Three Faces of Islamophobia


Keynote address at the 9th annual Council on American-Islamic Relations Conference banquet:

I would like to thank MONGI DHAOUADI for inviting me to spend the evening with you. Of course, I was honored by the invitation. But I was also more than a little surprised. You see, I earn my living as a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer. I am as inclined to defend a person who has been accused of acting out in hatred as I am to sue a government actor who has violated the law’s promise of equal protection to all. I like to say that I have no larger purpose in life than my client’s interest. I’ve defended accused killers; and I’ve sued those who abused convicted killers. I don’t join groups. Groups terrify me, the power of orthodoxy seems always and forever prepared to transform the least among us into a scapegoat.

What, then, could I possibly say to a community of faith on the occasion of its annual banquet, a banquet celebrating Faith in Freedom? Am I not, as Isaiah might say, a man of unclean lips, or perhaps even an infidel, an outsider to every creed but equality before the law?

My faith, such as it is, is doctrinally simple: 

* No one is the sum of their worst moments. 

* Every man, woman and child is entitled to be heard, and to be treated equally under the law.

* The authority of government is a profound mystery, and the state is the most terrifying of fictions.

My faith tells me we live in dangerous times. It also informs me that members of the Islamic community are on the front lines of a struggle for the soul of what some still call America. So I speak to you tonight about the crisis ahead, and I make modest suggestions about what you can do to help restrike a social compact that is becoming undone.

Forgive me if I speak in dire tones, but the hour is late. There is much for each of us to do. My talk is entitled “Islamophobia – Three Faces of the New Racism,” so I feel constrained to break my remarks into the promised three parts. 

I. The New Face of Racism

Although racism is as old as the republic, something new is dawning. In the next couple of decades, Caucasians will become a minority in North America for the first time since they took this continent by force of disease, arms and sheer numbers. This demographic change is the greatest challenge the United States faces in the next century. The very color of the American Dream is changing, and with that single fact, great resentment, even rage, grips significant parts of the nation. It is a potentially deadly rage.

What can explain the persistent fantasy that Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, is not qualified to be president because he was born in Africa, not the United States? This silly fantasy has no support in the historical record. It is but a cipher for the unstated sentiment that he is not qualified to be president, but not on account of his alienage, but because of his race. The white world, of which I am most assuredly a member, has grown used to taking the privilege of skin for granted. Losing a place I took for granted terrifies.

What can explain the inability to arrive at any satisfactory immigration reform policy in the nation other than a fear that a tide of black, brown and other dark-skinned people are casting a shadow across the land? Almost everyone sitting in this room has ancestors that came here from somewhere other than North America? My own father was an illegal immigrant until the day he died, at 84, if the date of birth on his forged papers can be trusted, sneaking into the country in Detroit as a youth, fleeing poverty in Crete. At what point did we become a select club, with membership closed to others? Just beneath the surface of silent white supremacy is the lingering suspicion that we don’t deserve our good fortune, that we’ve stolen what might easily be taken from us by the next wave, the wave that is already transforming almost every city in the nation into something far different than the Norman Rockwell fantasies so deeply buried in our collective consciousness. 

Consider the recent furor over whether Santa Claus is anything other than white. When a Fox News anchorwoman asserted that Santa was, of course, white, a mini-battle in ongoing culture wars was struck. Must we really argue about the color of a folk legend? Must we really argue about the color of love? And what of Jesus? Flaxen-haired Teuton or swarthy Mediterranean?

The entertainment industry's fascination with apocalyptic endings reflects the nostalgic longing for a lost world. Better to destroy a world becoming unfamiliar, so long as we the survivors can continue to enjoy being at the very top of whatever heap remains.

9/11 was a significant chapter in the nation’s history, to be sure. It cast as a villain the Islamic world. Our uneasiness acquired an identity: the other went from silent threat to active killer. We declared war on terror and set about terrorizing a good deal of the Moslem world. We now send drones to do our killing for us, refusing to risk our own blood as we kill those we regard as a threat, a remote control form of warfare at once antiseptic and terrifying. 

The hatred of Islam is widespread in the United States. Just yesterday, I stumbled upon a website portraying Islam as a scourge to Christian, Jew, Buddhist alike. There is a widespread hate literature that castigates Islam as a religion of terror. You are now the new African-American, the new Chinese, the new Japanese-American. Always and forever we seem to cultivate hatred, even as we proclaim ourselves a City on a Hill. 

Islam is a convenient scapegoat for a society in transition. We’ve lost our center, a core sense of beliefs that unite, and anxiety grips the land. Vast differences in wealth appear to grow, separating us into a small group of affluent, and the rest, the 99 percent. 

The rage to arm every American, to protect the right to bear arms at all costs, is a tragic and historic farce. We’re not arming to protect ourselves again tyrants at home and abroad: big government and big corporations now have more power than they have ever had in the United States. No, we arm ourselves against fear, and we shoot one another, while police departments become better armed, more powerful, and ever larger – there’s SWAT team for cities of almost all sizes. Private prisons dot the landscape, demanding to be filled, lest states pay low-occupancy fines. In the meantime, the gun industry flourishes, arming the police against us, and us against everyone. The Second Amendment has become a parlor trick, a distraction.

And one look at the partisan bickering in Washington leads me to wonder whether we aren’t the world’s grandest of failed states. The land of the free? With five percent of the world’s population, we have 25 percent of the world’s prison population. We still kill and call it justice, long after most of the rest of the world has abandoned execution as barbaric. 

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant once said that two things filled him with wonder – the starry heavens above, and the moral law within. I would add a third thing to that list – government. How do strangers acquire the power to tell others what to do?

What transforms naked power into a sense of authority? How do a people come to terms with being governed? Consider for a moment the following: A man walks into this room with gun drawn and points it at me, demanding that I give him my wallet. Odds are, I will comply out of a sense of fear. He will kill me if I do not comply. But put that man in a policeman’s uniform, and I might comply for different reasons, although I would still be afraid. I might comply out of respect for his show of authority, as reflected in his uniform and his badge. 

This additional increment, this bit we add to naked fear of the man’s gun, is a sense of legitimacy. Legitimacy is what explains the difference between a policeman and a pirate. 

My sense is that increasing numbers of Americans are losing a sense that American institutions are legitimate. The difference between a policeman and a pirate is lost on more and more people. The other is seen as a source of fear. 

Put another way, the social contract is frayed. Can it be restruck? I think it can.

What has this to do with Islam? Plenty. 

I like to talk about what I call the rule of eleven. It works something like this. Put ten strangers in a room and leave them alone for awhile. In short order, a sense of group identity will emerge. There will be a pecking order. Folks will know just enough about one another to know what to expect. Members of the group will let down their guard.

Introduce an eleventh member and things change. There is now a challenge to the settled order. Folks are not quite sure what to expect. Uneasiness tempts the group to ostracize the eleventh member if for no other reason than to feel secure, to feel good about themselves. 

This cycle of introduction, cohesion, ostracism is the rhythm of change in an evolving multi-ethnic society. In our time, demographic change so accelerated, there is very little sense of group cohesion. We’re fracturing into separate communities. 

Islam is perceived as a threat because of its strength. Let’s not forget for a moment that when the West emerged from the Middle Ages, it was Islam that had preserved the ancient texts of classical antiquity. The newest of the world’s major faiths, it remains vibrant, long after the secular world has declared that God is dead. Islam is a new eleventh man, struggling for a comfortable place among the ten who first arrived on these shores.

I worry that the Islamic community’s strength might also be its weakness. The emphasis upon Sharia law, for example, as a counterweight to English common law, is perceived by many to be a threat to this continent’s tradition of separation of church and state. Islam’s powerful communitarian ethic also challenges an individualism that verges of solipsism and disintegration. A deracinated continent can easily perceive Islam as a threat, and react in blind, irrational, but satisfying anger. 

I speak to you as an outsider tonight. I am not a man of faith. I am a collection of the very symptoms I describe, a white man looking at the formation of truly new secular order without a sense of what can and should happen next. So I feel entitled to ask of you what is perhaps the most difficult thing for you to give: Forgiveness -- forgive us, brothers, sisters, for we know not what we do. Have the confidence of your convictions even as we learn to live together. 

We are all strangers in this strange new land, this America that is remaking itself all around us. We are all racists, preferring our own to the other. All that is new are the lines we use today to define who is in and who is out of favor. Our task is to strike a new balance.

II. Profiling, Searches and Seizures

I hope you fill forgive me for asking forgiveness: It is perhaps too easy for a member of the privileged class to extend a hand. But destiny gives me no choice. Like it or not, the electronic revolution all around us makes the world a smaller place, a place in which we must all either learn to live together or face the terror of annihilation for no reason save a reluctance to let go of the comforting satisfaction of ignorance. 

Let me tell you a little about a constitutional faith I invite you to share. There are many rooms in this mansion; each of us can abide in harmony, if we choose to do so. 

There are some 318 million people living in the United States right now. I doubt there are many of the world’s faiths not found within its territory. Can we all listen to the same note amid this splendid cacophony? What can possibly unite us? 

I turn to the Roman orator Cicero. He once described a commonwealth, a res publica, or public thing, as follows: A commonwealth is not every random collection of people, it is a group of people bound together by common interests and a common conception of right. 

Can we make a new republic of this nation? I think so. We’ve all come here for the sake of a better life, for the opportunities affluence can provide. Our interests unite us, or, at least seem to – I wonder whether the growing gap in economic opportunity will be our undoing.

What of a common conception of right? Do we share that? Not in terms of our day-to-day lives. Our faiths require different rituals, or the lack of faith yields no rituals at all. 

But can’t we make room for the possibility that what unites all is a respect for the dignity of each man, woman and child? What God worth worshiping would disdain his creation? What deity requires hatred as proof of love? 

There is a species of naive public faith in the United States that is dangerous. It is a belief in what I will call constitutional literalism. It is belief that our federal constitution is sacred, a text of self-evident meaning. People like to say such things as “It’s written in the constitution” as though the document could read itself and announce its own meaning.

The constitution is but a sustained reflection on the dignity of man, its terms written in broad, general, and non-self-defining terms that require each generation to determine for itself what its words and phrases mean. This is both the promise and peril of the constitution. It can reflect high aspirations, or debase the currency of dignity. 

Consider the fourth amendment to the constitution. It prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. What possibly can this mean? What, exactly, is a reasonable search? A reasonable seizure? 

In the post 9/11 world, many Americans think ethnic profiling is reasonable. We are not prepared to respect the privacy of those we have chosen to fear. Often as not, the feared other is a son or, sometimes, a daughter of Islam. This hatred, new wine poured into old constitutional skins, terrifies me more than the prospect of a random explosion.

This hatred bespeaks the end of traditions I hold dear. We’ve succumbed to fear of the other, and are willing now to trade a sense of security for liberties we once took for granted. Criminal defense and civil rights lawyers bemoan the vast number of exceptions to the fourth amendment’s warrant requirement. 

A national security state promises to protect us, but who, really, are we kidding? But for Edward Snowden what would really know of the NSA’s reach into every telephone? 

We’ve more cops per 100,000 population than ever, but children continue to be mowed down in our schools. According to FBI crime statistics, violent crime is down in metropolitan areas throughout the United States. But mass shootings are increasing. Why? What is going on? 

All this, you say, is the product of mental illness. So let’s have better treatment for all. Add a social worker for every cop. Give the state vast therapeutic power. Once again, we will chip away at liberty, classifying differences, aspiring to create the common, normal, man or woman, the person without qualities who will color between the lines, won’t rock the boat, will pay taxes on command. 

Is there a prospective way to prevent every threat from coming to pass, a means to bring every lost sheep into the fold? Of course not. Life, as Theodore Roosevelt once said, is strife. Risk, we know is everywhere. The state cannot yield the security of some imagined paradise. The principal heresy of our time? Requiring the city of man to provide what only God can deliver.

We give collective meaning to the constitution’s broad terms generation by generation. It takes a commitment to a better vision than what the blinders we wear permit us to see to make a community. Today, the Islamic community is punished for accidents of history, made a scapegoat for a society adrift, our constitution, our commitment to right, transformed into something at once hateful and terrifying: Gauntanamo Bay is to our time what the internment of Japanese-Americans was to an earlier era, and what, tragically, the plantations were for centuries, and what many inner cities and reservations remain today. 

We live a dream deferred. The future beckons each and everyone of us to break our hearts in the impossible task of loving one another. 

I have a confession to make. I have become so dispirited by changes I have seen in the law in my lifetime that I have from time to time fancied quitting this place, leaving the law, finding a quiet place away from this continent. Indeed, I even fly an anarchist’s flag in my office, to remind me that the best that can be said for humanity is the raw urge to create, to defy convention, and to reach forever for the impossible. I think of Mohammad’s call to faith, late in life, and his breaking with tradition to follow the call for a better world. I call myself an anarchist these days, not because I believe in disorder, but because I believe in the power of ordinary people to make better lives for themselves, by themselves.

But I’ve decided to remain a lawyer, so long as the bar will have me. I’ve made this decision because I still believe in your right to equal treatment; I still believe the state is but a necessary fiction, and that it must forever be wrangled with to remind it that ordinary people are its true masters; individualist though I am, the language I speak was taught to me by others. I cannot survive alone; nor do I care to. 

I’ve come to see a brother, a sister, in the scorned. And so, I believe, have you, or you would not have come to this banquet tonight.

III. Islam – A Proud Heritage That Has Withstood Crisis

I grew up a sometime Christian amid the lower rungs of power, status and prestige in this country. I don’t know much, I am embarrassed to say, about the Koran. I now count myself a godless sinner, a friend to the despised, indeed, often despised myself. I respect only those who respect human dignity, and that is why I agreed to come to talk to you tonight. 

I see in Islam brothers and sisters whose prayers differ from mine, but whose love of humanity is as every bit as, perhaps more, powerful than my own. I see a proud people, who, in some regions of the world, struggle against powerful odds. I see sinners much like myself, struggling along life’s way.

Tonight I appeal to brothers and sisters of different faith to share my faith in the rule of law. The law will not make you a better person, but it can provide you the space you need to tend your own soul, while leaving to others the space to tend their own. Our courts can remain open to all, with the meaning of tomorrow’s doctrines up for grabs to the best and most creative arguments we can muster. Islam is a learned community, bring me your texts, teach me to make a better world. And the accused, those scorned and held out to the world as criminals, they are often no more than the unpopular.

Today it is you. Who will it be tomorrow? 

There is work enough for all in the criminal courts, each community of faith must support the rights of least among us. 

I have no answers about how to make a better world. I am not a prophet. I am a social oncologist, treating the social wounds that mar us. I’ve come to you tonight to draw from your strength, and to learn. Along the way, I’ve made my plea for forgiveness and my request for assistance. 

I’ve spent more time than I care to admit studying flocks of birds. What unites thousands of birds in flight? How do they seemingly turn all at once in one direction or another, each inchoately moving as though united by a single desire? Check out the Otmoor starlings sometime on YouTube. It is amazing. The birds gather in wetlands just outside of Oxford in England. I wonder if we look that way from afar, the human race seemingly coordinated, and acting as one.

Most days it doesn’t feel that way from within the trenches in which we live. Hatred divides and conquers. Race, religion, ethnicity are wounds at which we scratch, forever bleeding. 

Perhaps it cannot be stopped. Perhaps it will never be stopped. Perhaps struggle defines us and always will. 

Even so, it is our unique privilege to die trying to surpass the ordinary. And so I end tonight extending a hand in friendship, and I am cocky enough to know you will give me yours.

Your faith precedes you, and it fills me with admiration, even awe.

A salam wa alaikum


Comments: (2)

  • response
    Great speech and now put the link on my twitter feed
    Posted on December 28, 2013 at 5:26 pm by Andrea Wilson
  • Living faith
    As a woman of faith, I see your heart as being truly more aligned to God's heart for the hurting and the downtrodden than you realize. Don't give up or become discouraged or embittered, Mr. Pattis. You are a true hero. My prayers are with you.
    Posted on December 25, 2013 at 7:20 am by Maria

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