A Tale Of Two White Men
Suppose there are two men living on your street, one each on opposite sides of your house. Both are White, young adults of approximately 25 years of age. Neither has much in the way of friends that you can tell, and they seem isolated from both the community and their respective families. They are both working- to middle-class, somewhat well educated and, for all intents and purposes, are indistinguishable from one another.
When you encounter them they both talk endlessly about the evils of the U.S. government and the oppression America is supporting overseas. Indeed, their unhealthy obsession with U.S. anti-terror efforts and U.S. foreign policy borders on paranoia, and you suspect both suffer from some form of mental illness caused by stress and alienation. Both men seem tense and full of anger whenever you see them, and you have heard both bragging about the large collection of weapons that they have stashed away in their house.
In most every respect, the young men are similar to one another, even down to their paranoid world views, except for one important fact. The neighbor who lives in the house to your right is a Christian. The neighbor on the left is a Muslim. With that in mind, which do you fear is more likely to engage in the type of violence that took place at the Boston Marathon a little under two weeks ago this coming Monday?
If you chose the young Muslim man as the greater threat, you are almost assuredly making the wrong choice. Despite what you might hear in the media about Islamic terror being on the rise, the fact of the matter is that most violence in America is not perpetrated by Muslims.
It is, in fact, perpetrated by ostensible Christians – overwhelmingly so. If you listen to right-wing media and even some self-appointed members of the so-called “realist” left, however, the fact that you are far more likely to be killed by an angry, White, Christian male than an angry Muslim mysteriously escapes mention.
None other than Bill Maher – HBO comic, militant atheist and media darling of the American left – for instance — claimed that Islam was far more dangerous than Christianity when it came to violence and intolerance. Calling counter-arguments “liberal bullshit,” he hounded an academic expert on violent extremism that appeared on his show last Friday with assertions that only one faith, Islam, threatened bodily harm if one goes against its dictates.
“They’re not as dangerous? I mean, there’s only one faith, for example, that kills you or wants to kill you if you draw a bad cartoon of the prophet. There’s only one faith that kills you or wants to kill you if you renounce the faith. An ex-Muslim is a very dangerous thing. Talk to Salman Rushdie after the show about Christian versus Islam. So, you know, I’m just saying, let’s keep it real.”
Not to be outdone in keeping it real, influential blogger Andrew Sullivan piled on by declaring that Maher had a point – Islam, said “expert” Sullivan, was not just a religion, but an all-encompassing political doctrine that, in his opinion, seamlessly melded mosque and state. After all, Sullivan pointed out, Christ allegedly eschewed violence in the Gospels while Mohammad took to the sword in order to conquer territory by force. Jesus, Sullivan said, taught love, not war.
Leaving aside for a moment the fact that Christ was essentially a rabble-rousing, itinerant Jewish preacher who sought to throw off Roman imperial rule through mass action, and that Judaism during Christ’s time had several of what we might call today violent, terrorist factions (People’s Front of Judea, anyone?) of its own, the idea that Christianity as it developed was nonpolitical and “about love” is absurd.
Sullivan, who, as a gay man, is reviled by the very Catholic Church he loves because of who and what he is, should know better. For an epic takedown, Juan Cole neatly demolishes Sullivan, who is, to put it mildly, very, very wrong. It might be easier, however, to refer Sullivan to the Crusades, Inquisition, Spanish conquest of America and all the other blood spilled in Christ’s, nonpolitical mind you, name.
Maher, however, attempted to sidestep this whole bloody legacy of actual Christianity as it was put into practice over the centuries by discounting it. Sure, Christianity was for a long time corrupt, violent, militant and effectively evil incarnate as we define evil today, but that was then and this is now, says Maher.
Today it is Islam and Muslims that are the problem from the point of view of liberalism, freedom and democracy, not Christianity. Unfortunately, to anyone with a real interest in understanding violence, especially political violence, making this argument is a grave disservice to the truth.
First, one cannot acknowledge context in one case and deny it in another. Christianity was oppressive, militant, violent and cruel not because it was inherently evil, but because that was the nature of European society for much of its history after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Historians don’t call it the Dark Ages for no reason, after all. In the West, the post-Roman world was one of savagery and ignorance from which it took European civilization a millennium to recover.
That bloody era imprinted itself on Christianity much in the same way a baby duck imprints upon its mother, and one simply cannot separate out theology – as Sullivan tries to do – from the actual social context a faith, its institutions, its leaders and its practitioners find themselves in.
This is because theology is, to quote Maher, bullshit, and as everyone knows, power talks while bullshit, inevitably, walks. Thus, the words written in the book may be holy, but they are just words unless wealth and power back them up by putting them into practice.
Words, therefore, have no power or will on their own, and to become powerful they have to be written down, copied, interpreted and enforced by men – fallible, corrupt men who are as a much a part and product of history as anyone else no matter if they are called rabbi, priest or imam.
It’s no coincidence then that peace, love and harmony didn’t break out when God, in his “wisdom,” revealed “the truth” to a starving refugee (Judaism) a peasant carpenter (Christianity) or a merchant (Islam), but when social conditions changed for the better well after the initial founding of each religion in question.
Thus, if Islam is more violent nowadays as Maher and Sullivan suppose, then it is because of the historical context the faith finds itself in – which, when compared with earlier eras, is not a particularly good one. Many Muslim peoples today find themselves oppressed by outsiders or their own leaders.
Economic growth, especially in the Arab world, has stagnated and collapsed in many of the non oil-producing, Muslim states. Sectarian, ethnic, economic and political tensions produce violence of all sorts – from wars to terrorism – which in turn reinforce those very same violence-producing tensions.
Like the West during its own violent transition to modernity, the Arab world and the Muslim one, more broadly, is in the midst of a long period of traumatic, historical change. The only difference is that the West’s growing pains weren’t broadcast live and in stereo to a global television audience.
But, why even concede that point? The Middle East is prone to violent conflict, but the biggest bloodletting since the end of the Second World War didn’t take place in the Middle East, but in Sub-Saharan Africa where scores of warring parties are to this day squabbling over the corpse of the Democratic Republic of the Congo – a conflict which has taken over two million lives and where atrocities such as mass rape and the impressment of child soldiers into warlord armies has become commonplace.
This is a war over territory, greed and political power – the cause of most wars – and religion, of any variety, doesn’t seem to matter much. Oh, and this very same region played host to a recent genocide where more than 800,000 were killed and which set the war described above off to begin with, all with no Muslims involved.
Then, of course, there were the wars in the Balkans where allegedly civilized Europeans shot and raped one another over ethnic differences and where Muslims, in fact, were the victims and allies of the United States.
Before that was the massive bloodletting in Cold War Central America and Southeast Asia – neither place exactly a stronghold of militant Islam. As for terrorism, let’s not forget those radical Catholic terrorists known as the Irish Republican Army who set off bombs in downtown London before it was cool, and the Tamil Tigers – Hindus – who originated the modern practice of suicide bombings.
But what about violence closer to home? Remember the question put to you above – surely the young Muslim man is the bigger threat than the young Christian man, right? Well, given that most mass shootings in the United States are carried out by White Christians and these same mass shootings kill far more people and occur far more often than Islamic terrorism, you are, once again, quite wrong.
The bombing of the Boston Marathon was indeed terrible, but so too was the slaughter of school children at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., – as was the equally horrific mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and the attempted assassination of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz.
All these mass shootings were carried out, needless to say, by deeply troubled young White men who happened to be Christian and whom had ready, easy access to high-powered firearms. Focusing on mass shootings leaves out, of course, the bombing of the Oklahoma Federal Building by a right-wing terrorist, the occasional murder of abortion providers and the bombing of their clinics by anti-abortion Christian fanatics, the killing of civil rights workers in the American South during the 1960s, the mass lynching of Blacks by White mobs throughout most of the early-to-mid 20th century, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., President Kennedy and the attempted assassination of President Reagan by, you guessed it, deranged White guys who weren’t Muslim. This litany leaves out good, old-fashioned violent crime where, once again, armed White guys are a far bigger problem than American Muslims.
Voltaire said that to learn who rules you, figure out who you can’t criticize. If ever there was a place to apply this maxim, it is here on this issue. Violence carried out by anyone other than a White man, as traditionally defined in America, is deemed a national crisis at best, a threat to national security at worst.
Indeed, an entire metropolitan area of several million people was shut down for an entire day to hunt down the Tsarnaev brothers. Perhaps this was necessary and proper, but the next time a White guy walks into a mall, school or office and mows down a half-dozen people with a legally acquired assault weapon, however, we’ll likely barely even notice because it happens so often. Now that, my friends, is bullshit.
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