“Are you Muslim?” “Does it matter?”

This past weekend I was at the 2015 Hunger Walk benefiting the Atlanta Community Food Bank. I’m there through my internship, a non-profit that works with the Hizmet Movement (AKA the Gulen movement)–a peaceful civic interpretation of Islam that fosters understanding and dialogue between all faiths, based on the ideas of Turkish scholar Fetullah Gulen.

In such an environment I wasn’t expecting to have the conversation that I did. Before the walk begins, I was speaking with a middle aged woman who, upon learning I’m at the walk through my internship, asked: “Are you Muslim?”

I told her, “No.” I’m not Muslim. I din’t tell her I’m Jewish because I distrusted her.

She attempted to backtrack but didn’t apologize because she didn’t realize she had done something wrong. She then told me, “I know not all Muslim girls wear a headscarf.”

This is true, but it doesn’t justify her question. If she had to ask if I was Muslim it meant she would view me differently based on my answer. She needed to know to satisfy her own curiosity and prove her own goodness and accepting diversity. It’s the same way that by telling me she knew not all Muslim women wear hijabs, she was really telling me was: I’m a good liberal woman, I swear. I’d accept you even if you were Muslim.

And I’m sure she’s a good person, but she didn’t need to prove how liberal she was to me. I talked with her throughout the walk and found out she routinely does walks for Breast Cancer, that she supports gay marriage and that she’s aware of issues of race. These conversations came up naturally and we were having a discussion. I felt more at ease because she wasn’t trying to prove anything.

I’ve been having a lot of conversations with one my friends lately about the “good liberal on the street” who thinks that listening to NPR, voting for the democrats and supporting gay marriage or having a gay friend makes them radical and leftist and somehow helping the world. But if this is all a person is doing, if this is all a person sees as making a difference, and if a person is willing to stop there and congratulate themselves on their good liberal lifestyle they’re still part of the problem.

NPR is tame. Gay marriage is the tip of the iceberg.

As long as liberal people feel the need to prove how liberal they are with questions like “Are you Muslim?” then we’re stuck in an unfortunate definition of liberality. We’re stuck with liberals but not activists.  I’m not saying these “good liberals on the street” are bad people, or that being radical somehow makes someone more moral, but we need more than surface level change. We need to arrive at a day where the answer to the question “Are you Muslim?” is “Does it matter?”

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That’s Problematic

I tend to move in left wing circles of friends. This is great because it means we very rarely need to tell one another to stop using homophobic language or to treat the female participants of the conversation as full individuals, it also means we tend agree on most issues. So, how is this a problem? Well, in order to become more knowledgeable about the issues we discuss (gender, sexuality, race, economics, government, politics, etc) having a cross flow of ideas is invaluable.

Think about cross ventilation in your home or apartment in the summer. Imagine how the room becomes unbearable with a lone fan sitting in the window blowing hot air into the hot room. What can initially seem as a joy in and of itself (at least you have a fan, or  a space for liberal discussion) that joy does not last.

I’ve noticed that when I’m in these groups, one of us will comment on how something is problematic. Disney’s Pocahontas, for example. I might say that I love that film, but I am well aware it is problematic. Another of my friends will agree with me and we move on. In short, we’ve identified a problem,  but failed to unpack what’s actually wrong. All it would take for us to have a discussion and not just throw around vague opinions we both agree on, is for my friend to ask me, “how do you see Pocahontas as problematic?”

Because maybe I’m thinking about the affront to Native American culture when the white men leave in peace at the end, denying hundreds of years of continued abuse, brutality and racism. Maybe my friend is thinking about the sexualization and exoticization of Pocahontas as a character. Maybe another friend jumps in and talks about two-spirit ideas of gender in Native American culture.

Pocahontas

 

Suddenly “problematic” has branched off into many veins and sparked a conversation where a cross flow of ideas can take place.

Unpack your ideas and don’t be afraid to be challenged or to challenge others. Ask questions to better understand another’s views. There is no need to sit with that same one fan blowing hot air. Open up another window, turn on the AC and let the ideas circulate. The conversation will be far more fascinating and your opinions far more developed.