Warning: naughty language ahead!
One of the marks of a good leader is that, in times of turmoil, he or she is able to see beyond the fear and uncertainty and forge a path based on what is right.
To step into the right side of history, a leader must do what’s best, not only in the moment, but to build bridges to connect and accommodate the common thread of humanity that binds our future.
From Gandhi to Gorbachev, and from Mandela to Martin Luther King, strong leaders know that although they may face opposition from those who would rather erect walls and live behind a façade of separateness and superiority, it is only understanding and diplomatic discourse that can douse the flames of violence and hate.
In this week’s State of the Union address, President Obama owned it.
He made a bold move, veering from the standard presidential rhetoric and calling for leaders to “fix” U.S. politics. He called out wanna-be politicians and leaders like Donald Trump for spouting anti-Muslim assertions and preying on the fears of millions of Americans who only know diversity from television shows and Fox (entertainment) News.
“When politicians insult Muslims … that doesn’t make us safer,” Obama told the nation. “It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals.”
When I heard the applause that followed, not only did my own heart sing, but I could almost feel a collective nod from an increasingly enlightened sum of humanity from all corners of the earth.
From Europe to Asia, from Africa to South America, and even Australia and our neighbors to our north and south, people have been watching the American political race play out, somewhat in awe, somewhat in horror, as talk of building walls, banning refugees (who are fleeing the very groups we fear), and thrusting the country backward about 100 years in racial and gender equality has not only become commonplace, it’s been embraced by huge crowds of supporters. It’s about time we recognized what outsiders seem to already know: there is a better way.
My boyfriend and I were in France last month, digging into history and spending time with friends. In our final hours there, we enjoyed a toast and shared laughter with our hosts. In the middle of the revelry, we invited them to come to the United States so that we could reciprocate their kindness.
I watched the smile fade from our host’s husband’s face. “I don’t think I would like to come to the U.S.,” he said, with an unusual tone of seriousness in his voice. “From what I hear, it would not be good for me there, simply because of my name.”
For a moment, I was confused. This joy of a man, who cheerfully brought home baguettes every evening, openly cherished his wife and children, and who slept on his couch each night we stayed so that we could be comfortable in a bed, didn’t think he would be welcome in my country.
Then I remembered. He is Muslim.
The truth is, he’s right. He would not be well-received by many in the Land of the Free, in a country founded on religious freedom. I love my country, and I am proud to be an American, but I am ashamed that fear and lack of education about the approximately 1.6 billion Muslims in the world who are not extremists has marred us as a people.
Just turning on the television and reading my social media feeds upon return validated his concerns. The Republican debate aired soon after, and I watched as crowds clapped when Trump proposed a ban on Muslims—a clear violation of the United States Constitution.
We may be two months out from the Paris attacks, but the fear is only beginning. Admittedly, it’s nothing new; we, as a country, have chosen to turn our heads to anti-Muslim discrimination that has happened here since 9/11. There are dozens of books and hundreds of commentaries from Muslims in America, most of which have been largely ignored by mainstream media, and by Americans ourselves. The overwhelming sentiment is that good, honest Muslims are tired of having to prove they are not terrorists.
For those who don’t believe that discrimination exists, when is the last time one of the majority of mass shooters, young white men, many of whom were/are self-proclaimed Christians, evoked a response from white people or other Christians determined to prove they aren’t of the same mindset? Yet the entire Arab population faces suspicion in our country, for no reason other than the fact that they “look Middle Eastern.”
But there is an answer.
Just hours before, we had visited the somber sight of memorials carefully placed on temporary fencing outside of the Bataclan Theatre. We stood on the ground in front of the building where 89 people died less than three weeks prior in a terror-filled siege orchestrated by Islamic extremists.
Against a sky of gray drizzling rain, we reflected separately through the vast expanse of flowers, candles, posters, letters, and pictures of the dead, struck both by the enormity of the worldwide response, but also by the individual responses in which profound grief, resolution, and resilience expressed themselves in a silent chorus. It was as if each rain-soaked flower and every spent candle was speaking the same message in a different voice.
My eyes occasionally met those of other people of all colors and with different nationalities as we silently passed each other, each of us feeling the enormity of the moment. Inside each glance was an understanding—a connection. We weren’t there to comfort each other so much as we were there to bear witness to the very worst of humanity: that age-old dark place we human beings allow ourselves to enter when there are walls instead of bridges, and when we choose to divide and label human beings by religion, nationality, race, and ethnicity.
What did not happen in Paris is equally striking: people were not afraid. They did not become hateful toward an entire religion. They did not let fear fuel ignorance or hate.
Instead, the walls of memorials, left by people of all races, nationalities, and religions, were full of messages of peace and love. It was the only true tribute that could be paid to the souls that were lost, many of whom dedicated their lives to the idea that the world is beginning to awaken, and that tolerance and peace are the way forward.
Even Charlie Hebdo, a publication with offices just down the street, where 12 of its staffers were murdered by extremists earlier in the year, responded bravely with their now famous cover that translates to, “They have weapons … Fuck them, we have champagne!”
About 10 percent of the population of France is Muslim, according to recent polls. Perhaps that is why the French have what appears to be a more balanced view of Islam compared to the U.S., where less than one percent of the nation’s 319 million people are Muslim.
Like the many stripes and shades of Christianity, there are different sects of Islam, and also like Christianity, nearly all of them teach messages of compassion and kindness toward others. It only takes getting to know a few human beings who happen to be Muslims to fully realize exactly what that means, and why the hate and fear spewn from the mouths of candidates and entertainment news pundits is so misguided—and dangerous.
What happened inside the Bataclan, as well as in a stadium, two cafes and two restaurants that night, is part of an ongoing chronology that started long before history was recorded. Since forever ago, any time we, as humans, have divided ourselves into haves and have-nots and thrown in some ideology that seems to support this status quo, people die. History books are full of examples of people standing high on their laurels to justify murder and oppression: the ancient Romans, the Crusades, the Aztecs, the Church of England, Hitler, the Khmer Rouge, the Rwandan genocide, trans-Atlantic slavery…the list goes on.
Salafism (a term used to encompass Islamic extremists, including Boko Haram, ISIS, and al Qaida) is just another chapter in the chronology. And frankly, so is the hateful response against all Muslims that so many Americans seem to be embracing.
It is about time we learned our lessons.
It is time to recognize that fighting fire with fire only burns us all. It is not working, and it will never work. The only real antidote for darkness is light. More misunderstanding, more fear, and more hate has never, throughout the timeline of mankind, resulted in a positive outcome.
We have a lot to learn from the French. Instead of fueling the fire for extremism with generalizations and ignorance, we should be doing more to quell the flames for radicalism by purposefully reaching out to those who are marginalized, or even exploited, by our current economic and military policies, which all too often go hand-in-hand. Without the fear and the hate, there will be no one for extremists to recruit and no reason to recruit them.
We have the power to fight against extremism and to save lives. And we have the intelligence and information to make better choices than ever before. As our president so eloquently pointed out, we don’t have to succumb to fear and ignorance.
Fuck the fear, I say. We are the home of the brave, and we are better than that.
Author: Amanda Christmann
Editor: Catherine Monkman