Poison by PowerPoint: Reading between the lines of Islamophobic emails
It happens every few weeks or so. If you’re Jewish, it probably happens to you, too. An email arrives from an acquaintance or a relative, invariably including a forwarded message. I click on it, and out pours the worst kind of anti-Semitic dribble, like burning lava seeping across my keyboard. But wait. It’s not anti-Semitism at all. It’s anti-Muslim sentiment. It’s easy to think, at first, that it’s the old, vile anti-Semitic canards. Substitute the word Jew for Muslim; the word Judaism for Islam; the word vermin for evil, and it’s nearly the same.
The other day I received another such an email. This one was a bit more high-tech than usual. It came with a slide-show attachment. “Islam is a killing machine,” the image gallery began. “Islamic civilization? What an oxymoron!” This was followed by Muslim birthrate statistics, spurious or not, with the alarmist warning that “their influence in Europe is growing steadily and will continue to do so unopposed until the Europeans wake up.” About my native Canada, the slides declared, “we don’t have a prayer,” apparently owing to the bizarre and largely irrelevant fact that Canadian “Muslims now outnumber the Canadian-Jewish population.”
Poison by PowerPoint.
These regular missives always leave me stymied. I don’t want to just let it go, but responding feels like pulling on the cord of a talking doll: “Please remove me from any email lists espousing hatred of a particular ethnic or religious group,” I typically write, copying the other recipients for added effect. Or, more concisely: “No hate speech for me.” But deep down I know my objections will disappear into the ether.
Once when I responded this way, someone shot back, incredulous: “What do you mean, hate speech?” Clearly, what I saw as unadulterated venom, she viewed as a sober warning. Apparently for some, offense is the best defense.
But is there anything else to be done? Here at The Fifth Question, I frequently try to write in the language of empathy. Should that practice of empathy extend to those who are circulating these missives of hate? And if so, what would that look like?
I suppose we could start linguistically when looking at the concept of Islamophobia. We could ask why the suffix -phobia (fear of) is used, rather than the simpler pre-fix “anti,” as in anti-Semitism, or “mis” as in “hatred of,” as in the terms misogyny or misanthropy.
If the people circulating these messages are truly frightened, we might stop to wonder why. Are they fearful of losing their cultural status as insiders, a status Jews in North America have worked for generations to attain? Are they suffering from the post-traumatic collective stress of 9/11, and sadly lumping all Muslims into one general category? Since Israel frequently figures in these messages, perhaps they fear for the security and longevity of the Jewish state, in light of its ongoing conflict with neighbors, most of whom still deny its legitimacy. Or perhaps they are just scared of the faceless “Other,” however that Other manifests today.
Sometimes I wish I could understand these fears more distinctly. It might enable me to serve as a better diplomatic bridge between my community and others. But these sorts of intercultural fears seem to have skipped me. I am much better at fearing bears, personal loss, and, as a Melanoma survivor, the sun.
Maybe these missives should be renamed and redirected. Maybe they should acknowledge that they are about the universal pain and anxiety that arises from fear and uncertainty. Maybe these email messages should simply be titled, “I’m frightened. Can we talk?” Maybe we should work to make this particular message go viral, across neighborhoods, across communities, across religions, across borders. We might soon find we all have something to talk about – and instead of it being about the Other, it might be about us.
The hateful emails that circulate about Muslims should be renamed ‘I’m frightened. Can we talk?’ since they stem from the universal pain and anxiety that arises from fear and uncertainty.