Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Backlash and frontlash

The fallout (and I use the word advisedly) from the London bombings is everywhere at the moment. The global village is shrinking: from England to the US to New Zealand, Muslims have been targeted in apparent retaliation for the attacks.

Western Muslims have been the targets of hate crime for some time, as numerous incidents before the bombings bear out. But these incidents peak, perhaps unsurprisingly, in the wake of large-scale events such a 9/11 and now the London outrages.

Scanning the papers today, I was struck by the tenor of reports and opinions regarding not the bombers but the Muslim community as a whole. It would appear, to many, that it has something collectively to answer for. Muslim leaders must bend over backwards, said the Chairman of the UK Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Philips, to reassure the public there is no place in their community for terrorists. In the US, Thomas Friedman
thunders in the New York Times that "either the Muslim world begins to really restrain, inhibit and denounce its own extremists - if it turns out that they are behind the London bombings - or the West is going to do it for them. And the West will do it in a rough, crude way - by simply shutting them out, denying them visas and making every Muslim in its midst guilty until proven innocent."

Closer to home, a letter-writer to the Ottawa Citizen says he's lost respect for the Ottawa Imam for saying, after condemning the attackers in no uncertain terms with the Qur'an as his reference, that "we must find out the underlying reasons" for their actions. In a stunning leap, the writer finds that this amounts to a "justification" of the bombings.

At first blush, one might ask, So what? What's wrong with demanding accountability and action from the Muslim community? Why don't they do something, instead of making excuses? So we effectively slam the lid of a box shut, the box in which we construct a notion of "our" minorities, and in which we confine them.

Just as, once upon a time, an accomplished Black youth was called "a credit to his race," one of the "boy bombers" in today's news is described as "highly educated." How to decode that? Are the commentators surprised? Are they resentful that he took full advantage of English educational opportunities, even though he was British-born, as it turns out? Do they imagine that extremists are all ill-educated, brutish louts? Perhaps all of the above: but what I see above all is the indissoluble linking of individuals and their communities into one thing, as it were, in which everyone bears the shame and the accomplishments of everyone else therein.

This is a racist paradigm, and we need to recognize it as such. Have we asked women's groups to apologize for Karla Homolka? White, Christian groups to reassure the world that Timothy McVeigh didn't act on their values? Men to speak out against Clifford Olsen? Sounds absurd, no? Then why do we place such demands upon minority communities? Why do we, in this bizarre way, regard murderers and extremists as somehow accountable to their ethnic group, and insist that the latter make them so?

Of course the debates are waxing loud and furious within those communities. Sheema Khan expresses the matter well in today's Globe: her community is beleaguered, waiting for the inevitable reaction, in a country where the Public Safety Minister, Anne McLellan, is getting us to look under our beds at night, while dismissing racial profiling as a non-issue, and where wacky columnists like Margaret Wente do their best to stir the pot until it overflows. Under such circumstances any group of people in a minority situation will become defensive and try to do what the establishment wants, to avoid more assaults, more arson, more security certificates, more racial profiling, more unwanted attention from CSIS and the RCMP.

The fact that all this is grossly unfair means little. The fact that it's ultimately self-defeating, breeding more hatred and cynicism and desperation, doesn't seem to register. Leaders who do speak out, trying to reassure the larger community, are excoriated by the Robert Fulfords of this world for not expressing themselves in the blunt and savage terms used by tabloid journalists. When their comments go unreported, they are accused of silence and, by association, complicity.

Even asking the question "Why" is seen by some hysterics as somehow justifying murderous acts. We saw quite a bit of that dangerous nonsense after 9/11, and we're seeing more of it now. We shouldn't look for root causes, we are told. We need, in effect, to wrench these incidents out of time and location and categorize them as pure metaphysical evil. It's them vs. us, it's black versus white, it's a clash of civilizations. Pay no attention to history, geopolitics, oppression, alienation, poverty and despair. The attempt to understand is only an attempt to make excuses, to avoid the moral dimension. We don't need no education.

The police in England have, by all accounts, done fine work and cracked the case with near-lightning speed. The culprits, it seems, were British-born young men. But the matter will obviously not end there, nor should it. If we can stop making demands and ask a lot more questions, if we can bring ourselves openly to discuss uncomfortable issues of power and powerlessness, racism and oppression, war and terrorism, rather than merely denouncing, condemning and threatening, then maybe someday--just maybe--a lasting solution might occur to us.
And by that I mean all of us.

No comments: