Mosque Alert: A Personal Reflection

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Naperville’s Old Nichols Library with Fictional Extension (image courtesy of http://www.artplaceamerica.org/grantee/mosque-alert)

My wife and I went to the read-through of the Mosque Alert script Tuesday night at North Central College.  It was a fun event (and brilliantly carried off by a cast that, as we found out later, had had only 2 days’ rehearsal time!).  The cast had changed some since what we saw in May, and the story had taken on new twists, but the broad outline was still the same interesting and challenging exploration: What happens when a (fictional) Islamic congregation proposes to build a mosque in downtown Naperville?

Afterwards people were invited to stick around for a “talk-back” in response to what we had heard and seen.  Audience members had insightful and sometimes revelatory comments and questions and it was well worth staying.  Playwright Jamil Khoury asked what people thought about a particular speech in which one character, Uncle Dan – I guess you’d call him the main antagonist – presented his case against the proposed mosque.  He wasn’t subtle; it was an outright Islamophobic screed, but expressed in a relatively measured way, designed to appear reasonable.

One of his main lines of attack was to point out many ways in which Christians and LGBTs can expect to receive terrible treatment in Muslim countries around the world, from ISIS and others, and yet “we” should allow “them” to just walk into our communities and be welcomed with open arms?  An audience member worried in the talk-back that maybe this presentation using facts was more effective and convincing – at least to some – than an obvious rant.  We talked some about that, and about whether or not all of his “facts” were true.  Some were and some where not, and isn’t it possible that maybe the intermixing would lead listeners to accept all of them because at least some of them were supportable?

As ever, I was unable to quickly clarify and articulate my own response and so missed a chance to get it out there, but here’s what I wish I had been able to contribute.

I see at least two major flaws in Uncle Dan’s argument.

First, I would suggest that the factuality of his talking points is immaterial.  While we of course have to acknowledge that there is bigotry, intolerance and brutality in the world, we don’t have to treat it as license – or demand – to respond in kind.  The answer to intolerance is not more intolerance.  If “they” do it, then maybe instead of doing the same ourselves, we should demonstrate that there’s a better way.

But if “they” are only taking advantage of our openness to dominate “us” by another means, then we are dupes.  Which leads to another flaw in the argument.

Isn’t his entire presumption of “we” and “they” warped and arbitrary?  Apparently, Uncle Dan’s “we” is white American Christians.  We are under attack and need to stand up for ourselves.  (It could as easily have been “straight white American Christians,” but another character in the play, Uncle Dan’s nephew Carl, is gay and Uncle Dan has consented to allow gay folks – or at least this one – inside of his “we” circle.)

Uncle Dan’s world is clearly demarcated, and very scary.  The people on the outside of the “we” line are different and thus presumed to be inherently hostile; they are threatening and are to be resisted because they are intent on dominating “us.”  Really? I suppose that’s one way of thinking about the world, but it seems to me more than a little bit small and fearful.  Why draw such a hard line?  Why assume folks on the other side of it are implacably hostile?  That certainly doesn’t match my experience.

And it took me a day or so to see the suggestiveness of the fact that Uncle Dan has extended his “we” to include his gay nephew.  He moved the line for one case but digs his heels in on another.  Isn’t the arbitrariness and foolish destructiveness of this obvious?  How many tired individual bigotries do we have to put behind us before we lift our heads up and see the pattern?  How many groups who were once “other” have become part of “us”?  Irish, Italian, Jewish, Catholic, Asian, Black, Latino, LGBT…  And that’s just in the last few generations.  Now that “they” have become part of “us,” where is the threat that justified all the fear and hostility when they were outside trying to get in?  Gone.  Evaporated.  Do we dare to admit that the threat was always something between wildly overblown and entirely imaginary?  Are we really willing to give ourselves over – again and again – to arbitrary divisions like these?  Look at the death and suffering they create: Christian/Muslim, Shia/Sunni, Tutsi/Hutu, Serb/Croat, Jew/Gentile, Black/White, Straight/Gay, and on and on.  I think we can do better.  I think we should be able to learn not to repeat past mistakes.

And yet many people continue to find Uncle Dan and his kind of arguments persuasive.  Maybe in the end a lot of folks can’t feel like part of a cohesive “we” until they identify (and demonize) a “they.”  It’s sad, and obviously deeply ingrained.

But I can’t help hoping that maybe calling out the arbitrariness and destructiveness out loud might rob it of some of its power.

The discussion had to break up at 10:00.  Which was good because 5:30 AM is coming at 5:30 no matter how interesting your diversion might have been the night before.  I feel like those of us who were there benefited from the event, and am even more hopeful that as more people engage with the story they might be encouraged to open up as well.

So thank you again, Silk Road Rising, Malik and Jamil, folks from NCC and all the attendees for raising these and so many other challenging questions.  Maybe together we can build a better, more inclusive place for us all to live.silkroadrising_logo

(BTW, the play is still being polished, and will be staged in its “final” form in Chicago next spring.  Details here.)