25 October 2012

Dehumanizing Otherness

Of all the contrarian things I wrote in this humble soapbox, the most controversial item turned out to be my moralistic post about that infamous anti-Muhammad movie trailer.

I got a lot of private feedback. Many were positive. Some, not so much.

A French friend of mine told me that he was surprised by my approach. He felt that I defended a bunch of people who routinely do horrible things, like perpetrating acts of terrorism, denigrating women and displaying a general hatred for everything "we" stood for. He said that "they" were not like "us" and can never be. That was because their beliefs, traditions and behavior patterns were just simply too different.

He also added that given the fairly strident anti-religious views I regularly express in my daily life, he was surprised that I would defend a bunch of fundamentalists and their dubious religion.

It got me thinking.

My first thought was, I should not be friends with this guy.

But then I realized that a majority of my European friends probably thinks like him, he was the one with enough guts to express these views.

So I thought I should explain to him (publicly) a couple of things, starting with the minor point that my views are correctly called anti-clerical and not anti-religion.

And there is a reason for that.

Being Anti-clerical vs anti-religion

As we know, all religious texts are believed to be messages from a Deity. All three big religions make this claim. (Muslims more so than the others because they believe that the Koran's text is identical to the version received by the Prophet and remains unmodified. In fact, this is the trump card of fundamentalists, as they can claim that the text should be applied down to its last detail because it is the clearest and purest voice of God)

When I have to debate religion -and believe me I try to avoid it whenever I can- I never express doubts about the existence of God or the fact that these messages belong to a Deity. I am not Richard Dawkins. I take these notions as a given since my interlocutors consider them as axioms. What I believe is immaterial in that conversation.

I simply explain to them that even messages from God are received and transmitted with human languages. Human languages are by definition social and historical constructs and their meaning structure is entirely dependent on the priorities, perceptions and prejudices of that historical period and society. The recipient of that message cannot help but hear what he heard through the filters of that language.

In short, there can be no fixed supra-historical meaning.

What is expressed in 5th century Europe or 7th century Middle East has to make sense in that period and in that society. For instance, God could not have mentioned in either context that the world is round. If he did, no one could have understood, verbalize and communicate that idea.

Consequently, all texts, including the ones sent by God, are already interpreted and therefore open to further interpretation.

It is somewhat lame to point out that if there was a single interpretation we would not have Catholics, Protestants, Episcopalians, Southern Baptists or Mormon's or Jehovah's Witnesses.

Or Sunni Islam and within it, Hanafi, Sahfi'i, Maliki, Hanbali, Zahiri schools of thought. Or Shia Islam and within it Ismaili, Alawite, Alevi, Zaidiyyah sects. Or Sufism and within it, Bektashi, Naqshbandi, Uwaiysi, Qadiri, Nimatullahi, Mouride orders.

Single text, many, many interpretations.

The question is who makes and enforces these interpretations. As we know from the history of all religions, it is always a group of men who takes it upon themselves to establish their version of the meaning of any Holy Text.

This is why you can discuss any holy text without accepting the false premise that you are discussing the words of God. You are discussing the meaning attributed to the words of God by flesh and blood human beings. God's meaning remains inaccessible. We only have access to what people heard through their social and historical linguistic constructs.

That is why I am radically anti-clerical and deeply suspicious of these men and their interpretations. Their interpretation and their effort to enforce them is a social issue. And their views are no more sacred to me than, say, the theory of evolution.

Consequently, you cannot tell me that the precepts of your faith are superior to my views and I need to accept and obey them because they were dictated by God.

They were received, understood, expressed and communicated by men. What we have is what they heard not what God said.

But I would never question your personal beliefs and personal interpretation of the words of a Deity. That is a private matter.

Using religion for dehumanizing otherness

The second thing I wanted to explain to my friend was that what I was doing was not to defend a religion or its followers. I am not a believer. I am the worst kind of person for a believer because I refuse to consider the question whether there is a God. I am not an agnostic and I am not an atheist.

I have no idea and I am really not interested in finding out one way or the other.

What I was doing was to highlight the rapidly escalating trend towards creating a "dehumanized other" within a general "clash of civilization" context.

What I wrote was an effort to point to the dangers of that process. Because he have seen it before. And it is not pretty.

Do you know what dehumanizing otherness is?

Let me explain with the most extreme example in human history.

In his book, A Social History of the Third Reich, Richard Grunberger tells the story of a four year old Jewish girl who wanted to have cherries but was refused by a Berlin shopkeeper because the Jewish food ration did not include fruits. The girl cried her eyes out. Did I mention she was four years old?

Picture yourself in the grocer's place. Would you not have given her a couple of cherries, especially since (during the anecdote) there was no one else in the store? But he simply didn't (p.579-80). And proudly and factually related the story. Because in his eyes, this was not a kid. She was a lesser being, an alien. She was part of a less than human group of others (untermensch).

You might think that this was a German thing, you know, something Goebbels' propaganda machine created.

Not true.

This July, we had the 70th anniversary of the infamous Vel' d'Hiv round up in France. Vel' d'Hiv is an abbreviation of Velodrome d'Hiver in Drancy, France. On 16 and 17 July 1942, the French police gathered 13,152 Jews to be deported to Auschwitz. Of these 8,160 were locked away in that bicycle arena.  1,129 men, 2,916 women and 4,115 children. The youngest 3,000 kids were brutally separated from their parents and sent first to the camps.

Credit: Archive CDJC-Memorial de la Shoah
But they spent a few nights in the Vel' d'Hiv crying and screaming, unable to comprehend what happened to them and where their parents were. Some as young as two. And no one around them felt anything. No one was moved enough to help or to alleviate their suffering.

This summer, there was an exhibition about them entitled C'etaient des enfants and I meant to go. But I knew I wouldn't be able to see more than a couple of pictures before I felt suicidal for being part of the same species as those people who stood emotionless around these helpless kids.

That's dehumanizing otherness.

Let me add that, under normal circumstances, I would not have used these examples, as I consider the Holocaust the biggest crime of all times and I don't like it when people use it as an analogy for anything. Moreover, I consider the Jews to be the most persecuted group in human history.

There are two reasons why I did it.

One is an anecdote. The year was 1980. For a series of reasons too long to explain here, I found myself in Berlin, inside the Berlin Olympic Stadium, the one in which Jesse Owens flip the bird to Hitler in 1936. My companion was a German journalist. I asked him about the Holocaust and I simply asked why.

I never forgot his answer. He said that he cannot answer that question because any answer would be a partial justification. He said that even statements along the lines of "people felt Jews were like this or that" would give a modicum of acceptability to what had taken place and he was adamant to never allow that.

I learned from him that trying to explain a hatred of difference is justifying the reactions to otherness. Every time I hear a friend tell me that Muslims are like this or that, I think of that German journalist.

The second reason is the fact that the analogy came to me through Adam Gopnik, a writer I admire immensely. I used to give his books to friends as a random act of kindness. He happens to be Jewish and he apparently lives in Paris as well. This summer he wrote a short essay for the BBC in which he said:
Hatred of difference - notice I carefully did not say racial hatred, or religious hatred. Hitler hated Jews because of their religion, and because of their race, but he hated them above all because of their otherness.

When I read well-intentioned people talking about the impossibility of assimilating Muslims in my adopted country of France, for instance, I become frightened when I see that they are usually entirely unaware that they are repeating - often idea for idea and sometimes word for word - the themes of the anti-Semitic polemics that set off the Dreyfus affair a century ago. For those writers, too, believed not that Jews were eternally evil, but that Judaism was just too different, too foreign to France, and tied to violence against the nation and its heritage.
Like Adam Gopnik, I see the hatred and fear in people's eyes when they glance at Muslims. You know, a Muslim couple with the woman covered up and subservient. I see how they remain unmoved when they notice their children. I heard more than once the term coach-roaches.

I detest the idea of a burqa and I am happy to have a discussion with any Muslim person about it. I can easily show how flimsy the religious justification is for that garment and how much of it comes from the patriarchal prejudices of those men who are in charge of interpretation.

But I detest even more the idea of a woman becoming an object of fear and hatred, or worse, becoming invisible. When a Brooklyn woman went undercover to prove her son's innocence, she wore a burqa to spy on people. She said that with a burqa people acted like she did not exist. She was completely invisible.

Once again, I am not suggesting that Muslims are as thoroughly dehumanized as the Jews in the 19th and 20th century Europe. No one can be.

But the process seems to be underway and with the help of social media and Internet, right wing fear groups are getting more effective and successful with each passing day.

So what I said to my French friend that he should heed my warning. Unless Europeans find a way to communicate with Muslims without relegating them to a dehumanized other status, they could end up repeating past mistakes.

And insisting on freedom of expression to defend a silly movie trailer designed to offend them was not the way to transcend otherness.

That was my point and I stand by it.

1 comment:

  1. Someone calling himself Christoph Luxenberg had some doubts about in which language the God's message was transmitted.

    ...language of the early compositions of the Qur'an was not exclusively Arabic, as assumed by the classical commentators, but rather is rooted in the Syro-Aramaic dialect of the 7th century Meccan Quraysh tribe.."

    That is the tribe Prophet belongs to and they use some form of Syro-Aramaic as a trade language.