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Oak Creek and us

[Op-ed, Joliet Herald News, August 12, 2012, "We need to stop demonizing other cultures"]

The recent shootings at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., were perpetrated by a disturbed individual. His actions and presumed thoughts represent the extreme end of a racist paranoia that has existed in the United States since the founding of the country. After Sept. 11, 2001, the nation's attention turned toward the Arab-Muslim world.

The lens through which we are shown the Middle East often is one of religion. The common assumption is that the region's instability - war, conflict, terrorism - is owed to the religious and cultural differences that set "them" apart from "us." What is left out of the picture is the six decades of dominant, manipulative U.S. policy in the region, a continuation of British and French policies there previous to World War II.

Over the course of these decades, the official "boogeyman" shifted from the imagined threat of Soviet communism to Muslim extremism. (It should be noted that these issues - previous tensions with the Kremlin and terrorist violence in and from the Arab world - largely have been in response to U.S. political and military aggression.)

As a result, fear of "Reds" has been supplanted with fear and sometimes hatred of anyone who looks like they might be an Arab or a Muslim. Sikhs are neither; nor are they Middle Eastern for that matter. And of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims, only 20 percent are Arab. In any case, we have been encouraged to think in an irrational way.

I, too, have experienced this. On a flight from Germany to Jordan in 2005, I had a brief nervous moment concerning a presumably Middle Eastern woman. It was me, not her. No one escapes these things. The repeated imagery and indoctrination are too potent. As a professor of mine said during my university years, "If you were born and raised in a racist society, you're a racist."

Wade Michael Page, the shooter in Oak Creek, is an exceptional case. Whether this could have been prevented is speculative and sadly after the fact. Despite any mental illness (which also can account for nonracist violence such as the recent theater shootings in Colorado), he clearly acted on judgments that not only are pre-existing in this culture but blatantly encouraged at the far-right end of the political spectrum: for example, Michele Bachmann's recent accusations concerning an aide to Hillary Clinton and Muslim Brotherhood "penetration" of the government. Same hysteria, new era.

Nevertheless, many people do harbor at least maybe mild fear and uncertainty about Middle Easterners. The best we can do in the wake of the violence in Wisconsin is look at ourselves, remain self-vigilant, try to learn more about the Middle East and Islam (and Sikhism), and resist - at the personal and political levels - the kind of thinking that feeds and sustains our culture's worst inclinations.

Gregory Harms is an independent scholar and the author of "It's Not about Religion" and "The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction." He lives in Plainfield.

Copyright © 2012 — Sun-Times Media, LLC

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