Jason Derr: Beyond the Scapegoating of Islam: Returning to the American Dream
Several years ago I moved away from the USA to pursue a graduate education in theology at the Vancouver School of Theology. That short hop over the border is a much bigger ideological jump than one might think. Somewhere along the 49th parallel perspectives shift, change and migrate. When I arrived I was a slightly disillusioned American with no plan on becoming one of “those” ex-pats with all the bitterness and criticism of their home country.
One degree and a Canadian wife later — plus a post-graduation work permit and paperwork-in-process for spousal sponsorship — and I realize how much changing I’ve done while abroad. Now when the news comes on I tend to roll my eyes more often than not at what “those Americans” are getting up to. Not that Canada does not have its own problems.
Recently that eye rolling has been at the insistent othering by the American right wing. Whether it is the Koran-burning pastor or the Park51/Cordoba House protests, the anti-Muslim rhetoric has bordered on evil and has been squarely in the realm of anti-constitutional and anti-American. This level of conversation — and France’s expulsion of the Roma from their borders — often leaves me scratching my head.
At the heart of it is the issue of creating an “other” — a scapegoat, if you will — which is meant to take on the fears, frustrations and uncertainty we have of life, and whose sacrifice will bring us relief from those fears. While history is full of these sort of movements, I find the US and France to be ill suited for these roles. Europe, just decades after the Holocaust, and the US, just decades after the Civil Rights movement, should know what dangers live down the road of scapegoating. Even the most conservative of us, keeping history in mind, should have a line that we won’t cross with our rhetoric.
But recent events have left me shaken to my core. When Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin make suggestions for US policy and practice that is in direct violation of the US Constitution, we should all take a pause to remember who we are as a people and why we value the protections of religious freedom in our country.
And yes, abroad though I may be, the US is still my country! It is the land and geography that has shaped me, and I am proud to be an American. I may live out my days in Canada, but I will never stop being American.
But this conversation on the validity of Muslims in American life goes much deeper for me. I am a religious person whose faith and religious identity is deeply important and powerful to who I am and am becoming. Friends from the Jewish and Muslim traditions have gifted me; in fact, my wife and I have several very dear friends who are celebrating the holy month of Ramadan right now, while another friend is in Israel this summer contemplating moving his life in the direction of becoming a rabbi. Their identity as religious people are gifts to our relationship and friendships, not deterrents.
Being a pluralistic society is about more than just allowing differing communities to bump up against each other. It’s about making room for each other so that we can create a space of mutual learning, co-inquiry and equipotency. It also means standing with each other and recognizing that a violation of anyone’s right to speech and worship is a violation of everyone’s rights of speech and worship.
And luckily, many religious leaders recognize this. In my own organization — The Progressive Christian Alliance — we have worked with groups like Religious Freedom USA, the Birmingham Islamic Society and Chairs For Dialog to create FaithsUnited (www.faithu.org). FaithsUnited is a social networking platform to encourage interfaith participation on the lay level, in particular with movements towards justice.
Our first project is in response to the Koran-burning pastor. We call it the Scripture Exchange Program. Maybe, just maybe, religious people need to hear each other’s sacred texts in an environment of listening and not debate, conversation and not theology. We make room for each other but not in that we avoid each other, but in that we create a room in which to gather, listen and participate. Maybe we create a room together?
This is a protest, but it is also much more than that: it is a celebration of the depths of American identity. Our history shows a lot of rhetoric that is less than ideal compared with our greatest visions of ourselves, whether we were talking about African Americans, Irish or Jews. While country clubs no loner ban the Irish from participation due to their ethnicity, many Americans would ban Muslims from full participation in the American dream.
By feasting together, we insist that there is no line between “us” and “them.” When we engage in mutuality, we recognize that our uniqeness — difference of opinions, politics and theology — can enrich the conversation and bring unrecognized gifts to those of us who participate in ways we cannot even anticipate. This is the true strength of the American dream, and it is this spirit (should I say Spirit?) that FaithsUnited wants to tap into.
Who’s with us? Find us at faithu.org.