The danger of religion and nationalism to America today

Seattle Travel Blog

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There are signs everywhere that segments of America are becoming increasingly hostile towards Muslims. The hostility was deeply embedded into the American psyche by the religion of those individuals who attacked the United States on September the 11th. These attacks highlighted two of the dangers of religion. The first is the obvious one, religion can induce people to commit horrendous actions, because it places the authority of a God over that of human morality. To the extent that the terrorists were guided by faith, religion does indeed have much to answer for. The second danger of religion is less obvious and more insidious.


Religion is used as a boundary between in-groups and out-groups. The terrorists were not directly harmed by the United States, rather they identified themselves as part of an in-group, Islam, which they perceived as under attack. Likewise, the targets were not those directly responsible for the United States foreign policy, but rather those people who self-identified as the in-group, Americans, who included those in power. In effect, religion and nationalism neatly divided the world into “us” and “them”, and 3000 innocents tragically died.


It is so important for us to not fall into this trap of using in-groups and out-groups to vent rage. If we move from anger towards terrorists who identify themselves as Muslim to anger towards all who identify themselves as Muslim, we plunge into a war which will not cease. Israel and Palestine, two countries thrown into conflict by inept distribution of land by the great powers, demonstrate this principle all too well. The self-identifiers are clear, Jewish vs Muslim, Israeli vs Palestinians. An Israeli sees their country under attack by suicide bombers who are Muslims and Palestinian. Their anger is directed at all who they perceive as being part of these in-groups, and injustices are done, people are deprived of land and water, missiles kill innocents. One of those who identify themselves as Muslims and Palestinians blame all those who are Jewish or Israeli, and a rocket or suicide attack can be non-specifically aimed into Israel. The cycle of conflict gets deeper. The conflict also gets wider, non-Palestinians Muslims pick up the anti-Israeli hatred, Israel-aligned Westerners blame all Muslims. The conflict causes internal fractures, the Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, Avigdor Lieberman, advocates stripping citizenship from those who are both Israeli and Muslim.


Is this happening in America today? Have religious lines drawn simple “us” and “them” groups, that allow a fear of a few extremists to find vent in hostility towards all those who identify with that religion? There are dangerous signs that this is indeed happening. At the level of the government, Guantanamo Bay is dangerously skirting the edge of the Constitution. One of the great clauses of the US Constitution is that it guarantees that all those within the US jurisdiction are granted all the rights and protections of the US Constitution, with only the right to vote being reserved for citizens. Yet Guantanamo inmates have not been granted access to a fair and speedy trial. This possible Constitutional violation has created barely a murmur, with many citizens willing to assume that the government will act in good faith, and only hold those who deserve it. Of course, the important question, besides the personal rights of those imprisoned, is how can we know the government is holding those who are guilty without judicial oversight to analyse the evidence?


Of 775 detainees who have been brought to Guantanamo, 340 have been released and another 110 have been labelled as ready for release. In the government’s own assessment, half of all the prisoners, some kept in isolation for years, are either innocent or pose no significant threat. In light of this, should we be wonder about the basis on which the government is committing violations of human rights and the US Constitution? Should we consider the case of Khalid El-Masri, a German arrested while on holiday in Macedonia? El-Masri had the misfortune to have the same name as an al-Qaeda operative, and he spent two months in a CIA prison in Afghanistan, during which time he claims he was tortured. The CIA finally released El-Masri and have admitted wrongful imprisonment, but no apology or compensation has occurred and there have been active efforts to keep the news profile of this case low. Or perhaps we should consider the case of Brandon Mayfield? An American Muslim lawyer who was arrested as a suspect for the Madrid attacks based on a partial fingerprint match. He was held for two weeks before the FBI reanalysed the evidence and found it to be lacking. In this case an apology and compensation ensued, and most tellingly the FBI admitted that Mayfield’s religion contributed to the investigator overriding the poor quality of the fingerprint match. Truly religion has become a factor for discrimination in the current Administration.


Is it only the government at fault? There are symptoms of a growing hostility in the American people, not directed at those who pose a threat to America, but more broadly to all those in the same religious in-group. Six Imams were removed from a flight after some passengers felt threatened by their prayer. Raed Jarrar was forced to cover up his shirt (with Arabic writing on it) at JFK airport. It is likely in both cases that the people in question deliberately pushed the boundary to draw controversy, but that does not excuse the response in either case. Or take the case of Congressman-elect Keith Ellison. The first Muslim elected to government, like all Representatives he will be formally sworn in under the Constitution. Like many Representatives, he will choose to follow this with a non-formal photo-op where he swears an oath on a book he considers holy. For a number of Americans, the use of the Koran instead of the Bible in a photo-op is creating outrage. The American Family Association is lobbying to ban the use of any book other than the Bible, Dennis Prager led an attack on Keith Ellison, which garnered a surprising level of support, considering even a simple level of understanding of American history demonstrates that the United States was not founded on Christianity, but rather on secular enlightenment. We had the situation where a journalist had the audacity to ask Keith Ellison to prove that he was not an enemy of the United States.


This discrimination against groups based merely on their religion does not only fuel hostility in Muslim countries, it threatens to rip America apart from within. When Jerry Klein suggested on his talkshow that all Muslims in the United States should be identified with a crescent-shape tattoo or a distinctive arm band, his phone-lines jammed with responses. Many were offended at the very suggestion, and a disturbing number were vocally supportive, and went even further "What good is identifying them? You have to set up encampments like during World War Two with the Japanese and Germans." Klein deliberately manipulated his audience to create controversy, and in all likelihood carefully selected respondents which fuelled it further. However these are not isolated views. A Gallup Poll taken soon after found that 40% of Americans admitted to at least some prejudice against Muslims, 40% favoured American Muslims to be forced to carry a special ID, a third believed that American Muslims were sympathetic to al-Qaeda, and 22% said they would not want to live next door to a Muslim.


The subtle threat of religion is clear – America is starting to fracture down religious lines, where people can despise each other to the point of violating their rights, simply due to their religion. On the global scale both religion and nationalism create boundaries, drawing artificial lines allowing extremists on both sides to say “you are either with us or you are against us”. The why is no mystery. Most religions teach that their adherents are superior in the eyes of an absolute power. Nationalism too teaches that members of your own country are worth more than foreigners, how many Rwandans is one American worth? During the 1994 genocide US Lieutenant General Daniel Schroeder, US Commander of the join task force on Rwanda, said “one American causality is worth about 85,000 Rwandan dead”.


In a world where the richest two percent of adults own half the world’s wealth, and the poorest fifty percent of adults own one percent of the world’s wealth (the latest figures from the World Institute for Development Economics Research), we need to stop evaluating people in terms of whether they share a religion or nationality with us, and start treating each human being as being intrinsically equal. The insidious “us” and “them” mentality propagated by religion and nationalism is a xenophobic remnant which degrades us all.

Adrian_Liston says:
I travel with my eyes open. There is more to Seattle than the Space Needle, more to America than the Grand Canyon - the culture of a people is well worth experiencing and writing about.

But no one is forcing you to read my travel blog.
Posted on: Feb 13, 2009
noelbuckley1 says:
WHy is this idiocy in a travel blog?
Posted on: Feb 12, 2009
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