February 7, 2021
By Patricia Sohn
I spent a great deal of the 1990s in the Middle East. I traveled back and forth every three to eighteen months, staying for anything from three to eighteen months at a time in the region. When I returned from my last bit of dissertation research, I was struck by the extent of racism, prejudice, and the widespread social acceptability of such attitudes toward Islam and Muslims. My ultimate research was on religious-secular tensions and relations among Jewish communities in Israel, although I had a project before that on Palestinian-Jewish relations among women that included interviews and participant observation. Nonetheless, in some ways I was distanced from these attitudes towards Islam and Muslims in our wider society. However, I found these attitudes disturbing among a population who, as we do, like to see ourselves as multicultural, open-minded, tolerant, and welcoming. To paraphrase: Bring us your huddled masses…and so forth.
Then 9/11 happened, and all bets and hopes were off regarding any sort of rapprochement with the Muslim world.
Fast-forward nearly twenty years. It took the moral and righteous indignation of the Left against Trump to generate any sort of sympathetic approach, in my personal, and perhaps not so humble, view with regard to Islam and Muslims. The vast range of racist and bigoted epithets that I have heard from people on the Left throughout my life regarding Islam and Muslims is equaled only by those against Jews and Judaism. That is true for the Right as well, of course. But the Left, in my experience, has been no less culprit all the while claiming to be the great hope of pluralism. That is, audible anti-Semitism against those two Abrahamic peoples has been a regular part of my lived experience as an American woman who does research on the Middle East.
It is in this context that I find myself blissfully and, perhaps, ironically comforted by the changed rhetoric regarding Islam in our country on the part of a righteously indignant Left, and a newly open-eyed Right, regarding the largest religion in the world by many Asian worldviews, and the second-largest by most North American worldviews. There, let it be said. Location and cultural context affect how we interpret facts and data. Either way, Islam is an important religion. 1.8 billion people cannot be that far wrong. (Some numbers estimate 1.9 billion Muslims world-wide in 2021.)
(Of the approximately 2.2 billion Western Christians, approximately 900 million are various forms of Protestant and more than 1.3 billion are Catholic. Another additional almost 260 million Christians belong to varying Eastern and Eastern Orthodox Churches, the original churches of the faith. Adding all three major segments of faith together [Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern], one arrives in 2021 numbers at approximately 2.4 billion. All three major segments of the religion are, however, so different from one another in terms of practices and basic principles of the faith that they are separated by significantly more than the “branches” or “streams” that we see in Islam and Judaism. For some, they are different sufficiently that they are not the same religion any longer. So, for example, to a political ethnographer like myself, Eastern Orthodox churches and practices look like something closer to Orthodox Judaism than they do to low-church [e.g., low ritual] forms of Protestantism [although theological components obviously differ]. And Orthodox churches are more predominant in the Middle East than other forms, although Catholicism is also present. I say all of this not to cause outrage myself. Rather, it is important that we know that it is through something approaching this sort of lens that our part of the world’s effort to construct something like a unified Christian bloc is seen by some other parts of the world.)
I watch my news in English, French, and Hebrew regarding events at home, and in France, the UK, Turkey, Israel – and, on occasion, other places as well. I have been practicing my French of late and have, thus, listened to a lot of French news. French and British news are, in my experience, far more extensive in their national and localized treatments of Asia and Africa than is our modal news. French news is even more so, and it also includes extensive local attention to South America. Turkish news, likewise, includes extensive treatments of Asian politics, some African and South American, and, not surprisingly, Turkish, Balkan, Caucasus, and Central Asian politics. What does it all say?
In my view, the message coming from these broadcasts at the moment is fairly clear and surprisingly unified: SOCIAL MOBILIZATION at the grassroots level has superseded ELITE efforts at ignoring the same, and it has also replaced reactionary REVOLUTION as a possibility across the regions and locales covered – at least for the moment. That is, public social mobilization against self-interested elites and politicians is a world-wide phenomenon in the current moment. Topics include a wide range from farm reform to protests against specific national politicians to protests for inclusion of marginalized peoples in a vast array of contexts. Racism and/or marginalization are the words of the day, as are: inclusion, economic opportunity, educational opportunity, gender, race, religious freedom, political participation, and (in the context of Covid) of course access to healthcare.
In my perspective, all of that is a very good thing. Revolution bloodies the have-nots more than anyone else. It is not a good option. In that sense, revolution can even be read as a control tactic of the reactionary on both far left and far right to keep paralyzed – one might say, prostrate – the very grassroots making itself heard today all over the world.
Social mobilization of the grassroots is a far better alternative, one which will far more easily achieve the ends of equity and/or parity in multiculturalism (you can read that, perhaps more simply, as equal application of law and principle) that we all say we agree upon at the moment. Well, most of us say it.
So, perhaps the great achievement of the past four years here has been to outrage the Left sufficiently to make it actually embrace multiculturalism in practice – as well as in manners audible. And the Right, too, has been notified that the grassroots – and peoples of all colors – exist, and that we all had something to do with building our country. Center, center-right, and just right of center-right, in my view, have embraced this message admirably. These years have made it not appropriate, any longer, to bait the multi-ethnic, multi-racial world of Muslims and Islam as a religion. And it has made it not acceptable to bait the multi-ethnic, multi-racial world of Jews and Judaism any longer, either. And maybe – just maybe – it has made us all pay attention to race, gender, and inclusion as pressing and prescient issues for our everyday active striving. If that is where we have arrived – then it is a very good thing, indeed.
So, what to do in the face of world-wide social mobilization, protesting in the streets for attention to the needs of the grassroots? In my opinion, one word: LISTEN.
Dr. Patricia Sohn, Ph.D. is an associate professor. She specializes in Middle East (MENA) and Israel/Palestine politics, and particularly the intersection of religion and politics, courts and politics, and gender politics. She has interests in historical institutional, political sociological, micro-level, and grassroots analysis of state and society. A prime example of the American melting pot, she has heritage from Prussia, the Philippines, Spain, Ireland, and Holland.
Note: The views herein represent only myself, not my employer. -PJS