Tag Archives: Midwest

Muslims Should Live, Not Die, in America

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Plymouth, Michigan, Feb. 11 – We don’t yet know what effects the Feb. 10 murder of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina will have on Muslims around America or elsewhere, or on the rest of us. For starters, it will anger many Muslims. It already has, and it should. No matter what wrong things some Muslims do, that doesn’t mean that other Muslims who have done nothing wrong deserve to be killed. If you want to know what Muslims are thinking and saying – and you should – follow the #ChapelHillShooting and #MuslimLivesMatter hashtags on Twitter.

Unfortunately, it’s all too predictable that some Muslims, as tragically disturbed and misguided as Chapel Hill killer Craig Stephen Hicks clearly is, will take matters into their own hands. That’s one thing I’m afraid of. But I’m also afraid of the opposite: that Muslim communities around the United States will be terrorized into cowering timidity.

It’s not for me to tell them that they should do otherwise. Each of us makes a perpetual series of moment-by-moment calculations about how to live in the world both safely and with integrity, and acting with public courage can be physically dangerous. And what we know about the backgrounds and aspirations of Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha underscores a widespread and largely admirable fact about American Muslims: they want to get along, pursue middle-class professions, raise families, live in suburbs, make themselves useful to society, help the needy. Through my writing and speaking I know many American Muslims, including many students very much like the three who were killed, and my sense is that most of them would strongly prefer not to be doing things like marching in the streets.

But the parallel that was promptly rendered explicit by the #MuslimLivesMatter hashtag is too obvious to ignore. As DeRay Mckesson, one of the Ferguson movement’s most vocal leaders, told a writer for Salon magazine, “We still protest every day, because we know that not only will our silence not save us, our surrender won’t save us, a video camera won’t save us. It is not that we are willing to die, it’s that we are unwilling to live in an America where blackness equals death.” What implications Muslims might draw for their own public activities in American society is, of course, for them to decide. But one thing I know is that, in America, if you don’t toot your own horn, nobody else is gonna toot it for you.

Some Muslims that I know personally are already doing some of what needs to be done. My Pakistani-American friend Nadeem Iqbal, for example, arrived to study at – of all places – North Carolina State University in 1982, and stayed. Nadeem organizes an annual public Eid festival in the town of Cary, very near Chapel Hill. “The main motive,” Nadeem told me, “was that we live in America, we need to celebrate our religious festivals in this new environment, and we have to add that flavoring. We are celebrating it as an American holiday event.”

When I asked Nadeem why he felt such work was important, he told me:

My children and their children are going to live in this country, and they should be treated fairly. But the only way it can happen is for them and us to become part of the greater fabric. I’m not talking about assimilation, but about being able to participate in American society on an equal basis, without fear or compulsion. … Doing religious stuff is important from the religious point of view and the social point of view, but getting involved in the larger society is equally important.

A parallel challenge and opportunity exists for Americans who, like me, grew up in all-white or white-dominated small towns or suburbs. My friend Sarah Derry grew up in the town of Hubbell, pop. 1,105, in Houghton County in a remote part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “It’s just in the wake of the old mining ruins,” she told me. “When they talk about small towns in America, this is one of them. It’s a pretty conservative place.”

A couple of years ago, when Sarah’s father was staying with her for a few months in a Detroit suburb, she took him to the Shatila Bakery, a well-known establishment in the heavily Arab-American city of Dearborn. “I found out about it from a guy I work with who’s Iraqi,” she told me. “My father is not the most open-minded person. As we were driving down there I told him, ‘Poppy, there’s a lot of Middle Eastern people there. They’ll be wearing a lot of headscarves, so don’t act all shocked.'”

An Arab man held the door open for Sarah’s father, and “they had a chuckle” because the man explained that it’s a tradition to show respect for elders. “We got our desserts and sat down,” Sarah remembers. “And when we left Poppy said, ‘Well, they seemed pretty nice. They seemed just like normal people.'”

While Sarah was glad to witness this “ah-ha” moment in her father’s life, she was also impressed that her teenage son was unimpressed, as if his grandfather’s insight were merely a statement of the obvious. “I’m glad I’m raising Erik in a place where there’s different races and cultures, because that’s the way the world is,” Sarah told me. “I want him to be a functioning member of society.”

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Ferguson: We Are All Missourians

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SEATTLE, August 18 – I began Home Free, my account of the 3 1/2-month driving trip I made around the United States during the 2012 election season, with an entire chapter on Wisconsin for three reasons. One was topical: the then-recent occupation of the state capitol building in Madison, by tens of thousands of citizens opposing the policies of Governor Scott Walker, and the seemingly intractable polarization of the state that that expressed. Another was geographic: Wisconsin was on my way from Seattle, where I live, to points east. But the overriding reason was personal: Wisconsin had been my home. I grew up in Oconomowoc, an all-white town of 15,000 at the western edge of suburban Waukesha County.

Oconomowoc is where it is, thirty miles west of the largely poor and black city of Milwaukee, for a reason: it’s near enough that you can get to Milwaukee for, say, a Brewers game or Summerfest, but far enough away that you can ignore and disavow the things and people there that you find frightening or distasteful. There are towns like Oconomowoc in suburban counties all around America, and in those towns live white guys who grow up to become cops.

As I write in Home Free, I made a beeline for Wisconsin because it was available to me personally in a way that Missouri or Indiana would not have been, yet I also felt it was thoroughly representative: middle-class, middle-western America, writ medium-sized. And, after two weeks in Wisconsin in late September 2012, I found my hypothesis vindicated. As lifelong Milwaukee resident Moshe Katz told me specifically about my hometown, “There’s a side of Oconomowoc that is the wonderful beauty of America. But then there’s another whole side of it that’s more than scary.”

Which brings me to Ferguson, Missouri. I’ve never been to Ferguson, but it’s part of the same world as Oconomowoc. And I don’t mean, in some high-minded way, the world at large, but the particular regional world – at once wonderful and scary – of the provincial Midwest.

Elisa Miller, a Democratic Party activist in Wisconsin who chose the largely thankless task of working in heavily Republican Waukesha County, told me, “You have this white horseshoe of racist crap, and that was my area. People were afraid to put yard signs in their yards. A volunteer was driving on a rural highway, and she saw a children’s play set with a noose hanging from it and a sign that said, ‘Obama’s Play Set.’ This doesn’t just affect Obama. This is domestic terrorism.”

A reviewer of my book on Goodreads named Lori complained that she “just couldn’t get past the fact that it was mostly a book about politics. I would not have read it if I had known.” Another, Earl, griped  inaccurately and tellingly that most of the people I interviewed were “either liberal intellectuals or poor, downtrodden, and minority.” I actually bent over backwards in Home Free to avoid “being political” but, I’m sorry, the world we live in is political. And, again, I mean not only the world at large, but in particular – whether we like it or not – the world of provincial America that most of us call home.

Being political means acknowledging that we all live here together, that every citizen and every community has standing. And it means that, as the Midwesterner John Mellencamp puts it, you gotta stand for something or you’ll fall for anything. What I stand for is an America where police are not entitled to execute an unarmed teenager, regardless of whether he stole cigars from a convenience store. But as horrible as the shooting itself was, even more ominous for all of us is what we’ve all seen, and residents of Ferguson have experienced, since: the militarization of law enforcement. In the America that I want to live in, it’s not all right for police to intimidate entire communities with automatic weapons, riot gear and armored vehicles.

It may be, though, that we already no longer live in the America that I want to live in. Events like those unfolding in Ferguson happen when societies fail at being political. As a journalist living and working overseas in the 1990s and 2000s, I witnessed the specific and predictable consequences of the failure of civilian politics in Burma, Cambodia, Haiti, Pakistan and Zimbabwe. Military occupations and dictatorships occur in such countries not only because generals are ambitious and power-hungry, but because the factions and communities of civilian society have proven unable to live and deal with each other justly and peaceably. Something similar is now happening in Ferguson.

 

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