Thursday, June 30, 2005

In case you missed 30 Days last night, they sent a red-state Christian to assimilate himself into America's largest (Arab) Muslim community in Dearborn, Michigan. I think that here in America, we can create a new measure of how red or blue you are by figuring out how long after 9/11 it was before you got it through your thick, irrational head that not every Muslim is a terrorist. I'll admit it: after 9/11, I was scared. I remember how, in elementary school, usually around Black History Month, my (invariably white) teachers would tell the class how fear breeds racism and I never quite understood that. I vividly remember walking through Penn Station after 9/11 — here when Penn Station, and the two 90-story office towers on top of it, were near the top of the terrorist target watch list — and just giving an extra-close stare at the few men in Muslim dress. Like if I'm real observant, one of them's going to be wearing an I'm a terrorist! sign. And here's the thing: I've seen the security cam video of the 9/11 hijackers going through airport "security," and they're dressed in Western clothes... but still, somehow not looking like a terrorist merits you extra suspicion. When there's this sort of brilliant logic running through your admittedly scared-shitless head, it doesn't take much of a stretch to see why those Mississippi rednecks went all.. well... Mississippi redneck whenever they heard rumors of a black man holding hands with a white girl.

Which is interesting because in my enlightened delusion, I was already making the dissociation between Islam and terrorism and replacing it with the more accurate association between Arab political disenfranchisement and terrorism. No one — not me, not the police or National Guard, not the German shepherds — was giving a second thought to the Senegalese Muslims or Malay Muslims or urban Nation of Islam members walking around. The whole concept of "Islam" this buzzword they might toss around in news reports: compassionate conservative Christian Crusader Dubya prefers "Islam" to "Arab" because Islam falls nicely within his religious tradition and he's not really converting the heathens if they all worship the same god, while Arab just sounds foreign. But what's really happening in our heads is that we're on the lookout for people who resemble the monkey bar guys in that terrorist training video we've all seen a million times by now.

I think what happened eventually is that we're stuck here in New York with millions of people, most of whom are very different from the typical "American" (whatever that means), many of whom are weirdos in their own right anyway, and you get over your anti-Islam, anti-Arab, anti-whatever paranoia cause you'd go freaking nuts if you didn't. The guy on 30 Days, David, came from West Virginia, a much more homogonous area of the country, but I'm not sure that's really an excuse. David seemed to think that every Muslim was, if not ready to drive a bomb-laden truck into a building, at least a supporter of fundamentalist terrorism, and that in itself just strikes me as daffy. It's like saying that every Christian goes to church every Sunday.

Even right after 9/11, I never thought that all men dressed as Muslims were terrorists. It was more like, what if this particular guy is the one.... I guess when you're afraid that you could die at any moment, all sorts of weird logic starts to sound good. I know I've never bought a lottery ticket thinking what if this particular ticket is the one.

Nonetheless, I think that Morgan Spurlock did a pretty decent job of showing David's initial hesitation with regard to living among Muslims — and not even necessarily from the terrorist angle, but just in the sense that it's an unfamiliar set of customs, like it's going to be a month-long bar mitzvah — and his gradual assimilation and appreciation of the culture. At the same time, and I understand that it's only a forty-four minute show, I think the presentation was a bit simplified, such as when David goes on a radio show after three weeks living as a Muslim and the first caller he receives suggests that he's getting chummy with a terrorist sleeper cell. David, and Morgan Spurlock, write the caller off as ignorant rantings (although they do so more gracefully than I just did). But the caller has a point — there probably are sleeper cells in the United States, and if sleeper cells do exist, they're probably hiding out in Muslim communities. Now, hold on a second, and let's try to keep a liberal idea and a less liberal idea in our heads at the same time. The sleeper cells aren't part of Muslim community — mainstream Islam eschews terrorism as much as, and probably more than, anybody else. It's just easier to conduct business in Arabic without raising suspicion in Dearborn than it is in, say, Georgia.

That's why I wanted to see more of the segments where Morgan interviewed people on the street, asking them the first word they thought of when someone said "terrorist," and where David goes out into one of Michigan's non-Muslim (and apparently very red) communities and tries to drum up support for Arab anti-discrimination laws. Was everybody so clod-headed? Maybe I'm cheating, but the first word that comes to my mind when you say "terrorist" is "9/11," which I guess technically isn't a word. I'm almost surprised none of those people said "Saddam."

I'm more ambivalent about the anti-discrimination laws. It's not just that it comes off as P.C. (although it's P.C. in favor of a group that could definitely use the political correctness these days), but because, naughty liberal that I am, I'm in favor of profiling. Not racial profiling, or religious profiling, or even "do you look like the terrorist monkey bar guys" profiling — something more complex where law enforcement wouldn't be wasting their time having Grandma, even if she's Arab and Muslim and looks like a monkey bar guy, take her shoes off while bin Laden's fat sheik friend walks through security unimpeded. The people we need to profile have multiple trips to Iran and Syria and Yemen on their passports, or they give large sums of money to specious pan-Arabist organizations, or they're members of the Saudi royal family.

I guess that for me, the show reinforced the complexity of the issues involved. A few Muslims (in name) are out to harm us, and the vast, vast majority are just trying to live their lives unimpeded. I knew that already. The job of separating the wheat from the chaff probably shouldn't be done by anyone trigger-happy. But — here's the point that David seems to have missed — the job does need to be done, just like someone needs to separate the non-terrorist criminals from the non-terrorist non-criminals. On the other hand, if David is going to have a simplistic notion of Islam in contemporary America, it should probably be a simplistic notion that reflects the reality of mainstream Islam and not the media-hyped fringe elements. So good for David, learning that the collective unconscious of homogonous white America isn't always right. He's taken his first step towards a beautiful life as a blue-stater.