Category Archives: Islamaphobia

The End of America

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Before I move on to Spain, I’m inserting a few real-time updates.

It’s weird to be writing about the November election almost three months later. I recall my sense of unreality.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t changed. I can’t believe we are now using the words “President” and “Trump” together.  I am still in a state of denial, maybe because I haven’t figured out what to do, or how to live, in this new world.

I went on the women’s march in St. Paul with 100,000 other like-minded men, women, and children to protest the new administration’s policies and tone.  It was the first day in months I felt optimistic, but also, sadly, the last.

Conservatives think that liberals hate America.  That’s unfair.  We criticize our country when it acts wrongly.  That doesn’t mean we hate America.  It means we hold it to high standards.  For instance, one thing that has always made me proud of America is all the refugees we take in.  It’s not as many as 100 years ago.  It’s not as many as Germany.  Still, we were on track to accept 110,000 refugees in 2017, with about 10,000 slots designated for Syrians.  That’s one of the things that makes America great.  Oops, made.

All that is on hold for four months.  If and when it restarts, the number of refugees will be cut in half.  Syrians will be banned, along with people from other Muslim-majority countries except the ones Trump want to make deals with, like Saudi Arabia, the main producers of terrorists, including 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers.

Why is Trump fixated on Syrians?  I don’t believe there have been any terrorist attacks perpetrated, anywhere, by Syrians.  In my opinion, Syrians are victims of war and terrorism.  But there are a lot of Syrian refugees, and they are in the news frequently, so maybe they’re just an easy target.  Most Americans haven’t heard of Tunisia, which actually produces a lot of terrorists.

The mood where I work, the Center for Victims of Torture, is dark.  Our clients in the US are afraid they’ll be deported, or that their families will never be allowed to join them.  We wonder if we will lose our government funding, and thus our jobs.  We worry this administration will return to the use of torture, which is illegal under US and international law.

There’s so much going down.  One final item: Donald Trump managed to talk about Holocaust Remembrance Day without mentioning Jews or antisemitism.  Was it intentional?  Ignorance?  As a Jew, I think it’s ominous. The Holocaust didn’t start with gas chambers, it started with nationalist words and laws against certain groups and bullying of the media and control of the messaging coming out of government agencies.

Thanks for reading this.  You probably already knew most of it.  Now you know why I write about travel and not politics most of the time.

My son and I went on a small adventure recently.  He had asked if I wanted to see John Cleese in person on a certain date, and I said, “sure!”  John Cleese is an English comedian and actor best known for the Monty Python movies and Fawlty Towers TV series.

What I didn’t realize until after Vince bought the tickets was that the show was on a Monday night, five hours away in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  So I took two days off work, got a room at EconoLodge, and we went on a road trip.

It was really fun.  We joked about the cheap hotel and the terrible steak dinner we had at Texas Roadhouse.  We visited Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers football team, which fits nicely into the neighborhood unlike our own new US Bank Stadium that looks like the Death Star.

We watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail, then listened to John Cleese tell stories for an hour.  Did you know Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin financed the making of the Holy Grail, and that George Harrison paid for the Life of Brian, which he considers the troupe’s best film?  Cleese is almost 80, and still full of piss and vinegar. It was good to Just Laugh.

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Crazy Eyes, Evil Eyes

The massacre in San Bernardino is really weighing on me.

Right after it happened, I wrote a post in which I suggested that mental illness could have been a factor, just as it is in many other cases.  Why do we assume that white guys are deranged, but Muslims are evil?  In this case, there was an additional question mark for me about possible post-partum depression, since the wife had given birth six months earlier.

But then we learned that both of the shooters in San Bernardino had been radicalized and had been planning some kind of attack for years.  I’ve spent more time than is probably healthy staring at photos of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik.

They don’t look like these guys:

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They don’t look crazy.  They look dead.  Cold.

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What kind of woman leaves her six-month-old infant behind, knowing she’ll never see her again—knowing her baby will be removed from the family, that her life will be tainted by a legacy of death?

What kind of son leaves his mother behind, knowing she’ll be interrogated by law enforcement?  Maybe the mother was involved, too.  In which case, what kind of son would leave his mother to face life in prison?  But these are silly questions.  This couple murdered 14 people and injured many more.  Why would they care about an old woman and a baby?

If they weren’t mentally ill, were they evil?  And what does that mean?  We can sometimes catch mental illness early and intervene.  But how would we spot evil?  Who would we call to report it?

There have been so many mass shootings in the U.S.  Until now I have reacted the same as anyone else—shaking my head, feeling bad for the victims, wondering when we will finally enact some reasonable gun reforms.  Then I’m over it.  Until now.

Where I work, at the Center for Victims of Torture, many of our clients come to us after suffering unimaginable torture during ethnic or religious conflicts in their home countries.  There is always the possibility that someone from the enemy side could enter the U.S. and come looking for them, just when they thought they were safe.  If someone would shoot up a center for developmentally disabled people, like the one in San Bernardino, why wouldn’t they shoot up a torture rehabilitation center?  There have been so many mass shootings, but this was the first one I could really imagine myself being involved in.  I imagine myself hiding in a bathroom stall or coat closet.  Of course I always—miraculously—am one of the survivors.

A father whose six-year old daughter was killed in the Newtown shooting was interviewed on public radio last week.   He and his wife are both scientists and they have started a research foundation to look into the connections between mental illness and violence.

The father said, “We have to recognize that, of course, all of our behavior comes from our brain. So just like any organ can be healthy or unhealthy, when there’s risk factors that lead to malfunction of certain circuits or regions of the brain, that’ll lead to bad behavior.  And yes, it is preventable. It’s a matter of chemistry and not character.”

I hope he’s right.  I hope someday we’ll discover that evil is a biochemical imbalance that can be fixed with a pill.  Maybe some day we’ll routinely test kids’ DNA and put them on medication if they’ve got the gene that could turn them into the next mass shooter.

A Crazy Idea?

I woke up in the dark at 5:40 am and wished I still believed in God.  Fourteen people dead at a center for developmentally disabled people in California.  I wished there was a higher power to whom I could appeal for help.  Help for us all.  For a moment, I thought I could feel something, then … nah … wishful thinking.

It’s up to us, people.  What “it” involves is a matter of dispute.

Someone asked on Facebook, “will this turn out to be a mentally-ill person?  Someone with extreme ideology?  A workplace grudge?”

There’s still a lot unknown, but it looks like it could be all three.  And I’m curious to learn if post-partum depression played a role in this latest incident, where a young mother dropped off her baby then went on a shooting rampage which she knew would result in her death or life in prison.

Here’s the liberal argument I hear: “Why do we label the white attackers mentally ill but the Muslim ones terrorists?”  I think what is really being expressed, by the conservative “side”, is that white attackers are deranged while Muslims are evil.

I’d like to flip that around and suggest that instead of considering every horrendous act an act of murder terrorism, we consider it an act of mental illness.  Hear me out.

I’m not a mental health clinician, but I have worked at two mental health clinics, where I have observed that mentally ill people often have religious fixations.  They think they are Jesus, they hallucinate angels, they hear demons telling them to do bad things.

A number of members of my family have suffered from Bipolar Disorder.  One was convinced that the Catholic Church had a conspiracy that had something to do with the numbers on the clock.

Anne, haven’t you noticed?  The numbers on the clock—there are 12 of them!  It’s so obvious that the Catholic Church is behind it.”

“Behind what?” I would ask.

He could never explain to my satisfaction what the numbers on the clock had to do with the Pope and the Catholic Church, but I would hear him out, hoping he wouldn’t call his parents next and burden them with his ranting.

If mentally ill people can have wacko Catholic theories, why wouldn’t they have wacko Muslim theories?

I was in the Middle East for work in February.  We were in Bethlehem on a long lunch break between meetings.  My two Palestinian colleagues and I were smoking shishas while my colleague from Minnesota gagged.

I had arrived in Amman the day ISIS released a video of them burning to death the Jordanian pilot they had captured.  The streets were packed with people waving the Jordanian flag and shouting.  They were angry, and I didn’t blame them.  I wish Americans got angry about wrong doing and demonstrated more often.

Omar turned to me.  “Tell us, what do you think about ISIS—these people who do such things?  We really want to know what Americans think.”

I had been thinking about this a lot.  “I think there’s an element of mental illness involved.  Who is it that most often gets schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses?  Young men.  Who is it that is almost always behind violence?  I’m sorry, but it’s men.  And then you get them in a group—call it group think or herd mentality or whatever—and fire them up with ideological rhetoric, and put an AK47 in their hands…”

My Minnesota colleague disagreed.  She asserted that poverty and hopelessness were to blame.

Of course those are factors.  But I’ve been poor and hopeless, and I’ve never even shoplifted.  Millions of people around the world are desperately poor and they don’t kill people.  Many members of ISIS and Al Queda are not poor—they’ve got engineering degrees and come from middle class families.

If we do assume that mental illness is behind sadistic killings by ISIS or mass shootings in California and Connecticut, this does not mean the murderers are not responsible for their actions.  It does mean we can have hope, at least in the US, because there are effective means to identify and manage mental illness.

Being There

There’s been a lot of righteous indignation that people are so heartbroken over the Paris terrorist attacks—so upset that they’ve taken action, by changing their Facebook profile photos! But no one changed their Facebook photo when terrorist attacks took place in Lebanon, or Iraq, or Nigeria.

Is this Islamaphobia? Well sure it is, with some people, but not for most.

I think it has a lot more to do with familiarity, in two ways.

First, in 2014 there were 16 terrorist attacks in Lebanon. 16! So far in 2015 there have “only” been seven. I looked it up on that great scholarly source, Wikipedia, because I had been thinking, “Bombings happen all the time in Lebanon” and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just imagining that. I wasn’t.

In 2014 there were three terror attacks in France, all carried out by lone extremists, and one person died. So the attacks that came in January were the launch of a new era.

I’m not saying, “So what?” about terror attacks in Lebanon. I’m just saying that the frequency of them numbs us to the point where we might roll our eyes and shake our heads and maybe think for 10 seconds, “Those poor people. What a terrible way to live.” But we don’t change our Facebook photos.

Then there’s the other aspect of familiarity: Many westerners (North Americans, Europeans, Aussies, and Kiwis) have been to Paris. We may have studied French in high school or college. We’ve certainly seen Paris, and France, in films and TV shows and heard it referenced in music. How many westerners have been to Beirut? Studied Arabic? Can you name one movie set in Lebanon?

When I googled “films set in Lebanon” I found 16. I’d only heard of one—the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun. When I googled “films set in France” there were so many I couldn’t count them. There were 16 alone that started with the letter “L,” including the good old oldie Lust for Life, starring Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh.

So my point is, empathy is about being able to imagine yourself in someone else’s situation. Even if we’ve never been to Paris, we have seen it so many hundreds of times that we feel it’s familiar, and it’s easier to imagine ourselves in that MacDonald’s where one of the terrorists blew himself up.

I went to the Middle East for work earlier this year. I was fortunate to be able to take some extra time to visit Petra, a 2,000-year-old city built by a people called the Nabateans who have since vanished from history. I hiked, bullshitted with the Bedouin guides, and savored the astonishing beauty of the place and the silence—so rare in our world.

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A few months later, ISIS starting destroying ancient sites in Syria and Iraq, most notably Palmyra. Palmyra was built thousands of years before Petra and had similarly stunning structures.

A year ago, I might have rolled my eyes and shaken my head and thought, “That’s terrible,” then gone on my way. But now I felt sick to my stomach and I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

So having been to a very similar place, I got it. I got it on a visceral level what a loss to our world the destruction of Palmyra was and I started worrying that ISIS might get to Petra eventually.  Stone buildings aren’t people, but you know what I mean.

Travel creates empathy. Not always, but often. Ironically, the attacks in Paris will probably cause people to stay home or travel only to the safe, sanitized foreign destinations like all-inclusive resorts in Cancun and Ibiza.