September 2, 2014

This is how bad it's getting.

I'm in my local Whole Foods, and I see a teenaged boy wearing a T-shirt with the word “Islam” on it. I feel my body begin to tense up. “Whatever that shirt says,” my inner monologue starts, “it can't be good.”

I move closer to him, in order to read the rest of the T-shirt.

It says “Islamarada.” It is a souvenir of a sun-drenched vacation in the Florida Keys.


I want to remember this little incident, so I start to write about it in the Notes app of my IPhone.

When I type the word “Islamarada,” it comes out as, ahem, “Islam armada.”

Oh, c'mon, I say to my phone: not you, too?

You know the old Monty Python line about how “no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”? Many people seem to be expecting the Islam armada. For that seems to be the theme of so many emails that I've been receiving lately from otherwise thoughtful and rational people.

For example: I got an email from a friend, in which he seems to be channeling Paul Revere: “The Muslims are coming! The Muslims are coming!”

Halal meat is now required in some American schools, he writes. Muslim taxi drivers are not required to transport people with dogs or liquor. Public school kids are being required to dress and act as Muslims. There are foot washing stations in colleges. “Wait for the day that sharia becomes law, as people are already pushing for,” his email audibly shrieks.

We've been here before. For those of you into 1950s nostalgia, it was called the Red scare. And before that, it was the fear of Asian infiltration called the yellow peril. For a good part of the twentieth century, there were people who were sure that the Jews were taking over neighborhoods, country clubs, professions, and universities.

As I told my friendly correspondent: the story of public school kids being required to dress as Muslims has been exposed as a hoax.

Foot washing stations in colleges: really? And if it's true, what, truly, is the big deal? If there is a critical mass of Muslim students on a particular college campus, what's the problem? How does this hurt or offend non-Muslim students?

“Wait for the day when shariah becomes law?” Seriously? This is the United States. You can't even put up the Ten Commandments in a courthouse without someone having a cow.

I receive a chain email, featuring photos of Muslim men in Manhattan praying towards Mecca. “This is in NYC on Madison Ave — not France, Yemen, Kenya or the Middle East. They are claiming America and Canada for Allah. If we don't wake up soon, we are going to 'politically correct' ourselves right out of our own country! It's time to make some changes, people!”

What changes did you have in mind?

A follow up email reveals the original author's fantasy: “We shouldn't let them build mosques in this country anymore.” “It's un-American!” my correspondent insists.

I flashback to an oft-repeated scene in the early 1950s: leafy suburbs, in which the local citizens are screaming about the construction of a synagogue in their neighborhood. 

Three things.

First, my correspondents pretend to know a lot about Islam. They don't. They know what they think they know, or what they've heard. But their understanding of Islam is as deep as, well, the Jordan River — and about as wide as well. They would never dream of making such un-nuanced, ill-informed statements about Christianity.

So, folks, Rule Number One about speaking about any religion other than your own (and maybe even your own as well): have a little humility. Or, don't say anything that you wouldn't say with a member of that religion standing right in front of you.

Second, my correspondents are fighting a war against diversity, forgetting that American Jews have been among its greatest beneficiaries. That’s not only a failure of memory; it is a failure of faith in America itself.

Third, many of my correspondents have made their Islamophobia the defining aspect of their Jewish identity. Their greatest Jewish “asset” is their fear of a Muslim takeover of America – a fear that is totally unfounded. When I delicately mention this, they accuse me of being a latter day German Jew, circa 1928, who all said that “it can't happen here.”

Except: last time I looked, America, 2014 bears no resemblance to Germany, 1934.

My antagonists and correspondents seem to willfully forget that in every way, American Jews are the most secure Jews of modernity.

Well, in almost every way. We are insecure in our Judaism.

Our delirious descent into paranoia, fueled by an anti-Muslim fever that is incapable of seeing nuance or context, is precisely the wrong way to bolster a sagging Jewish identity. To be blunt: that kind of Islam-baiting is its own kind of internal terror tactic, and it brings no one closer to Judaism.

Am I worried about what is happening to Jewish communities, and Jews, in Europe? Absolutely. Am I worried about the anti-modernist, anti-Jewish, and anti-Christian franchise that stretches from Boko Haram to Hamas to Hezbollah to ISIS? Absolutely. Am I enraged and sickened by the murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff? Without a doubt.

Do I believe that militant Islam poses a grave danger to the entire world? Yes.

But, am I worried about shariah law coming to the United States? No.

There are many mainstream, modernist Muslims in America. I've met many of them. A few years ago, I put together a Jewish-Christian-Muslim study weekend for religious institutions in Columbus, Ohio, where we sat together and studied the texts on Abraham. It was a luminous experience. And not only for me. A Bosnian Muslim woman sent me a note afterwards, in which she described the experience as being one of the high moments of her religious life.

Let's meeting the moderates, and let's study with them.

Because, really — things are bad enough in the world without imagining that they are worse than they already are.

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