers realize that hating the other because of color or creed — or not caring about the other, which is arguably worse — is equal to spitting in the face of God.

My home county had an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan less than 15 years ago. In my time as a reporter at the weekly paper there, the local Chamber of Commerce told me there were 95 churches in the county, one of them Catholic; there are still, to my knowledge, no non-Christian religious groups organized in the county. Every kid from a dead-end town thinks “I’m going to get out of here someday.” When I did, I tried to escape the mentality as well.

I am committed to building relationships with people from different religious and ethical systems because the alternative feels too much like talking to myself to do otherwise. Reaching out may not save the world, but drawing in will surely doom it.

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2 thoughts on “Engaging the religious “Other” is only a matter of life or death.

  1. Jason-
    Thank you for this moving post. I especially appreciate your point that the “world is generally place when people acknowledge the humanity of other people.” It may seem simple, but the principle often goes unheeded; I wonder if this is due mainly to a widespread ingrained prejudice against The Other, or the need to avoid hard questions that may upset our way of life and force us to make painful choices. Either way, we need to start having more conversations about how to extend compassion to all.

  2. Hi Jessie,

    Thank you for the response!

    I think the difficulty in seeing the humanity in others arises from several factors, including both that you mention, plus also a bit of arrogance and/or insecurity: the statement that “I’m better than THOSE people” can really reflect either or both.

    Generally, though, I think that indifference to others, a lack of intellectual curiosity, and failure to act all stem from a certain laziness that is part of human nature. People often do whatever is easiest, for good or ill.

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