In The Wake Of Manchester, Bigotry Masquerades As Common Sense

'Muslim bans' are last-ditch efforts at self-preservation under the guise of protection.
Billboard on I-40 in Catawba County, North Carolina
Billboard on I-40 in Catawba County, North Carolina

Yes, the above Billboard sits among the tree line of my hometown, greeting me with the same awkwardness of the inept yet all-consuming Trump handshake. This sentiment, largely perpetuated by leaders of Christian evangelical fundamentalists, is something with which I have a complicated relationship. I also have a profound ambivalence toward the smug liberal attempt to both sympathize with and ridicule those who hold these attitudes. It strikes me as simultaneously condescending and overly romantic. Neither of these approaches works in combating bigotry.

I developed a Bill Maher-like disdain for institutionalized religion over the past two years, but I am under no delusion of having a monopoly on rationality like he and the Sam Harris-types seem to believe they possess. My contempt stems as much from my studies as it does from the emotional wounds left by fundamentalist Christianity. Do I think all violence in the name of something as frivolous as ideology is undue? Yes. Do I think religion’s ability to replace fear of the unknown with a false known to fear (i.e., eternal damnation, secularization, etc.) can be exploited by those who have a lust for power? Also yes.

Does the logic of “terrorism perpetuated in the name of Islam is sufficient justification for a Muslim ban” make sense? It doesn’t matter.

Now, hear me out. My point has little to do with Islamophobia in its many forms, any of which I would under no circumstance defend no matter how “rational” it sounds.

The question of a Muslim ban – and the accompanying implications of that sentiment – is fraught with emotion, and I tend to believe that the only way to understand those emotions is to genuinely experience them. This is something that people who were raised in more loosely religious or nonreligious homes cannot do, and their fascination with trying to do so makes this obvious. (This isn’t even to mention the white supremacy implicit in earnest attempts to sympathize with whatever “white plight” that supposedly exists in Trump-country, while forgoing the same effort for other groups of marginalized people.)

In some ways, the Muslim ban is “old news,” and with Russia and body-slamming Republicans in the media spotlight, it is easy to ignore Islamophobia in so-called progressive circles when it isn’t being slammed in our faces. But the tragedy of Manchester has done just that. In the face of violence without reason – so, all violence – it makes everyone more comfortable to have a group of people to whom they can point fingers than to accept existing in a chaotic, nonsensical world.

Humans don’t like reminders of our baseness. I mean, religion itself alleviates feelings of cosmic insignificance by asserting humanity’s dominance over “creation.” In religions that hinge on a heavily interventionist deity, humans are only second in command to that deity, so it allows us to deny we are animals. When notions of inherent purposefulness in our existence depend on the absolute correctness of our worldview, extreme behavior starts to make sense. It isn’t justified, and it certainly won’t make sense to someone who does not subscribe to a religious definition of “absolute truth.” But it adds necessary nuance to the conversation.

On a more tangible plane, there are obvious layers to these attempts to establish a religious hierarchy that, in essence, have nothing to do with religion itself. (Look at all the non-fundamentalists out there. They’re doing ok, I’d say.) It has to do with tradition-as-correctness, a thirst for the moral high ground, and dubious notions of safety. The inextricability of these things goes without saying.

Whether leaders subscribe to the ideology they espouse is irrelevant. The results are the same. Just look at the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the Salem Witch Trials, slavery, etc. The results of these atrocities hinged on leaders’ abilities to wield religion as justification regardless of their personal beliefs. Religious fervor, the need to maintain power, or the combination of the two leads to a superiority complex that results in horrific acts such as forced conversions, stolen land, and the slaughter of innocents.

By “wield,” I essentially mean fear-monger and by extension, take advantage of people in socially, politically, economically, or emotionally vulnerable positions as a means to an end. “Hell” is a “false known,” yes, and it coerces people into dubious justifications for their bigotry. But it’s the bigotry that kills.

The most dangerous “false known” created, then, is the human “other.” He or she is real; the otherness is seen, heard, and felt unlike a fiery underworld. These marginalized victims of bigotry are painted as culprits of the victimizers’ hardships and act as a screen onto which the bigoted can project the fears their leaders use: existential despair, the economic uncertainty of a globalized world, a war-torn nation, a transition to political minority, personal tragedy, etc. Those are very real conditions on which corrupt leaders can play to reaffirm their group’s need to defend itself. The fervor of those who are already devout intensifies and those on the fence either distance themselves from the ideology or fall victim to recruitment attempts.      

“Muslim bans” are last-ditch efforts at self-preservation under the guise of protection, and there is a type of protection being offered here … but it’s one that is predicated on the fear of something that doesn’t exist (i.e., lack of proper vetting) or of losing something that will have little consequence in reality (i.e., the concept of “a Christian nation”). Trump’s religious devotion is obviously questionable, but even if he were the leader of an evangelical congregation, the results would be the same. The targets of the fear mongering are the same.

This is neither a defense of one religion over another nor a justification for bigotry by any stretch. Romanticizing or condescending, however, is no way to dispense with attitudes that allow leaders to successfully propose and implement a “Muslim ban.” Everyone has the agency to choose beliefs that are not bigoted, so institutionalized religion isn’t a scapegoat. But it is a mask leaders can wear to bring out the worst aspects of humanity’s tribalism, self-preservative instincts, and egos to further their quests for power. And it’s a wall humans hide behind when they believe they will benefit from a leader’s maintenance of that position of power - or, their particular ideology’s position of power.

Violence and bigotry have no concern for the truth of a religion, the level of someone’s genuine devotion to it, the correctness of textual interpretation, and the actual outcome of implementing the resulting tenets. This is all the more reason we can and should unite in understanding to combat them.

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