Oak Creek and us
[Op-ed, Joliet Herald News, August 12, 2012, "We need to stop demonizing other cultures"]
The recent shootings at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., were
perpetrated by a disturbed individual. His actions and presumed thoughts represent the extreme end
of a racist paranoia that has existed in the United States since the founding of the country. After
Sept. 11, 2001, the nation's attention turned toward the Arab-Muslim world.
The lens through which we are shown the Middle East often is one of religion. The common assumption
is that the region's instability - war, conflict, terrorism - is owed to the religious and cultural
differences that set "them" apart from "us." What is left out of the picture is the six decades of
dominant, manipulative U.S. policy in the region, a continuation of British and French policies
there previous to World War II.
Over the course of these decades, the official "boogeyman" shifted from the imagined threat of
Soviet communism to Muslim extremism. (It should be noted that these issues - previous tensions with
the Kremlin and terrorist violence in and from the Arab world - largely have been in response to
U.S. political and military aggression.)
As a result, fear of "Reds" has been supplanted with fear and sometimes hatred of anyone who looks
like they might be an Arab or a Muslim. Sikhs are neither; nor are they Middle Eastern for that
matter. And of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims, only 20 percent are Arab. In any case, we have been
encouraged to think in an irrational way.
I, too, have experienced this. On a flight from Germany to Jordan in 2005, I had a brief nervous
moment concerning a presumably Middle Eastern woman. It was me, not her. No one escapes these
things. The repeated imagery and indoctrination are too potent. As a professor of mine said during
my university years, "If you were born and raised in a racist society, you're a racist."
Wade Michael Page, the shooter in Oak Creek, is an exceptional case. Whether this could have been
prevented is speculative and sadly after the fact. Despite any mental illness (which also can
account for nonracist violence such as the recent theater shootings in Colorado), he clearly acted
on judgments that not only are pre-existing in this culture but blatantly encouraged at the
far-right end of the political spectrum: for example, Michele Bachmann's recent accusations
concerning an aide to Hillary Clinton and Muslim Brotherhood "penetration" of the government. Same
hysteria, new era.
Nevertheless, many people do harbor at least maybe mild fear and uncertainty about Middle
Easterners. The best we can do in the wake of the violence in Wisconsin is look at ourselves, remain
self-vigilant, try to learn more about the Middle East and Islam (and Sikhism), and resist - at the
personal and political levels - the kind of thinking that feeds and sustains our culture's worst
Gregory Harms is an independent scholar and the author of "It's Not about Religion" and "The
Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction." He lives in Plainfield.
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