Note from Michelle: When I saw the photos from this project, I was floored. I knew this was something that needed to be shared far and wide, so I asked Katie about writing up a little something for Tuesday Justice. I’m so glad she agreed. This is what it looks like to use your privilege and be an ally. Thank you, Katie! Check out more of her work here.
by Katie Hoffpauir
The journey to this project took a little over a year, and it began as something so utterly simple. I wanted to document natural hair: the curls, the fro, all of it. But what started out as me wanting to take photographs of just hair morphed into something completely different, and I am so thankful that it did.
One day this past May, over a year after the idea came to me, I was walking around our local Barnes and Noble. Now, on a normal bookstore trip, I leave with at least two new books and probably some kind of puzzle. On this particular trip, however, nothing was standing out to me. I walked the aisles for well over an hour and not one thing said, “buy me.” As I was getting ready to just give up, I passed one of the center tables and the only, I mean the only book that I saw, was Black Girl Magic. I tend to take signs literally, and I knew that I needed to really do this project. Only, at that moment, I knew it was turning into something else. I felt it in my bones, this urge to photograph black women. Not only for their beautiful hair, but for their inner beauty and their strength.
This feeling took me to Pinterest to research portrait styles and trends for photographing black women in particular. And do you know what I found? Not a whole lot. There were literally photographs of white women for every single scenario, but mostly only ad campaigns featuring black women, and not very diverse ads might I say. Immense sadness washed over me as I realized that young black girls growing up don’t see themselves portrayed in a positive light very often. We’ve seen a growth in representation, sure, but is it necessarily mostly positive? The black women portrayed in most movies or tv shows are loud, obnoxious, or out for revenge. Just turn on just about any Tyler Perry movie, and there’s a black woman out for blood (usually over a no good man). Or in any white movie, she’s the token black friend plugged in for the sake of variety. We must change the stereotype that women of color are only two-dimensional, and we must teach our young people to not only SEE but CELEBRATE color. So often, I hear white people say that their children are taught not to see color. But you guys, color should be seen! We have to show our children that there is no shame in color; that there is beauty and strength in our differences.
When I posted about needing models for this project, some asked if they could bring a friend. This simple question took me not only into documenting an individual’s beauty, but their friendships.
To say I was excited about this turn of events, doesn’t do the feelings I had justice. The morning of the first session, I was a little nervous to be photographing three women. But then when we met up, every anxiety faded away, and I knew exactly where I needed this project to go. It became a need to showcase not only photographs that were about strength, but photographs that showcased a sisterhood and love. It became so much more than what I envisioned a year earlier. Each portrait day, these women were stopped by others on the street, telling them how beautiful they were. And at the end of each session, there was a sense of joy and pride present that I can’t explain.
I have never in my life felt so invigorated while photographing anyone, and that week of sessions did more for my soul than anything I had ever done before. I made new friends, and I met some fierce and beautiful women of color. These women work in social work, they deliver babies, they teach children, they are mothers, sisters, daughters. They are bold, beautiful, educated, courageous, and kind. They embody love, loyalty, and wisdom. They are a wonderful force for good in this world and we need to celebrate their melanin. Because it is amazing.
If you are like me, you may be really wrestling with whether or not today should see you donning an American Flag t-shirt, throwing the kids in the sidecar, waving tiny American Flags, and driving down to participate in the local parade like you do every year (or whatever your annual 4th of July tradition is). It’s hard to know how overtly patriotic to be when the nation is in the midst of such moral crises. Are we permitted to parade in the streets while privately and publicly denouncing so many of the actions of our government and the words and standpoints of our elected officials?
I don’t know the answer. I don’t think I would judge anyone for celebrating, and I don’t think I would judge anyone for giving the 4th of July a miss this year. I keep being reminded that tomorrow is, first and foremost, a Patriotic holiday. That means it is a celebration for anyone who loves our country, who is thankful for America and what it stands for, for the ideals upon which we are founded. It is not a Jingoist holiday; that is, it is not for those who would celebrate our right, by virtue only of our nation of birth, to dominate or oppress others. It is not a Nationalist holiday; that is, it is not for those who would celebrate the supremacy of America and Americans over all other lands and people, for the creed of America is inherently inconsistent with Nationalism.
So, tomorrow I will be celebrating this wonderful nation along with my family and friends, because we love and are very thankful for our country. We will wave flags, we will wear our shirts, we will eat Freedom Fries and Hamburgers (Ameriburgers?). We will celebrate that ‘America is the only nation founded on a creed’, and that creed revolves around the equality of all men and their right to justice. We will remember that we are a nation of immigrants.
But if someone’s pride in America is of the sort that sees our primary duty in the world as promoting our own interests regardless of the suffering of others, or of seeing our own people- or a subset of our own people- as more inherently deserving of dignity and compassion, or if the phrase “they aren’t Americans” seems like a valid justification for acts of cruelty or inhumane usage… Might I recommend that they stay home and watch TV instead? Because the 4th of July is the celebration of the fact that “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” If that isn’t an idea that your conceptualization of American can get behind, then this probably just isn’t the holiday for you.
And yes, I realize that would mean it would be a quiet 4th of July at the White House.
I will never forget that can of stewed tomatoes and okra.
The pantry in our dingy-walled apartment, where the rent was late but we were still within the grace period, was empty.
Except for that can.
It had come, I think, from a box of government commodities my grandmother had received. I am not sure how it ended up in our pantry, but it sat there, waiting for someone to figure out what to do with it. It was not appealing.
For the past couple of days, my wife and I had been slowly scaling back how much we ate to make sure our children didn’t go hungry and that the groceries would last. That evening, the family had eaten the last of everything, and I had quietly skipped the meal. Payday was the next day.
Everyone else was in bed, and I was alone in the pantry, staring at that can, the last food in the apartment. Hunger finally said, “Enough.”
I took it off the shelf and walked over to the counter where I slowly opened it, and — crossing the room to sit at the table — ate one of the worst meals of my life directly from the can.
How I had gotten there was a mix of personal mistakes and bad timing. I’d left my former job to return to school, but the national recession that almost immediately followed that decision had made finding work difficult; I had three over-the-table jobs (my wife also had an under-the-table childcare arrangement) and still didn’t work enough combined hours to be considered full-time. Rent claimed most of that (minimum wage) money, fuel prices were high and we lived without frills. Because work was slower than anyone anticipated when we made our plans, we were forced to eat the savings we had.
We were able to buy groceries the day after I ate the tomatoes and okra. We came close to repeating that story a few times — our pastor even pulled us aside in a couple of instances and said we could avail ourselves of the church’s food pantry if we needed to — but we never got quite that desperate again.
That experience changed how I saw food security, and it has remained with me in better times.
High food security (old label=Food security): no reported indications of food-access problems or limitations.
Marginal food security(old label=Food security): one or two reported indications—typically of anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house. Little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake.
Low food security (old label=Food insecurity without hunger): reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.
Very low food security(old label=Food insecurity with hunger): Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.
Reports at the USDA’s Economic Research Institute show that in 2016 12.3 percent of households in the U.S. — nearly 15.6 million people — were considered food insecure at some point that year, and 7.4 percent of households — 9.4 million people — were considered to have low food security. The ERI reported that, like in my own story, parents and caregivers worked to shield children from reductions in food intake, but 298,000 households still saw children face disruption in how often they were able to eat.
So why is this a justice issue?
It seems obvious on its face, but many people don’t realize how critical food — especially healthful food — is to a functioning society. People who are hungry are very often people who are not healthy, and people who are hungry and unhealthy are not going to be able to function as well in their jobs or in their schools.
Food insecurity likewise tends to affect groups that are already in danger of disenfranchisement, which means — because they are less likely to perform well or be healthy — they will continue to be marginalized.
The rate of food insecurity for all groups is 12.3 percent, but as the USDA statistics note, some groups tend to face it at higher rates than others:
All households with children (16.5 percent),
Households with children under age 6 (16.6 percent),
Households with children headed by a single woman (31.6 percent),
Households with children headed by a single man (21.7 percent),
Women living alone (13.9 percent),
Men living alone (14.3 percent),
Black, non-Hispanic households (22.5 percent),
Hispanic households (18.5 percent), and
Low-income households with incomes below 185 percent of the poverty threshold (31.6 percent; the Federal poverty line was $24,339 for a family of four in 2016).
First, be aware that many people are hiding their own food insecurity. I volunteer at a local food bank every week, and one of the things that strikes me is how very normal most of the people look. Many come through after finishing a shift at work, or in their work uniforms. In some cases, people who qualify for the assistance have someone else picking it up for them, often because they are unable to do so themselves.
Second, recognize that it is likely not a choice. While an adult with food security issues may look typical, they may in fact have a hidden disease such as a mental illness or neurological condition that may have good and bad days that makes consistent or full-time work difficult. They may be a caregiver for someone with a disability, or they may be stuck in a cycle of unemployment or trying to exit an addiction. They could be a child or young person without the capacity to fully provide for themselves.
Third, donate. Give money or food to a local food pantry or a backpack program, which — in cooperation with local schools — distributes backpacks of food to students in need before they leave each weekend.
When you donate, don’t send expired food or food you wouldn’t eat yourself. While some food banks have some wiggle room on expiration dates, it’s not much and they will have to throw them away. Besides, what are you really saying if you’re giving a food insecure person a can that expired in 2014 and telling them, “I wouldn’t eat this, but you can.”
You should also likewise consider giving a little variety of food. Food drives tend to bring in lots and lots of cans of corn and green beans. Those are needed, but man does not live on grain and legumes alone.
While many food banks need most of their food to be shelf stable, some — including the one where I volunteer — have freezers and can put up meat and dairy. Check to see if they can accept those items. Families appreciate being able to receive items such as cheese or butter.
Desserts are also a nice donation. Some people might want to gripe about poor people eating sweets (thinking that being poor is a moral failing that deserves to be punished), but if they’re coming through our pantry, they’re receiving other foods. When life is hard, sometimes a piece of cake may serve its own purpose.
And one final thing on donations — consider cash. I mentioned it above, but it bears repeating. Food donations help stock shelves, but during some seasons (i.e. when it’s not Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter) they tend to slow down. Having cash on hand helps the pantry not only keep the lights on but restock when needed.
Fourth, donate time. I know not everyone can do this, but food security organizations — whether they are independent or linked to a faith community — overwhelmingly rely on volunteer labor. It’s not glamorous, but someone needs to move boxes and stock shelves.
Back in May, I began working on a post about slavery in supply chains. I hoped to cover three big offenders, chocolate, phones, and fashion, and quickly realized I had been overly ambitious in that hope. (The resulting post can be found here, covering only chocolate.) In preparation for that post, before throwing in the towel on phones and fashion, I was able to gather a number of resources from a single source: Whole Cloth. It dawned on me that there was someone much better suited to tackle fashion justice. Our guest author is “radical homemaker, renegade Ph.D.” Bethany Hebbard. She began the Whole Cloth project (a blog and a community) to explore “the relationship between cloth, craft, and justice.” I’m so thankful that she was willing to share with our Tuesday Justice community about the injustices within the industry and steps to fight for justice in our own closets. – MP –
Guest Post by Dr. Bethany Hebbard
“I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe…”
(Job 29:14 ESV)
What does it mean to wear justice? This question is as old as the Book of Job, one of the most ancient poems in the Hebrew Scriptures. Today, our relationship to clothing is entangled in the most significant questions of justice in our time: poverty, sustainability, race, slavery, and the meaning of work.
It can be overwhelming to discern where to begin in a conversation about clothing and justice. The most obvious starting point might be the prevalence of “fast fashion” in the global marketplace. “Fast fashion” refers to clothing that is sold at rock-bottom prices, encouraging consumers to purchase, wear, and dispose of clothing at staggering rates. The 2015 film The True Costoffers a highly-engaging introduction to this phenomenon, with a particular focus on the environmental and human rights problems it creates. If you’re interested in the history of fast fashion, Fashionista offers a helpful timeline here. Other resources focus on the environmental and social problems caused by consumer obsession with cheap clothing.
How can we ever hope to clothe ourselves in justice, when the facts of global textile production are so bleak? One possible answer lies in the popularity of the phrase “ethical fashion,” which often pops up in articles about the best response to “fast fashion.” There are definitely some exciting developments in the realm of ethical fashion, but I’m reluctant to point to it as the solution for a few reasons. First, “ethical fashion” suggests that it is a subset of the larger “fashion industry.” This link limits its audience to people who are interested in fashion, trends, and style. People who aren’t interested in fashion per se may ignore the conversation, thinking it has more to do with design aesthetics than with basic consumer concerns. However, everyone (a few nudists excluded!) wears clothing, meaning that the ethical questions at hand are far larger than what happens during Fashion Week or on the cover of Vogue.
More importantly, “ethical fashion” implies that there is a shared, global ethic of clothing, which simply isn’t true. “Ethical” means action rooted in a coherent set of moral principles. These principles usually come from our understanding of how the world works: what “the good life” looks like; who or what determines right from wrong; and how our personal desires intersect with our responsibilities toward others. To speak of “ethical fashion” as though everyone in the world (or even in the US) shares a common ethic simply isn’t accurate. For some people, environmental concerns might be most important. For others, labor conditions or domestic jobs might be paramount. For others, religious convictions come first. Particular concerns such as these tend to get lost in large-scale public discussions of ethics. This is a problem because an ethic that is vaguely defined and impersonal is unlikely to provoke meaningful action.
In my experience, the most effective answer to the enormous problems of clothing justice come through personal conviction and local action. Here are some ways to begin:
Reflect upon and articulate your ethic of clothing.
How does your understanding of personhood, morality, and work intersect with concerns about clothing? What sources or figures from your tradition offer guidance on this subject? What concerns do you share with others, and what are distinctively yours? For example, as a Christian, my own ethic of clothing is rooted in the beautiful and prophetic imagery of the Bible. I call it my “Whole Cloth Manifesto,” and it is a living document, constantly undergoing revision as I share and discuss it with members of my faith community.
Make a plan for translating your ethic into action.
Personally, this has meant strengthening my sewing skills, avoiding all synthetic fabrics, and supporting my local fiber economy (Fibershed is a stellar resource for this) by purchasing Texas cotton and domestically produced clothing whenever possible. It is, sadly, nearly impossible to find an article of clothing that is completely free from the problems described above. For that reason, it is important to have a sense of priority when it comes to your values for clothing. If you have to choose, does your ethic guide you to purchase a shirt made with organic cotton–mitigating significant environmental concerns–or one made with conventional cotton, but grown and sewn in the USA–allowing greater confidence in fair labor conditions?
Practice solidarity with those who make your clothes.
Learning at least one hands-on skill related to clothing will help you value your clothing more, and also build empathy for those who create our clothing. You might try mending, sewing, dyeing, or something more in-depth, such as weaving. Learning these skills can also empower you to take steps out of the industrial supply chain, whether by prolonging the wear of your clothes through mending, or crafting your own goods in ways that accord with your values.
Begin public action within your own community and people.
While there is a time for large-scale industry regulations, the most significant problems in the clothing industry are fed directly by consumer demand. By working within your own community–with people who know and trust you–you have an incredible opportunity to change the hearts and habits of people with buying power. By beginning your activism among those with whom you share a worldview and economic background, you will be able to present a specific and compelling ethic of clothing. Within my faith community, this has meant trying to expand the Christian preoccupation with “modesty” to a larger concern with issues of pride, conspicuous consumption, and environmental stewardship as they relate to clothing.
In the spirit of “Tuesday Justice,” it is important to remember that everyday decisions can add up to a lifetime of profound witness and change. If we begin by challenging our own assumptions and practices, we will soon find ourselves speaking (or dressing!) prophetically, mobilizing our own communities and challenging systemic problems. Whether that means wearing organic cotton or “shopping” from your grandma’s closet, you’ll soon find yourself wearing justice like a robe — and that never goes out of fashion.
Michelle here! Just a quick note about today’s post. No, it’s not the 5th Tuesday of the month, but we’ve got a guest post! We are so thankful to publish this piece by Vershal Hogan while we’re a week into our 2017 Tuesday Justice Survey campaign. We have already seen several requests for more ways to get involved and to tangibly work towards freedom, equality, and justice. That is coming, I promise. But this post isn’t it. With that being said, I fully believe that some of the most important work we can do is in our own hearts and minds. Vershal’s story has encouraged me to come to terms with my own whiteness and how that affects my interactions and relationships. As a person passionate about these issues, it’s mandatory that I regularly confront this in my own life. I hope this story helps you do just that, like it did for me.
by Vershal Hogan
At the time, I was in my first year of working for a newspaper in southern Mississippi, in a city renowned for its preservation of antebellum homes and — to some extent even now — culture. Any discussion of race in the city inevitably mentions its historic tableaux, which was originally known as the Confederate Pageant and wasn’t rebranded until the early 2000s, but even outside the spring and fall pilgrimage seasons — in which the city’s garden clubs open their historic homes for tours — the historic realities of the Civil War, slavery and Jim Crow are a part of a complicated history and present. Some embrace that history with unquestioning enthusiasm, waving the banner Lost Cause, while others wrestle with being the inheritors of estates that were built and paid for by human chattel. Many members of the black community are descendants of those slaves, growing up in the shadows of homes that were raised by the blood and sweat of their kin but never gaining any social capital from it. Couple that with Jim Crow and civil rights eras that were as violent as the worst parts of the country, and race becomes an issue that almost always simmers just below the surface.
I met David one day while I was out doing an assignment for the newspaper, a weekly feature in which we threw a dart at a map and then went and wrote a story about whatever we found. It was usually an innocuous, inconsequential story, usually something about a grandmother spending time with her grandchildren or about friends who worked on antique cars together – typically, it was something very middle-class.
That day was different, however. The dart had landed on a street in a historically black neighborhood that had once been renowned for its success, but had drifted into decay in recent years. My editor had given us a rule that you were allowed to go only as far as one street over from where the dart landed to find a story, and normally that worked. In that town, one street over from shacks leaning in on each other could very easily be gentrified, or just as likely, bourgeoisie. Economic degeneration and revitalization in southwest Mississippi is a strange thing.
The street the dart landed on was by far the better of the three choices we had using the one-street-over rule, and even then there was a gang of Bloods standing at the corner eyeballing me and the photographer, Frank.
The first couple of houses we approached had “Keep Out” and “Beware of Dog” signs, and when we saw David sitting on a porch, he was working on a neighbor’s kerosene heater, tinkering and trying to get it to fire up. He had a plastic cup and a bottle of cheap whiskey on the porch next to him, whiskey I smelled before I ever saw it. It looked like a lazy afternoon, and he would be someone we could speak with and get a story quickly.
“Hey, Mr. Frank,” he called out, recognizing the photographer, who seemed to know everyone in that town, “What are you doing with that Jew in this neighborhood?”
After Frank and I both laughed at the comment (I’d been mistaken for being Jewish a number of times, several of them while with Frank in black neighborhoods), we explained what we were doing, and David agreed to talk to us. He talked about the history of his neighborhood (he alleged, among other things, that a nun had been hanged in his house in the 1880s), about his personal doubts about organized religion even though he occasionally attended a church, about how he wanted to help people and how he gathered and distributed information around his neighborhood about how to get back into school, start a business or get corporate grants. He talked a lot about race relations, how they had gotten better and how, in some cases, they had gotten worse.
He had a master’s degree in agriculture production and had been part of a program that had the goal of teaching young black men how to be commercial farmers and catfish producers. That had been going well until his work in the field got the best of him, leaving him out of commission for a long time, he said.
“Sunstroke is a hell of a thing to happen to a man,” he said. “Especially to a black man.”
Through all of this, he would occasionally give me a strange look.
Finally, he came out with it: “You look white, but I know you’re not all white.”
Like many people in the South, I’ve got some Chickasaw-Choctaw Nation genes, but I’ve never considered myself to be anything but white and have certainly never been bold enough to try to identify otherwise.
“You know how I know you’re not all white?” David said, his eyes intense. “I know that because you look me in the eyes. White people don’t look me in the eyes.”
Here was a man who — while a little rough around the edges — was educated and articulate (yes, I said it), but conditioned by a dynamic that expected me not to treat him as an equal. His bringing up what he perceived to be my own ethno-racial identity was predicated on the safety of the neighborhood.
I don’t remember what I said after that. Back then, making eye contact in conversation wasn’t so much a professional or human courtesy as it was a compulsion because I had a teacher who berated me for not doing so when I talked to her when I was 15. I was just trying to be polite to an adult who was much older than I was, and for a brief moment, I felt a pointless pang of corporate white guilt even though he had praised me for doing what he didn’t expect me to do.
I had already come to the conclusion that in the South race problems were rooted in more than just a hatred or disdain for that which is different, that it was a social construct that conflated socio-economics with melanin. The city was the location anthropologists chose to study in the 1941 (at the time) groundbreaking anthropological study, “Deep South,” and though at the time I hadn’t read it, I’d noticed similar dynamics to what the authors published — that racial boundaries are often about maintaining a caste system, which is why, for example, it’s often considered shameful for a rich white girl to date a black boy (even a rich black boy) but not for a white girl from one of the poorer trailer parks.
But David then did something that made me realize that everything we do, consciously or unconsciously, reinforces those caste systems.
He reached over, put his hands on my shoulder, and said, “Because you look me in the eyes, I now adopt you as my black brother. You are now one of us.”
That was the day I really grasped how my own race could import an unspoken dynamic into a conversation, especially with someone who has the living memory of some of our shared culture’s uglier moments. Here I was, a kid just out of school interacting with a man three times my age and with twice the education, and he was socially conditioned to assume I wouldn’t grant him a basic courtesy, whether out of a sense of superiority or fear. Until that point, my general beliefs about racism had been facile, the thought that if one does not speak or think with overt hatred they’ve covered their bases, and a few years later, when talk of non-verbal racism became mainstream, I thought back to that occasion.
The story I wrote from that afternoon, like many dart features, wasn’t very long or memorable. I’m sure that if David even read it, he laughed at it, as he would laugh at this writing.
But I remember it, and sometimes I still think about it. Since then, I’ve had opportunity to attend sessions where black people — especially older people — talked about the conditioning that was drilled into them from a young age, how they weren’t to look certain people directly in the eyes, how deferential language was non-negotiable and even how where one positioned themselves in a room or a public space were important considerations. While most of the overt behavior codes of the bad old days are now gone, the complexity of our interactions continue; in fact, it may be more difficult to root out now because most people will affirm that racism is bad, and thus don’t want to admit their own shortcomings.
(And if you don’t see how that doesn’t sometimes translate into frustration or even rage…)
I am fortunate in that I don’t get to qualify my own failings with the old social crutch of “That’s how I was raised;” our home was pretty open. But the culture around me being what it was, there were a lot of unconscious cues that I absorbed, and I’ll admit that there are still things I have to work on.
But I’ll give this: If I have to be called out for something, I’ll at least be looking you in the eye.
For more on battling racism, check out our other posts on the subject:
The truth is that nobody knows what actually causes terrorism to a point where we can generalize the motivations of all terrorists. There are different levels of explanation – social, individual, structural or political motivations – and whilst each may play a part, the dominant narrative takes a religious ideological approach as fact without any demonstrated scientific basis.
“Religion had nothing to do with this. We watched films. We were shown videos with images of the war in Iraq. We were told we must do something big.”
– failed 7/21/05 London Underground bomber, Hussein Omar
How well do we as a society really understand the causes of terrorism? Since 9/11, and especially 7/7 in London, we’ve been fed the line that Islamic ideology, rather than politics, causes extremism, each new ‘Islamist’ attack apparently proving the theory. And because the theory that terrorists are mentally deranged has no scientific basis, what really drives individuals to engage in this kind of socially deviant and devastating behaviour, sometimes even to a point of killing themselves as well? Is it primarily religious ideology? Is it politics? What is the effect of choosing one narrative over the other?
Following a ‘jihadist’ attack, news coverage hysterically focuses on how individuals were radicalized by an increasingly fanatical Islamic ideology (white-supremacist attacks, conversely, receive far less attention), often with a backdrop of a failed personal life or a lack of integration into modern Western society. The actual motivations for the attacks are rarely investigated. 9/11, the Boston bombing, 7/7 in London, the Brussels attacks, Paris, Florida, Madrid are frequently implied by media and politicians to have no aims other than instilling senseless terror on the basis of a warped interpretation of Islam. It is often ignored that such atrocities attempt to accomplish a goal or communicate a political message. All definitions of terrorism have at their core some political or social aim, but aside from passing comments, we don’t hear about these in news coverage. There is a growing body of literature (see here, here and here) that suggests this direction has been encouraged by governments to silence dissent over their foreign policy; it is in Western governments’ interests to ascribe the attackers’ motivations to reasons other than their military interventions and the so-called ‘War on Terror’. It’s a natural defence mechanism to place the blame for attacks like 9/11 on anything but their own actions (be it invasions, drone strikes, or Guantanamo).
George W. Bush notoriously claimed, “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” This has become commonly accepted; the media and politicians incessantly bombard us with this idea. However, The Defense Science Board, a Federal Advisory Committee established to provide independent advice to the US Secretary of Defense, wrote in 2004 that,
Muslims do not “hate our freedom,” but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.
As well as politics appearing central to acts of terrorism, further problems with taking religious ideology as the principal driver of terrorism are that:
Most basically, there are people who possess what society deems as ‘radical ideologies’ yet don’t engage in violence;
To take ‘religious ideology’ as equivalent to brainwashing is misguided when a group’s beliefs are debated to a point where they sometimes split apart;
Studies have consistently found “no empirical support” for many ideologically-focussed approaches to de-radicalization or countering terrorism, suggesting it plays little part in their radicalization;
And above all, there is nowhere near enough scientific research into individuals’ motivations to cast generalizations (and where studies have occurred, they often find social interactions play the most important role).
Governments totally ignore the attackers’ motivations in explaining terrorism; look up basically any attack on the West – what do the attackers say? Political grievances and aims are always central. What did the Boston bomber scrawl on the inside of the boat? It wasn’t challenging freedom and democracy, but US foreign affairs and the deaths America has caused. What did the Woolwich attacker say in the street when he was standing over Fusilier Lee Rigby? It wasn’t about creating an Islamic State, but lamenting the suffering Western invasions have brought to other parts of the world. What motivations did the failed US underwear bomber Abdulmutallab give during his court case? Not the rewards from martyrdom, but US tyranny and its oppression of Muslims. As an aside, it should also be remembered that those most affected by ‘Islamic’ terrorism are other Muslims. (Stats can be found here, here, and here.)
The truth is that nobody knows what actually causes terrorism to a point where we can generalize the motivations of all terrorists. There are different levels of explanation – social, individual, structural or political motivations – and whilst each may play a part, the dominant narrative takes a religious ideological approach as fact without any demonstrated scientific basis. If that perspective only seems like common sense, it’s because it has been constantly emphasized by politicians and the media over time. No study has had anywhere near sufficient access to terrorists to show any causation. However, these unfounded assumptions cause us to view certain communities (those perceived to be Muslims) as suspicious, based purely on correlations with widely-publicized attacks that have previously taken place. In Britain for example, following the IRA Birmingham pub bombings, those with Irish accents were viewed with suspicion and hostility; similarly, the now-suspect ‘Muslim community’ is placed under constant suspicion of being a potential threat following jihadi attacks. Studies into the creation of suspect communities show they are treated with disdain and blamed for attacks, that they experience negative interactions with the police, racism and discrimination at work, and feel unsafe walking around and like second-class citizens.
“We are constantly demonized, all through the media. I used to go to the cinema every weekend…I’ve given up because every time I would go…there’s at least one hint somewhere [that Muslims are terrorists or cause terrorism] – and in newspapers and the media as a whole, constantly we’re demonized.”
The West spends billions on domestic counter-terrorism efforts taking this unproven and highly presumptuous ideology-based explanation to minimize the threat from suspect communities. A frightening consequence of this drive is that particularly within the US, in borrowing predictive principles from the widely-criticized British Prevent Strategy, a network of 15,000 informants has developed to target Muslims, and the practice of entrapment (“tricking someone into committing a crime in order to secure their prosecution”) has escalated. The FBI has even killed Americans on American soil based on opportunities the agency itself has provided to ‘vulnerable’ Muslims. (A recap of the events can be found here, but Arun Kundnani goes into more detail in his book, The Muslims Are Coming.) Judges have repeatedly noted that these entrapped individuals would not otherwise have engaged in such deviant activities had the FBI not placed them in the ‘wrong place’ at the ‘wrong time’. Judge McMahon, sentencing the Newburgh Four, said,
Only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr Cromitie, a man whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope… I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here except [that] the government instigated it, planned it, and brought it to fruition.
Governments have gradually diluted the threshold for ‘terrorism’ charges: in the UK, non-violent extremism is now a criminal offence, and thousands of children as young as four have gone through the British de-radicalization program. Umm Ahmed, a British Muslim, was jailed for 12 months for the possession of Inspire Magazine which she had obtained to keep updated with her brother’s trial (apparently reading the magazine online does not land you in jail, but possessing it on a USB stick does!). In sentencing her the judge said that Umm posed no threat, that she had no intent to harm, that she was not a terrorist – and even that she was a good Muslim – but that he had to imprison her based on her possession of the magazine.
The idea of a distinct and definable ‘Muslim community’, separate from the rest of the population, has been encouraged by the provision of cohesion funding that targets places with a certain number of Muslims, and by politicians calling for this apparently distinct community to condemn the latest attacks as though they were in some way collectively responsible. David Cameron in his (in)famous multiculturalism speech called for moderate Muslims to condemn the radical ones, and Trump similarly called on Muslims to “report when they see something going on”. This leads to Muslims being seen collectively as a threat, and advancing the perception of them as separate to ‘the rest of us’. In turn, like after the recent Manchester bombing, we see a rise in hate crimes against those perceived to be Muslims, who are often approached in public and told, “shame on you… for what you did”. People have been killed as a result of anti-Muslim attacks, although like other right-wing extremist attacks, they get far less attention than what is considered ‘Islamist’ violence.
We have become obsessed by denouncing those engaging in political violence as deluded Islamist ideologues, when in fact, by their own testimony, the attacks they carry out seem much more like retaliations for Western policy decisions, like invasions and occupations, support for Israel (which is taken as definitional support for the oppression of Palestinians), Guantanamo, drone strikes, and so on. Claims that ideology is the overriding explanation are wholly unfounded and exist to minimize Western governments’ responsibility in motivating the attacks. However, because of these narratives being endlessly repeated, we have succeeded in separating Muslims from non-Muslims, and non-Muslims from Muslims, allowing totally irrational fear and distinction, rather than unity, to triumph.
Completely different religions can coexist in America just as easily as different denominations of Christianity. There aren’t campaigns where Methodist try to convert all Baptists, and churches with totally different beliefs collaborate to accomplish work in the community. The same type of collaboration is possible between churches and mosques.
There’s debate about whether the recent executive order can fairly be called a “Muslim ban.” On the campaign trail, the proposal started as “a total and complete shutdown on Muslims entering the US” and evolved into “extreme vetting.” When asked if the executive order had anything to do with religion, Former Mayor Giuliani also described the President’s intention as a “Muslim ban.” Legal permanent residents (with green cards) were also affected by this ban. Iraqi interpreters and other soldiers who fought and served alongside US troops are also barred from entering the US.
Whether the President intended to target Muslims or just possible terrorists, many Americans have a very hard time making any distinction between refugees, peaceful Muslims, and extremists.
Michael “Duke” Lowrie is a Bossier City candidate for the Louisiana House of Representatives this year, and he has proposed boycotting any business that employs a follower of Islam—not businesses making political or religious statements—literally any business with a Muslim employee. Lowrie went on to say, “I will challenge every Islamist (sic) I see to denounce their false god and religion. Those Islamist (sic) here walk among us in stores and we act as if they’re no different than any of us. Well I’m sorry they are different.” Far from being an isolated case of Islamophobia, Lowrie’s candidacy comes at a time when violence against Muslims has risen to post-9/11 levels.
Imagine if a politician was making these kinds of harsh statements about Catholics, Pentecostals, or Baptists. It may seem incomprehensible today, but there have been times when Americans were this paranoid about other groups of Christians.
Persecution of Christians in America
In spite of America’s historical emphasis on religious freedom, virtually every religious and ethnic group has faced paranoia and oppression at some point. Catholics and German immigrants are two noteworthy examples. Anti-Catholic sentiment was present even in the colonial era, such that the founding fathers made a point of being inclusive. In the Bible riots of 1844, Catholic homes and churches were destroyed. Joseph Smith (founder of the Mormon faith) was killed by a mob the same year. Even as recently as 1960, JFK had to give a speech assuring voters that he would not “take orders from the Pope.” What’s interesting is that the average believer still has a very limited understanding about the differences between different branches of the Christian faith. Modern Baptists generally speaking aren’t more informed about Catholicism than their ancestors; they have just learned that coexistence is easy and beneficial. Denominations can have fundamentally different ideas about the path to salvation, and yet they can also collaborate on work in the community.
Elevated Tensions in Times of War
Language barriers, cultural differences, and the threat of terrorist attacks all heighten people’s anxiety about Muslim immigrants. Again, history has relevant examples for comparison. Amish and Old Order Mennonites are now viewed positively as hard-working Christians adhering to a peaceful and simpler way of life. Back in WWII, however, these communities were viewed with extreme distrust. Why would someone come to America and refuse to integrate into our culture? Many communities still persist in speaking Pennsylvania Dutch instead of English, even after generations of living in America. Even more incomprehensible, many of these able-bodied men were conscientious objectors in a war against German and Japanese imperialism. To an unsympathetic observer, it was easy to see the Amish as Germans on American soil.
All across America—Texas, Washington, and Michigan all have entire towns dedicated to German culture. Turbans and mosques seem threatening to many Americans, and yet we have come to see towns of German immigrants as tourist attractions. People who lash out against Muslims also end up attacking people of completely different faiths. Over 500,000 American Sikhs practice a religion from Southern Asia, and yet they are routinely harassed by people who perceive them as Muslim.
“But Islam is Different”
Some people claim that Islam doesn’t deserve protection as a religion because it also has rules governing diet, clothing, and other lifestyle choices. Of course, any Christian who opens their Old Testament will see long lists of laws governing everything from diet to fabric choices. Others have spread misguided fear about “Sharia courts.” The truth is that Americans are woefully uninformed about Islam. We’ve been at war in the Middle East for decades, and yet Americans know only a handful of second-hand stereotypes about Islam.
Nearly half of Americans do not know a single Muslim, and a majority of Americans know either nothing at all (30%) or not very much (25%) about the Muslim religion and its practices.
With over 1.6 million adherents, Islam takes many different forms in different cultures. Still, the vast majority of believers are concerned about extremism and opposed to groups like ISIS. Peaceful Muslims are potential allies in the prevention of terrorist attacks. On the other hand, making life harder for all Muslims will play into the East-vs-West narrative presented by ISIS and other extremists.
Myths About Islam
While Americans know incredibly little about Islam, we have all heard a few catch phrases of propaganda that make religious war seem inevitable. The most problematic falsehood is that “Christianity and Islam cannot coexist.” The religions can and do peacefully coexist in countries all around the world. I personally spent two years in Cameroon, a country that borders Nigeria. I lived in two Muslim towns with a Christian population around 20 percent. I witnessed more tension between Baptists and Catholics in Louisiana than between Christians and Muslims in Cameroon. It is not a perfect democracy, and yet Cameroon maintains a high degree of religious tolerance nationwide.
Completely different religions can coexist in America just as easily as different denominations of Christianity. There aren’t campaigns where Methodist try to convert all Baptists, and churches with totally different beliefs collaborate to accomplish work in the community. The same type of collaboration is possible between churches and mosques. In Sweden, this kind of inter-faith cooperation has helped to find housing for refugees.
Founding fathers like Jefferson and Washington made it clear that America’s religious freedom extended to Muslims. Now, Christians must also determine a Christ-like response to refugees and immigrants with different cultures and faiths.