Today’s guest post is a submission from Nico Lang, a regular NPS contributor. An intern at the Interfaith Youth Core and a senior at DePaul University, Lang co-founded the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and is head of campus outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. His previous writing for NPS includes”Through Common Struggle, Hope,” “Talking the ‘Hereafter’ With Atheists and Believer,” as well as posts on his personal journey as a queer agnostic interested in interfaith workabout Park51 and the state of American dialogue and on the ramifications of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.”

arizonaOn January 8th, I found out about the shooting of Representative Giffords the same way that most millenials probably did: through a Facebook status update.

At a sharp 3:00 P.M., Cormac Molloy was “shocked that someone shot rep. giffords!”

Initially, I sat unfazed, as the constant barrage of celebrity and semi-celebrity Facebook eulogies can leave even the most dedicated techie in a stupor. I didn’t know whom Giffords was, who shot her or what state she represented, and so I let the moment pass me by with a simple refresh.

However, what my mini-feed would soon explain was that on that very morning, a man by the name of Jared Loughner shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. As a Congresswoman, Giffords was many things: the fair-skinned wife of an astronaut, a Democratic holdout in an increasingly conservative state, and, most unfortunately, the object of a deranged man’s obsession.

Five were slain that day by Jared Loughner and two injured, and years from now, none of us will remember where we were when we heard the world was looking for answers. If we ask others about the events that took place that day, what will matter was how you followed the tragedy and what outlets you listened to.

Just hours later, as the world attempted to put the pieces together, we began to assign blame based on scattered details of a murderer’s life, the political affiliations of those involved or a misbegotten map that placed crosshairs over her district.

For the Fox News inclined, Jared Loughner was a “radical leftist.” However, the left saw him as a mobilized Tea Partier, and many of my friends labeled Giffords a victim of Sarah Palin’s violent rhetoric. For them, Giffords quickly became just another casualty in an increasingly toxic American political culture.

Through times of turmoil, many people look to the Seven Stages of Grief for guidance, which can be a telling way to define our trauma. In coping with the violence that erupted in Arizona, Americans quickly moved to that third stage, a place of anger. However, if we as a people desire to move from our initial shock to that final stage of hope, we must do much more than what the next stage asks of us, which is to simply reflect.

We must fully examine the state of our national anger.

Oddly enough, this is exactly what I was doing when I found out about the Giffords attack. When the bullets struck, I was researching the birther movement, a political substratum comprised of individuals who believe that Obama was not born in America, despite evidence to the contrary. For the unfamiliar, many of these citizens likewise resolutely believe that Obama is a Socialist, Hitler, the anti-Christ or any combination of the three.

In researching the role that such opinions might play in their lives, I concluded that such mechanisms allowed birthers and their ideological cousins to deal with the trauma of the 2008 elections. I found a people not only venting on message boards, but I also saw them coping with the fear of a president and an America that no longer looked they did. Out of this chaos, they constructed meaning. They made someone responsible. They found someone to hate.

Although a recent Time article suggested that we are most likely to believe negative information about others when they are of another race or religion, the problem runs deeper than that. When I hear that an online petition is “circulating to [indict] former Alaska governor Sarah Palin for incitement to violence,” I know that such mourners are seeking more than answers or resolution.

They are seeking blood.

At this time of crisis, we should ask questions about the state of America today, but making our neighbors into sworn enemies will never us help to comfort the grieving or make our nation stronger. After September 11th, the Fort Hood massacre, and the Park51 controversy, demonizing Muslims didn’t make us any safer and likely alienated potential allies and radicalized potential friends. Thus, if we continue to make America into a nation divided, we will likely incite the very extremist violence many seem to believe this tragedy is a symbol of.

On his Monday broadcast, Jon Stewart instead asked Americans to use this moment as an opportunity to envision a better world, one not defined by the hatred and name-calling that defined our nation over the past week. We will never know what demons drove Jared Loughner to pull the trigger that morning, but we cannot heal by continuing to invest in our own partisan phantoms.

As a nation, we have the ability to tear down the divides that ail us, and at a time when ideologies drive us apart, we must remember to live the example of Dorothy Day, the immortal founder of the Catholic Worker. On the subject of political divides, the once Communist Day famously remarked that she gave up the revolution because it kept her from loving her neighbor. According to her, the more meaningful challenge was instead how to bring out a revolution of the heart.

Recently, reports indicate that Gabrielle Gifford finally opened her eyes. Let us hope that our grief-blinded country can soon do the same.

NickNico Lang is the Communications Intern for Interfaith Youth Core and a Senior in International Studies at DePaul University. Nico just started up DePaul’s first film club, the DePaul A.V. Club, and represents the lone agnostic among 2010-2011′s Vincent and Louise House residents, who represent DePaul’s Catholic intentional living and social justice community. He is also the co-founder of the Queer Intercollegiate Alliance, an initiative between Chicago’s LGBT campus groups; a writer for the DePaulia newspaper; and head of Campus Outreach for the Secular Humanist Alliance of Chicago. Occassionally, Nico sleeps.

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"9/11 was a faith-based initiative"I’ve gotten to the point in my work with other Atheists where I’m not often shocked by the ignorant ways many talk about religion. Still, sometimes I’ll hear something so inflammatory that I’m left floored.

In a recent post on The Friendly Atheist, blogger Hemant Mehta shared a video of the Secular Student Alliance National Conference (where I spoke on a panel) keynote address by Atheist blogger Greta Christina on what Atheists can learn from the LGBT movement. I’ve heard her give this talk before, but it was Hemant’s conversation with her about it that caught my attention:

I had a chance to ask Greta later what she considered to be our “Stonewall” — what event did she feel mobilized atheists in a way never before seen? […]

So, what was Greta’s response to what our version of Stonewall was?

9/11.

As a queer person, I am mortified by this comparison. The riots at Stonewall, which I was fortunate enough to visit earlier this year, were the first major instance that queer folks, long persecuted in the United States, decided to fight back and defend themselves. Stonewall is hugely symbolic for the queer community; to summon it as a parallel to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 – a moment when, per Greta, many Atheists decided to start being vocally opposed to religion – is not just inappropriate, but a gross distortion of what those riots represented.

9/11 was not a moment that catalyzed a community to stand up for equality; co-opting the tragic events of 9/11 to make a case against religion strikes me as simply malicious and manipulative, just as the extremists who co-opted Islam on 9/11 manipulated their tradition.

The comparison of 9/11 to the Stonewall riots offends me personally as a queer person, it offends me intellectually as a rationalist, and it offends me as an advocate for the disenfranchised. It is truly a sad day for our community when we sound more sensational and less thoughtful than Sarah Palin.

mosque protest

Protests at mosques around America are increasing, and they are using the same anti-Muslim rhetoric Atheists do.

This comparison is merely a symptom of a larger problem: our fundamentally flawed approach to religion, and more specifically to Islam. At least once a week I hear Atheists say: “Why aren’t Muslims speaking out against the terrorists who claim their tradition? Maybe if they did that, then I’d see a difference between the two.”

First, who are we to dictate what a Muslim should or shouldn’t do? They shouldn’t be expected to help us understand why they are different than extremists who also claim that identity. We wouldn’t want others demanding that we explain how we’re different from violent Atheists like Kim Jong Il, Pol Pot, Jeffrey Dahmer (who said “if a person doesn’t think that there is a God to be accountable to, then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges?”), and others, right? I don’t see many Christians running around apologizing for Fred Phelps. It’s because they don’t have to – most of us just get that there is an ideological chasm between the clan who stands with “God Hates Fags” placards and the majority of mainstream Christians.

Second, Muslims are speaking out against extremists who cite Islam as their inspiration. Need some examples? ThereAre. SoMany. That. I. Can’tLink. To. Them. All (but those eleven are a good start).

The real problem? We’re just not listening.

We need to start seeking out different stories. When we look for the worst in religion, that’s what we’re going to find. Stories of Muslims engaging in peaceful faith-inspired endeavors don’t sell nearly as well as stories of attempted Times Square bombings. Yet even coverage of violent stories is skewed against Muslims: the mainstream media totally ignored when a mosque in Florida was bombed earlier this year – imagine the media frenzy if that had been a Muslim bombing a church. The press also ignored the fact that the man who stopped the Times Square bomber was himself a Muslim.

Perhaps we perceive Islam as inherently violent because our perspective is shaped by the warped way the media reports on it. As a community that boasts critical thinking and reason as our primary concerns, we shouldn’t be so quick to swallow the inaccurate portrayal of Islam narrated by our biased news media.

mosque protestFor too long, Islamophobia has been given a free pass in the United States, and the Atheist community has been a willing accomplice. Atheism is supposed to be a pillar of reason, yet many Atheists talk about Islam in the same problematic way as right-wing conservatives (just one example: “Muslims are particularly barbaric and primitive“). We claim to be progressive and enlightened but, in the same breath, espouse an oversimplified and uninformed view of Islam.

The real issue is that so often we confuse “Islam” with “Muslims.” We must not, as we so often do, look at the Koran and say, “I know what Muslims believe!” No, we don’t. Religion doesn’t work like that. If we want to understand what Muslims believe, we must stop assuming and actually talk to Muslims; ask them what they believe and how they live their lives.

In an article published yesterday in the New York Times, one man said of the growing protests at mosques around the country: “they have fear because they don’t know [Muslims].” The same is true of many Atheists. We must know our neighbors before we make qualitative judgments about what they believe. Besides – c’mon, is this really the company with which we want to cast our lot?

Atheists are quick to tout that America was not formed a Christian nation but on the principle of religious freedom. And yet, to quote from the Huffington Post‘s report on Akbar Ahmed’s recent appearance on The Daily Show, “unlike today’s attitudes of intolerance and suspicion, Ahmed observes that the founding fathers maintained a deep respect for Islam.”

We need religious freedom as much as anyone else and should be quick to denounce when that right is threatened. Instead, we lead the charge against it by perpetuating false claims against an entire community of people with rhetoric more inflammatory than what I hear on Fox News. We’ve no right to invoke the queer movement when this kind of tactic runs so counter to what Stonewall stood for – the idea that everyone deserves dignity.

The only “wall” such comparisons construct is yet another division. Let’s stop building walls and start breaking them down, like the rioters at Stonewall did – brick by brick, piece by piece. And we can start by inviting Muslims to help us understand Islam instead of calling them guilty by association.

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