Campus Update: Hateful Islamophobia at IUPUI

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Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) has done important and inspirational work on colleges around the country – often in the face of death threats, harassment and personal attack. The latest example: just this past week, a student leader of the SJP at University of Indiana – Purdue University Indianapolis (UIPUI) named Haneen (I’ve been asked to not use her last name out of concern for her safety) has been subject to threats, harassment and defamation through anonymous blog posts and flyers left on campus.

Among other things, this hate campaign characterized her as an advocate and supporter of terrorism, made sexist comments about her appearance, urged “authorities to look into her history of violence and investigate whether or not she is an immediate threat to…the nation’s capital.” One post attacked her for partnering with Black Lives Matter , calling it “a group that is also prone to acts of violence.” She has also received harassing phone calls at her home.

Haneen has received heartening support from a variety of corners, including a group of seventy five UIPUI faculty members and student who have signed a letter that calls upon UIPUI Chancellor Nasser Paydar to:

(1) to issue a strong public statement condemning these attacks and (2) to make clear the status of the University’s investigation of these heinous acts.

We encourage the Deans of each IUPUI school to educate their communities on sexism, Islamophobia, racism, and other threats to our sense of communal well-being.

We ask every IUPUI community member to challenge sexism, racism, Islamophobia, and all other forms of discrimination in their everyday interactions both on and off campus.

Making clear our university community’s values and mission in the face of fear and intimidation is necessary to creating a welcoming campus for all. Courage, hope, and love can defeat the hatred that has shown its face among us. We pledge to help in whatever ways we can.

I was encouraged to learn that the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council has written Haneen a letter of support as well. Despite the appropriate demands that the University administration take immediate and meaningful action, however, the only response to date has been a bland, general statement from Chancellor Paydar that IUPUI “abhors all forms of racism, bigotry and discrimination, including discrimination based on religious beliefs or political views.” 

Representing the faculty letter signers, lecturer Lindsay Lettrell rightly and eloquently responded:

Dear Chancellor Paydar,

While we welcome your statement affirming that “the university abhors all forms of racism, bigotry and discrimination, including discrimination based on religious beliefs or political views,” we, faculty, staff and student supporters of Haneen, believe that these immediate, specific problems of racism, sexism, and Islamophobia need to named and condemned explicitly. Our student’s safety and future is on the line, and Haneen has asked that her University speak publicly about her right to safety as a part of our campus community. While the generalities in your message are relevant, we still ask you to address this specifically. After all, as the team of her supporters has reminded us, “She is a real person, not an idea. Her name is Haneen. She is Palestinian. She is a Muslim. She is a woman. (And, I add, she is our student.) She has a face. She has a voice. And her voice is our voice.”

Click here to contact Chancellor Paydar and demand that IUPUI denounce this act of hatred and move swiftly to investigate it.

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Murder in Chapel Hill: This Was Not About Parking and Why That Matters

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There has been so much – far too much – media discussion as to whether or not the tragic murder of three Muslim-American students, Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, was a hate crime or merely a parking dispute. During the course of this open conversation, some very well-meaning people have asked, why does it matter if Craig Stephen Hicks killed these three young people because they were Muslim? Hate is hate. Regardless of the murderers specific motivation, three infinitely precious lives have been snuffed out forever.

That is the kind of comment that can only be made by someone who has never felt discriminated against or targeted because of the group to which he/she belongs.

Why does it matter? Because too often, these kinds of crimes are not simply random acts of hate. They are part of a larger pattern. And unless we recognize these patterns and do what we can to address their root causes, these tragedies are surely destined to recur again and again.

Unless one is part of a group that has been historically targeted by hate and intolerance, it is difficult to fully understand the sense of vulnerability that comes from being singled out in this way. As a Jew, I completely understand the feelings of Muslims the world over who saw nothing random about this act – and are deeply galled by the suggestion that this was caused by nothing more than a parking dispute. Such an experience is born from living within a legacy of hate being directed toward one’s people over and over again.

As the Muslim-American journalist Deanna Othman wrote powerfully in today’s Chicago Tribune:

You ask yourself: Are we destined to remain “otherized,” categorically excluded, alienated and repelled from the very society in which we live? Must we constantly assert our Americanness and prove our loyalty, only to be demonized, vilified and caricatured by our media?

It is exhausting to feel compelled to constantly validate your identity. Must Muslims be paragons of excellence, lest there be a motive found for their murder other than sheer hatred? Littering? Running a stop sign? Being too loud?

Existing?

I frankly wish that the media would focus less on the tortured psyche of Craig Stephen Hicks and much more on the truths expressed by the words above. The real question we should be asking ourselves is not whether or not this was about parking spaces but rather how we will address the rising culture of Islamophobia in this country so that there will be less crimes such as this in our future?

While we’re at it, I would suggest avoiding the well-meaning but ultimately empty bromides that point out it doesn’t really matter why Hicks pulled the trigger. It does matter. It matters profoundly.


“Zionism Unsettled” – A Smart and Gutsy New Church Study Guide

ZU-cover_DVDSo great to receive my copy of “Zionism: Unsettled” – an exciting new church study guide published by the Israel/Palestine Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA). As someone who has been collaborating with Protestant church denominations on the issue of Israel/Palestine for a number of years now, I can say without hesitation that this is a much-needed resource: smart and gutsy and immensely important.

“Zionism Unsettled” is based on the upcoming anthology, “Zionism and the Quest for Justice in the Holy Land,” to be published this summer by Wipf and Stock. While the anthology will be fairly academic in tone, “Zionism Unsettled” has digested its contents into a book and DVD for use by laypeople in congregational study settings. I’m thrilled that the IPMN has made this resource available to reach a much wider audience. (It was my honor to contribute an essay to that book, which has been adapted for a chapter in this study guide.)

ZU unsparingly examines Jewish and Christian forms of Zionism – with special attention to the way they have historically provided theological and ideological “cover” for the the dispossession of the Palestinian people. It’s a critical emphasis; indeed while there are no lack of political analyses on this subject, far less attention has been paid to the ways in which religious ideology has shaped the political context in Israel/Palestine.

This guide fills that void powerfully with careful, impressively researched chapters on the history of political Zionism as well as examinations of evangelical and mainline Protestant Zionism. My own chapter, “A Jewish Theology of Liberation” proposes a Jewish alternative to land-based nationalism – namely, a Judaism based in values of universal values of justice and dignity for all who live in the land.

As a Jew, I’m especially appreciative that while ZU is strongly critical of Zionism, it doesn’t flinch from extensive Christian self-criticism. The guide is particularly candid in its examination of the oppressive legacy of the post-Constantinan Church, replacement theology – and Christian anti-Semitism in general. In fact, throughout the guide there is a strong and palpable critique of exceptionalism of all stripes. In the end, the most basic criticism of “Zionism Unsettled” is leveled against triumphalist claims of every empire that has conquered and colonized this land throughout the centuries:

Exceptionalism is not unique to Zionism; rather it is present whenever exceptionalist religious ideology is fused with political power. Christian exceptionalist beliefs and actions contributed to the Nazi Holocaust, the genocide of Native Americans, and countless other instances of tragic brutality. Exceptionalist doctrines and behaviors within Islam have contributed to grievous human rights abuses such as the massacres during the closing days of the Ottoman Empire which crescendoed with the Armenian genocide in 1915.

I will say I do not personally agree with everything in this guide. In particular I’m at all comfortable with the theological analysis of Dr. Gary Burge, who rightly criticizes Christian replacement theology (the belief that the Jewish covenant with God has been “replaced” by the new covenant in Christ), yet seems to reaffirm it when he suggests a concept of a “’suspended blessing’ that will be restored at the end of history when ‘all Israel will be saved’”(p. 47).  It’s not at all clear to me how this conception differs fundamentally from the Christian “one covenant” theology he purports to disavow.

I was also disappointed by the chapter entitled “A Palestinian Muslim Experience with Zionism,” which does not at all apply kind of critical pedagogy to Islam that characterizes the chapters on Christianity and Judaism. While this chapter rightly spotlights “the inclusive theology of the Qur’an,” it fails to explore the exceptionalist manifestations of Islam in the same unsparing manner that pervades the rests of the book. As a result, this chapter feels to me somewhat tacked-on and represents a bit of a missed opportunity.

Despite my issues with “Zionism Unsettled,” however, I nonetheless find it to be a courageous work that has the potential to be a genuine game changer in interfaith conversations over Israel/Palestine. While I have no doubt it will be enormously controversial in many liberal religious circles, I believe it is an essential resource that boldly reframes the terms of interfaith encounter in ways that are long overdue.

I deeply admire its bravery and look forward to the conversations it will most certainly inspire.


Zero Dark Thirty: My Shalom Rav Review

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Finally saw Zero Dark Thirty yesterday. Here’s my review:

From an artistic point of view, I can say without hesitation that I was riveted by ZDT from beginning to end. Kathryn Bigelow is clearly one of our most talented American directors, particularly in her ability to construct a film with a palpable sense of documentary realism. In so many ways she, along with screenwriter Mark Boal, and her entire filmmaking team had me in the palm of their collective hand.

Which is why I also found ZDT to be a morally reprehensible piece of cinematic propaganda.

My experience of this film, among other things, was a profound reminder that movies have immense power to manipulate emotions and shape attitudes. I will readily admit that I found myself thoroughly caught up in the intensity of the CIA’s quest (embodied by character of the passionately driven agent “Maya”) to find and kill Usama Bin Laden. What can I say? For two and half hours, the film worked its magic on me. But when it was over, all I felt was dirty and ashamed. Sickened, actually, that I allowed myself to be seduced by what amounted to an insidious, if deeply sophisticated, revenge fantasy.

I use the word insidious very consciously here – particularly since the film purports to be a facts-driven portrayal of the CIA hunt for Bin Laden. In the very first frame, in fact, a title that tells us we are about to watch a film “based on firsthand accounts of actual events”. The next title we see are the words “September 11, 2001”. Then for at least a minute we listen to audio tapes of terrified 9/11 victims calling for help. One woman in the World Trade Center tells a 911 dispatcher that she is “burning up,” then says, crying, “I’m going to die aren’t I?” The dispatcher tells her to “stay calm” but there is no further answer. The last thing we hear is the dispatcher’s voice saying, “Oh my God…”

This is how the movie is framed from the outset: we are told we are watching a movie based on actual events, constructed from information gained from those who were there. We hear the very real voices of American citizens as they are being burned alive.  Then we watch the “real-life” account of how the man responsible for their deaths was hunted down and killed by the CIA.

Listening to those terrified voices unsettled me to my core – but it was only after the movie was over that I realized how obscene their usage actually was.  Why did the filmmakers choose to play these recordings? After all, aren’t the tragic events of 9/11 well-known to everyone in the world? If the filmmakers were really interested in making a dispassionate, non-fiction account of the hunt for Bin Laden, wouldn’t it have made more sense to start with the beginning of the hunt itself?

Indeed, Bigelow has been quoted as saying she used “a journalistic approach” to making this film and that “it doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge.” This, of course, is hogwash.  If Bigelow and Boal were interested in presenting a “values-free” docudrama, they certainly wouldn’t have manipulated viewers with the voices of civilians being burned alive. After hearing the terrified voices of actual victims, how could we not cheer the CIA on as it uses any means necessary to find and kill Bin Laden?

Much has been written about the infamous scene in which one tortured Al-Qaeda operative gives up the name of Bin Laden’s courier after having been beaten, waterboarded, sexually humiliated and stuffed into a tiny wooden box. The inclusion of this scene – along with numerous references to information gained from tortured detainees – has been rightly condemned by many who point out it has already been conclusively determined that the information that ultimately led to Bin Laden’s execution was not gained through the use of torture. By including these scenes, ZDT conveys the incorrect – and dangerous – impression that torture “works.”  It’s a critical point to which I have nothing to add except to refer you to Glenn Greenwald’s excellent pieces on the subject.

Beyond this issue, ZDT is dangerous for an even more essential reason. As Peter Haas pointed out in a recent piece for the Atlantic, it represents a new genre of “entertainment” he calls “embedded filmmaking”:

The fundamental problem is that our government has again gotten away with offering privileged access to carefully selected individuals and getting a flattering story in return. Embeds, officially begun during the invasion of Iraq, are deeply troubling because not every journalist or filmmaker can get these coveted invitations (Seymour Hersh and Matt Taibbi are probably not on the CIA press office’s speed dial), and once you get one, you face the quandary of keeping a critical distance from sympathetic people whom you get to know and who are probably quite convincing. That’s the reason the embed or special invitation exists; the government does its best to keep journalists, even friendly ones, away from disgruntled officials who have unflattering stories to tell…

(The) new and odd rub in the case of Zero Dark Thirty is that the product of this privileged access is not just-the-facts journalism but a feature film that merges fact and fiction. An already problematic practice—giving special access to vetted journalists—is now deployed for the larger goal of creating cinematic myths that are favorable to the sponsoring entity (in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA). If the access that Boal and Bigelow received was in addition to access that nonfiction writers and documentarians received, I would be a bit less troubled, because at least the quotes in history’s first draft would be reliable, and that means a lot. But as it stands, we’re getting the myth of history before getting the actual history.

In other words, no matter how unsavory the protagonists behavior might be, no matter how “gritty” and “journalistic” the style, this is the CIA’s movie through and through.

In a more recent article, Greenwald pointed out the essential simplicity of ZDT’s world view:

All agents of the US government – especially in its intelligence and military agencies – are heroic, noble, self-sacrificing crusaders devoted to stopping The Terrorists; their only sin is all-consuming, sometimes excessive devotion to this task. Almost every Muslim and Arab in the film is a villainous, one-dimensional cartoon figure: dark, seedy, violent, shadowy, menacing, and part of a Terrorist network…

Other than the last scene in which the bin Laden house is raided, all of the hard-core, bloody violence is carried out by Muslims, with Americans as the victims. The CIA heroine dines at the Islamabad Marriott when it is suddenly blown up; she is shot at outside of a US embassy in Pakistan; she sits on the floor, devastated, after hearing that seven CIA agents, including one of her friends, a “mother of three”, has been killed by an Al Qaeda double-agent suicide-bomber at a CIA base in Afghanistan … Nobody is ever heard talking about the civilian-destroying violence brought to the world by the US.

The CIA and the US government are the Good Guys, the innocent targets of terrorist violence, the courageous warriors seeking justice for the 9/11 victims. Muslims and Arabs are the dastardly villains, attacking and killing without motive (other than the one provided by Bloomberg) and without scruples. Almost all Hollywood action films end with the good guys vanquishing the big, bad villain – so that the audience can leave feeling good about the world and themselves – and this is exactly the script to which this film adheres.

And in the end, that is what makes the technical and narrative brilliance of this film all the more pernicious. It creates the illusion of authenticity and truth when what we’re really watching is the CIA’s truth. One in which Bin Laden was never, once upon a time, an ally of the United States government. One in which “heroes” commit war crimes in secret locations in the furtherance of extra-judicial assassination. One that utterly ignores the realities of what the CIA’s civilian-destroying violence has wrought.

More than anything else, this is why I felt so very dirty after allowing myself to be entertained – and at times even moved – by Zero Dark Thirty.


Standing Down Rep. Joe Walsh’s Islamophobic Bigotry

Shortly after a gunman killed six worshipers in a Wisconsin Sikh temple and a Joplin Missouri mosque was burned to the ground, Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh felt perfectly comfortable uttering incendiary anti-Muslim comments at a town hall meeting last Wednesday, warning that “there is a radical strain of Islam in this country…trying to kill Americans every week.”  Offering no evidence or backup for his allegations, he continued: “It’s here. It’s in Elk Grove, it’s in Addison, it’s in Elgin. It’s here.”

Then he poured it on:

I’m looking for some godly men and women in the Senate, in the Congress, who will stand in the face of the danger of Islam in America without political correctness.  Islam is not the peaceful, loving religion we hear about.

Shortly after Walsh’s town meeting remarks, pellet rifle shots were fired at a mosque in Morton Grove, IL.

I don’t know about a domestic “radical Islamic plot” but by now it should be abundantly clear that there is a deadly strain of Islamophobia in our country. In such a climate, I’d say it is the height of irresponsibility for public servants to issue remarks such as these.

It was my honor to stand, together with interfaith colleagues, with my good friends at CAIR – Chicago to express our outrage at Walsh’s sick bigotry (clip above). If you stand with us, please, please let Rep. Walsh know how you feel.


The Sacred Handiwork of Poetry Pals

This past week I had the pleasure of visiting the Muslim Community Center school (MCC) in Morton Grove, IL to witness an inspiring session of Poetry Pals in action.

PP is a non-profit that brings children together from diverse and interfaith communities for partnership, expression and friendship through poetry, spoken word, music and art. At this particular workshop, fourth graders from MCC, Solomon Schecter Jewish Day School and Sacred Heart Catholic School gathered together in the MCC gym. After a brief learning session and tour from the principal, they came back together to get to know one another by engaging in a variety of creative poetry writing exercises.

So simple and yet so very powerful.  With news about religious intolerance blaring at us from every corner, I wish I could start every day this way: watching children wearing hijabs, kippot and Catholic school uniforms talking, playing, laughing and writing poetry together.  I am so grateful to PP founder (and JRC member) Donna Yates for inviting me to witness their sacred handiwork.

Local efforts such as Poetry Pals are eminently worthy of our support. Click here to do so.


Massacre in Norway: “The Answer to Violence is Even More Democracy”

So much to say about Friday’s tragic massacre in Norway. Chief among them: the death (I hope) of our misguided assumptions that terrorism must necessarily = Islamism.

Much has been written about the immediate media speculation – most notably by the New York Times – that this attack was carried out by an Islamist terror group. As journalist Ahmed Moor correctly points out, these assumption reveal just how deeply this meme is ingrained in the American consciousness – one that cuts across right-left political lines.

I’m also in full agreement with Moor when he says the real “Clash of Civilizations” is not between the West and Islam, but between “normal, sane people of the world and the right-wing zealots who see doom, destruction, hellfire and God’s Will at every turn:”

Anders Behring Breivik, Mohammed Atta and Baruch Goldstein are all cut from the same rotten cloth. Anwar Al-Awlaki and Glenn Beck – the peddlers of the faith – all share the same core afflictions.

These men are insecure, violently inclined, and illiberal. The outside world scares them. They hate homosexuals and strong women. For them, difference is a source of insecurity. Their values are militarism, conformism, chauvinism and jingoism. Worst of all they seek to pressure us into compliance while they work frantically to destroy themselves – and the rest of us with them.

All indications are that the hate-mongers – who are on the same side of this war, irrespective of religion – are winning in America. The unreflective, superficial, wan editors of the NYT are an indication of just how successful the right wing has been at eviscerating the left.

Terror expert Robert Lambert actually warns that ultra-nationalists pose an even greater threat than al-Qaeda, citing a disturbing litany of European plots that were foiled before they were able to be carried out. (Of course, as the example of Timothy McVeigh tragically reminds us, we Americans should not be so blase as to assume ultra-nationalist terror is only a European problem.)

What should be our response?  I can think of none better than that of Norway’s Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg. (Oh, would that we had heard these kinds of words from President Bush following 9/11):

This is a message from all of Norway: You will not destroy us. You will not destroy our democracy or our quest for a better world. ..This night we will comfort each other, talk with each other and stand together. Tomorrow we will show the world that Norway’s democracy grows stronger when it is challenged…

We must never cease to stand up for our values. We have to show that our open society can pass this test too, and that the answer to violence is even more democracy, even more humanity, but never naivete.  This is what we owe to the victims and to those they hold dear.

May the memory of the victims be for a blessing.