Thursday, August 30, 2012

L'enfer, C'est les Autres, Part 2

If I do not love the world -- if I do not love life -- if I do not love people -- I cannot enter into dialogue.
-Paulo Freire

Since the terrorist attacks on the United States of 11 September 2001, muslim citizens and their houses of worship have been frequent targets of vandalism, harassment, threats, and assaults.  To this day and onward, many Americans scapegoat the entire religion, collectively blaming millions of its followers for the actions of the terrorist gang that attacked our country that day.  Meanwhile, religious extremism and distortions of religions continue to inspire hatred and violence.

Police departments around the nation have seen the wisdom of educating themselves about muslims' beliefs and culture.  On the one hand, they are called upon to investigate legitimate suspicions of terrorist plots, and Islamist terrorism does exist.  On the other hand, they are also called upon to serve and protect all citizens, including those who are muslim.  To fulfill both of these imperatives, you need police officers knowledgeable about Islam and its interaction with local culture.

Some police departments have gone the route of surveillance, and been busted for it.  Elsewhere, police departments have adopted a more democratic -- or at least pragmatic -- approach, openly mixing and mingling with their local Islamic community through combinations of one-on-one meetings and community events.

This brings us to something that happened in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2011.  A new lawsuit has brought the case some news coverage this month and it is my belief it reflects a broad problem for U. S. culture and politics.  (You know it's a weird story when the most neutral coverage you can find comes from the Fox political organization.  Many right-wing sites wrote stories suggesting, at least in their headlines, that this is somehow evidence that the police department is adopting sharia law. The story has nothing to do with sharia law.)    

About a year and a half ago, the Islamic Cultural Society in Tulsa, Oklahoma coordinated a "Law Enforcement Appreciation Day" with the police department, and one police captain, Paul Campbell Fields, refused to go voluntarily.  He was then ordered to go by his superiors.  He refused again, and was punished for insubordination.  He is now suing the department.

From his deposition:

This event is compelling me to go to a venue where a group of individuals is prepared to discuss their (Islamic) faith.  And in my faith, I have a duty to proselytize my faith to people (who) don't subscribe to my faith. I can't do that in uniform. And so therein lies the conflict or moral dilemma I face.

Captain Fields also affirmed that the religious difference would not prevent him from entering a mosque to provide service or to serve or protect muslim citizens.  However, he seems to feel that requiring him to attend a community event where he would have to learn about a different religion -- without arguing for his own -- was not legitimate police business.  I don't wish to put words in his mouth, but that seems to be the distinction he is making. 

This is a much wider problem than "islamophobia."  It is a problem that I fear is so widespread a lot of us don't see it: a simple inability to be in the presence of difference.  According to his deposition, this man felt he could not bear to receive knowledge about a different culture and a different religion.  Feeling that he would not be allowed to respond by proselytizing his own religion, he felt oppressed.  Did he want dialogue, or rather a venue to compete?

It is a disturbing theme reflected in political rhetoric.  Diplomacy is derided as apologetic, weak, and offering "trust where it is not earned".  Candidates win popular support by promising never to compromise.  In other spheres, there are pastors who caution their flock and books advising against discussing religion with others because Satan might be using them to tempt you.  Hell is other people!  Ideas are dangerous!   Knowledge might pervert you!  And co-workers and neighbors, among whom there might be enough good will and intimacy to practice good democratic conversation, will often avoid topics where there might be disagreement. 

What are the social skills necessary to a state aspiring to any degree of democratic process, including, say, an American republic where people choose their leaders and vote on other things of national interest and civic concerns? 

Dialogue seems to be an elemental skill.  At the least, it can yield a wider understanding of complicated topics, and foster a sense of common ground shared by different groups.  Although there are still interfaith dialogue groups, community events involving police and civic leaders, and efforts to promote political compromise between the ruling parties, how highly does popular culture really esteem such efforts today?

When tolerance -- just that, simple tolerance -- is held disdainfully as some kind of appeasement by a society, what chance is there for real democracy?  Or even a truly representative republic?  Do we care?  Popular culture is not exactly rife with talk about building community, bridging differences, and fostering love among humankind.  Most people I observe feel pretty good about their trenches, thank you. 

It is a sad event that this police officer felt so threatened by a situation where he would be asked to learn about members of his community; that he felt oppressed by the expectation to listen without trying to change anybody; that he could not simply view his presence there as a service to the community. 

Click here to read another post about dialogue and process, involving what was then a fledgling "Occupy Las Cruces" movement.

[This image is from the website of the Las Cruces Islamic Center.]

1 comment:

Ji Hyang said...

What are the social skills necessary to a state aspiring to any degree of democratic process, including, say, an American republic where people choose their leaders and vote on other things of national interest and civic concerns?

And that is exactly why I am spending the weekend teaching skills for interfaith dialogue at Smith. Blog post soon to follow...