Friday, January 15, 2016

On Refusing to Play the "Who's Persecuted Worse?" Game: Muslim and Christian Edition

I am one of a number of progressive Christian writers who has devoted considerable attention in recent months to Western persecution of Muslims. I've certainly written more on this issue than I have about Muslim persecution of Christians.

Every once in a while, I find myself taken to task for this--often in connection with horror stories about brutal treatment of Christians in Muslim-majority countries. A friend will point out that these minority Christians are in far greater danger of being harmed for their faith than any Muslim in the West.

The message, put simply, is this: "They persecute us when they're in power worse than we persecute them when we're in power."

I don't want to play that game. I don't want to focus on which group persecutes the other more egregiously. Persecution, wherever it occurs, is awful. Wherever it occurs, it needs to stop (and probably won't).

But I can already hear the response: If persecution is the problem, then isn't it relevant to consider where the persecution is worst, and then direct my efforts mainly there? Maybe Christians minorities suffer more in Muslim majority countries than Muslim minorities suffer in the West. If so, shouldn't I care about that? Should I then focus my energies on denouncing Muslims for targeting Christians instead of the other way around?

Let me explain why I don't.

It isn't because the persecution of Christians in some parts of the world isn't a problem. It isn't because my heart doesn't bleed when I hear about a Christian boy in Pakistan who was beaten and then set on fire after admitting he was a Christian to the two men accosting him.

The reason is because this attack on a Christian boy in a Muslim-majority country springs from the same deep ideological well as this brutal attack on a Muslim woman in Toronto, or this attack on a Muslim woman in southern France, or this shooting of a Muslim taxi driver in Pittsburgh, or any number of other recent incidents in which Muslims in the West have been targeted for verbal abuse, vandalism, and violence.

The reason is because all of these attacks are about dehumanizing and assaulting the "other," the one who is different, who isn't one of "us." I look at my world and I see an all-too-human impulse to create in-groups and out-groups, and then target members of the out-group not for anything they have done, but simply for belonging to the wrong group. When the out-group is a minority and the in-group a majority, this ideological targeting can often rise to the level of systematic persecution and oppression.

But if the problem is this sort of us/them ideology and the violence and injustice it inspires, the question for me is how I can best use my voice to address that problem. And here it matters that I am a Christian living in a Christian-majority country where Muslims are far more likely to be the targets of Islamophobic persecution and attacks than the other way around.

My audience is primarily Western, primarily Christian. I could, of course, talk to that mostly-Western audience mostly about other people's propensity to fall into us/them thinking, other groups' conscious and unconscious biases. I could focus my attention on how even moderate Muslims, when they fail to stand against extremist ideology in their own ranks, become part of the problem.

But what effect would that have? It won't cause those other people to pause, to introspect, to think about the ways in which they are promulgating divisiveness. etc.--because they aren't my audience. Will it cause Christians in the West to pause, to introspect, to think about the ways in which they are promulgating divisiveness?

Or will that kind of emphasis only serve to promulgate divisiveness? If I, as a Christian, start focusing on all the times when Muslims have acted badly against Christians, all the ways in which Muslim extremists have assaulted Christians, will that break down the us/them ideologies that I think are the real problem, the deep human propensity that does so much harm?

There is no great mystery here, but it needs saying: When members of one group start denouncing the horrors and crimes committed by another group, that does not tend to reduce in-group/out-group ideology. The way to reduce such ideology is for members of a group to be on guard against the rumblings of such ideological hatred within their own ranks, and to speak out against it when and where they see it happening. I feel called to do exactly that.

I'm an American Christian. As a Christian, I believe in taking the plank out of my own eye before taking the speck out of my neighbor's eyes. I believe that if I want to work against the human tendency to divide the world into us and them, I need to start with myself and my community.

We live in a world where there are different religions, different nations, different cultural traditions. Humanity is divided into groups, and that's not going to change. What might change is the tendency of these groups to vilify each other. What might arise is a world where people who are different can co-exist in greater harmony, a world where we dehumanize each other less. How should I work for that?

I can, of course, try to talk to other groups about their tendency to wrongly vilify and dehumanize my group. There are times when all of us may be called to do just that--especially when we or those close to us have been the targets of ideological hate, and our impassioned words can give a human face to what has been dehumanized.

But in general I have far more influence within my own communities, the ones I understand, the ones whose languages I speak. If in-group/out-group ideology is a problem, then the first step is to turn to my group and say, "Let's not do this ourselves. Let's not get sucked in. Instead of chastising moderate Muslims when they fail to sufficiently repudiate the extremism among them, let's model what that's like. Let's be what we want to see in the world. Then we will be far better positioned to work for change."

"Who is more egregiously persecuted?" is a blame-game. I want to play the change-game. And change, meaningful change, begins with ourselves and moves out from there.

1 comment:

  1. Very well put.

    I was thinking that to demonize others is often just a means of escaping one's own shortcomings. Or even justifying them.