What Are We Willing to Die For?

Imagine for a moment that I walked into your house and murdered one of your children. That would test your ability to remain peaceful. Even if you were able to avoid retaliating against me, you would at least be able to understand why someone would retaliate or why anyone being harmed in that way would respond with violence. That’s really simple logic, actually: hate makes hate.

Whether it’s instinctual or learned over time, it just doesn’t seem today that we know how to respond to violence without wanting to become violent ourselves. I speak from personal experience there, though most of the ways I’ve been hurt are particularly benign. But we’ve all been hurt in some way or another, by somebody; we all understand the desire for vengeance, if not blood. So, if we agree that hate makes hate, then we can see how it would be a cycle. You harm me; I retaliate. You retaliate, I harm you again. The only way the cycle is ever broken is when someone decides to break the cycle and respond to violence without becoming violent themselves.

None of this is rocket science, and most of us get the logic. Some respond breaking that cycle would be nice but since we don’t live in a world of ideals, sometimes a violent response may be understandable if not even necessary. I’ll concede the point here that I would love to believe I could hold myself to an ideal of nonviolence but that I don’t actually know if I could. I confess, and my friends will tell you sadly, that I am a violent man. That doesn’t stop me from striving for nonviolence, for recommending it, believing in it.

Of course, I suppose you may not even buy my argument that breaking the cycle is wise. “It’s weak to let people just walk all over you, which is exactly what they’ll do if you let them,” you might say. “In some cases, we have to show strength which is might and force.” That sounds decidedly American today, especially in light of how to deal with terrorism. This ‘wisdom’ hinges, though, on how you define strength and weakness, as well as how you define your purpose in life. In other words, it depends on what you’re willing to die for and whether you believe there are some principals or values that are more important than life itself. I’m of the mindset that we’ve had so much luxury in modern society that we’ve lost sight of what we’re willing to die for, in part because we haven’t been asked to die for anything. We’ve only been asked to live, and that terrifies us to death as it is. We kill, scared for our own lives, never once considering what might be greater than our lives. Or in other words, we haven’t faced, most of us, a situation that demanded we determine what life and death are worth.

History, though, can help us here. To whatever degree I’m an armchair theologian, I try to draw a lot from Christian history, though I think the lessons are relevant beyond Christianity. From the time Christ dies to the time Christianity becomes the ‘official religion’ of the Empire, some 280 years pass. Christianity in that period, without the speed of modern infrastructure or the internet, manages to spread its message the world over “conquering” without ever resorting to violence. Think about that for a second: wars were historically fought, yes, to gain land but also with the goal of conquering the hearts and minds. Christianity does both without a single war. Constantine, of course, changes that, which is a conversation for another day, but I want to focus for a moment on the reality that a religion spread its viewpoint the world over without resorting to violence. How did they do it?

They didn’t just stop the cycle and take a beating. You might be right in saying that would be “weak.” Nonviolent resistance is not passive, however. It’s in-your-face aggressive. Pacifism would be letting the conqueror beat you up while you say nothing. Nonviolence gets in the conquerors face, taunts them to be violent, then having taken the beating, gets back in their face and taunts them again without ever taking a swing. In this regard, nonviolence is indeed very bloody and very violent. It’s a form of in-your-face martyrdom, and that’s how Christianity “conquered” the world without responding to violence with violence. Why? Because everyone saw that these so-called Christians were willing to die for something but not without first speaking their truth. Their truth, in fact, was in their willingness to die. And people so yearned for that sense of purpose that the movement, instead of being squashed out despite attempted genocide only grew and grew.

Take for example the early Christians a hundred years before Constantine – Perpetua and Felicity: A young woman of noble birth and a pregnant slave who knew they faced certain death but, to everyone’s surprise, welcomed martyrdom and left behind a ‘diary’ of sorts for the world to know that they would rather die than renounce their faith. Their willingness to die – and even the death itself – becomes a powerful message that resonates beyond anything the gun or the bomb can do.

And it’s not just a matter of “breaking the cycle of violence;” it’s exposing those who choose violence for who they are and in the process showing you’re better than them, more at peace. You don’t need the strength of “might and force.” You have the strength of truth and the resolve of peace within. And that – and only that – can flip the oppressors on their head. Oh, sure, to respond with violence may, indeed, win you temporary peace but only at the cost that you were willing to become the aggressor yourself. And when you become what you hated, it’s only a matter of time before the same fate that befell your aggressor also befalls you or your loved ones.

All of that, of course, is said in the context of a President-elect who wants to solve our problems with violence. It’s said in the context of an America that has bombed its way through our history and left an ugly stain on almost every nation-state we’ve touched. It’s said of a day and age when long-gone is the Christianity that was once so faithful in its resolve of what life is worth and its trust in something greater than death that “love your enemies” has become meaningless and the Babylonian “eye for an eye” has been embraced as a replacement for most of Jesus’ message. We have an opportunity to reclaim that with the conviction of a love built on faith and not on fear. And the next several months will certainly test how serious we are about such matters.

Some Thoughts for a Good Friday

The world has become ugly and dark. Terrorist groups slaughter. The wealthy grow wealthier as the poor remain poor. The planet itself is slowly but surely dying off, we’re told. Our most precious resources are grown increasingly scarce. Our politicians follow the money instead of the heart. And for most of us that’s just the stuff we read about but don’t actually endure. What we do endure, we are stricken by our own ugliness: a broken friendship or lost love, self-doubt and indecision, self-righteous certainty in the places we actually should’ve been doubting, a fear of others or of self that cripples us or grows our hatred. These are the voices shouting at us from our computer screens and televisions to our parents and loved ones to our friends and enemies to our innermost thoughts plaguing us, weighing us down. It is a world without silence, these days, without respite. Instead, today’s world is one of loud extremes. There, on the fringes, voices from a small handful have pushed the moderate many to their own extreme – a world now of false dichotomies no one seems to notice – and the cycle only repeats. Honest concern with nuanced perspectives are lost to sound bites and memes that appeal instead to our emotions. Ideologies are dwindled down to 140-character barking – all context and concern washed out by our desire for the quick-and-the-easy.

And yet, perhaps, seventy years ago in the midst of world war, the same could have been said: the world was dark and ugly then, too. Another seventy or so before that, and we were a country divided – family against family – an unquestionably ugly time in our history. Trace back through humanity’s short breath on this “pale blue dot,” and it’s always there: fear and hatred and war and the loud, powerful few who long for control. We were bombarded, then as now, just by a different medium. Is it that we think we’re special that the world is just now unbearably bad? Is the fact – if it’s a fact – that it’s “always been this way” meant to reassure us with hope that we are not alone in our suffering or sink us into some despairing fatalism that there is no cure for the human condition but death?

Maybe that’s why I relate so strongly to Good Friday. It is not the story of resurrection. Don’t be fooled by the fact that we think we know the ending. Easter morning is not yet come. It is instead a story of wondering, of questioning. It’s a story of seemingly intense abandonment, of scattering, of hiding away in denial. And it’s the story of that which we inevitably face – the death of those we love and of our own end. In a sense, it’s a story still being told, repeated daily on our screens and in our heads and in our exchanges. That same ugliness – from Rome to Flanders Field to Normandy Beach to modern Syria and Iraq to Capitol Hill and into every major corporation – it does not go away.

And yet in the midst of that, the hope we do manage to conjure up as human beings – when we can – is the best kind of hope. Because we don’t yet know how it ends, just that it will. And to say that there is hope in the face of this unending uncertainty that so surrounds us is to participate in something near miraculous: Against all the odds, against our own history, against our guaranteed nature, even against our guaranteed deaths or in spite of them, we conjure up sometimes something good and try to live into our best selves no matter what the next day or hour or minute could bring or brought before it. For all the voices shouting and pulling and drowning out our common space, it’s on that note, when that happens – that hopeful harmony – that “resurrection” arrives, that something wholly good is able to conquer our cynicism. It’s when we whistle walking through the dark house or hum a beloved tune to calm ourselves – hours before the choir exclaims any joy at all. And so, we wonder, can we bring nuance to the conversation, silence to the constant noise of the day’s desire to pull us in a thousand directions, peace to a world in terror, sustenance to a planet hungry for new life, wealth free of want to the wealthy and trust again in our leaders? Judging by our history, the answer is no, probably not. But we’ll hope anyway, be our best selves anyway, drip our drop in the bucket anyhow, and if we fail at those great endeavors, we’ll still have succeeded, somehow in the most important way possible. Happy Good Friday to you and yours.

It’s not that “ISIL is not Islamic;” it’s that ISIL shouldn’t be called ISIL at all

There’s a lot of buzz right now in the social media world surrounding Obama’s statement that “ISIL is not Islamic.” If they’re called the “Islamic State,” the argument goes, doesn’t that make them “Islamic”? But that logic seems a bit absurd. Is West Boro Baptist Church a church? Is it Baptist? Baptists are, generally-speaking, Christians. Are the members of West Boro Christian? After all, they’re technically using the same holy book as Christians. And they are steeped in much of the same language Evangelical Christians use. But most Christians would distance themselves from a “church” that protests at military funerals. Some might even argue that Christians don’t share the same holy text with West Boro, since the passages that are most important to West Boro focus solely on wrath and vengeance. It’s as if they’re working with a different “canon within a canon” that everyone else is using.

Of course, if we decide that West Boro is Christian, just an extremist version of Christianity, it’s worth pointing out that West Boro isn’t cutting off anyone’s heads or surrounding anyone’s towns until they starve. If they were, would they still be Christian extremists? At what point does an extremist view of an ideology become a separate ideology altogether? Moreover, who decides when that line has been crossed? To confess an ideology in name only, while simultaneously doing the opposite of what most people come to expect from that ideology, seems a good reason to call it something else.

And in fact, if I have a beef with Obama saying “ISIL is not Islamic,” the beef is that we shouldn’t allow “ISIL” to call themselves “the Islamic State” in the first place. I’ve written about this before when pointing out the dangers of letting extremist groups like the “Taliban,” or the “students,” or the “Shabaab,” or “the youth,” hijack language without a fight that counters their use of that language. George Bush was actually good at this when he employed terms like “evildoers.” So, why not call them something else – something that more accurately depicts what they’re doing? We’ve gone from “ISIS” to “ISIL” to “IS” anyway and all in deference to what the extremists are choosing to call themselves.

And just as we have the power to call them what we want to call them, I think it’s worth noting whose responsibility it is to deal with them. That is, while I reject the notion that West Boro Baptist is a Christian church, it’s very much a Christian problem. And an American problem. Because those are the cultural contexts that birthed West Boro. If a child in a family does something terrible, the family has two choices: either disown the child or bring the child into line. In the case of West Boro, I’d argue they’re already disowned in that most Christians would not associate themselves as being “brothers and sisters” to the members of West Boro unless those members indicated a desire to change their ideology. So, too, if a group is extremist enough, sometimes you have to go beyond merely disowning them in name and find a way to remove them from society or from harming others, as well. Similarly, the “Islamic State” is, to me, both an Islamic problem and a Western problem. Because those are the cultures that birthed this form of extremism. To say “ISIL is not Islamic,” is the clarification – in case anyone needed it – that they have been disowned. Now comes the harder task of removing them from society so they can harm no more. And maybe it’s best to begin this task by disempowering them from the very language they might use to describe themselves, especially when that language is the opposite of who they really are.

Jackson’s Bad Rap in Crime

About a month before I left to go to Morocco as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2010, a family friend had remarked, “Well, is that safe? I mean, with all those Muslims there and all. Will you be safe?” Though even at the time, I thought it was a bit of a ridiculous question, I won’t pretend like there wasn’t some part of me in the back of my head going, “Well, I mean, is it safe? You don’t really know much of anything about this country.” What I did know about Muslims was, as I’ve said before, “driven by the media’s only focus on Islam: terrorism.” Even with an education where I’d studied Islam in dialogue with other religions, I still found it difficult to shed the images I’d been sold about this religious group.

Eventually, I did shed that fear. Through my host mother, Fatima, whose first words and the only English she knew was, “I love you; you are my son;” through Hamza and Omar who danced with me late into the night or welcomed me to meals; through Driss whose English was arguably better than mine and who loved a spirited debate over mint tea; slowly, I was able to realize that not only did I have nothing to fear but, in fact, I had plenty to love about Morocco, about my Muslim brothers and sisters. I even felt safe enough to travel alone thirteen hours across the country multiple times and through just about all kinds of weather, day or night. Mind you, I probably shouldn’t have felt safe doing all of that. A certain one-eyed taxi driver, in fact, insisted on going over 120 km/hour in a sandstorm with zero visibility, and I’m still pretty sure either that or using butane gas to cook was probably the least safe thing I ever did in Morocco or maybe my whole life.

But now that I’m back home in Jackson, Tennessee, safe and sound in America and in a community I care about, that question from the family friend strikes me as especially odd and even off-putting. Was I safe in Morocco in a Muslim community where I was welcomed with intense hospitality? I certainly felt so. But are you safe in Jackson?

Recently, an article published by a California real-estate company listed Jackson as the third most dangerous “small city” in the nation. That went viral on Facebook and Twitter within the Jackson community and prompted the Jackson Sun to seek comment from both the Mayor’s office and from the Chamber of Commerce. Their response, by and large, was essentially to ask who is some California company to tell us how things look in Jackson (you can almost hear them exclaiming in Southern Drawl, “Calaforna!?”)? Both offices questioned the credibility of the report suggesting that the statistics were somehow overstated.

For fun, I decided to do a bit of a comparison and just see how the numbers spoke for themselves. I thought about comparing Jackson to Mos Eisley, but eveybody knows you’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. So, instead, take a Moroccan city like Fes. Admittedly, it’s much bigger than Jackson at a population of just over a million. But Fes only had 37 homicides in 2013, compared with 11 for Jackson. That may not sound like many for either city, but it’s a rate of .17 per 1000 for Jackson versus .04 per 1000 for Fes. Fes is looking a lot safer per capita, as did all Moroccan cities I looked at. In fact, for Fes’s homicide rate to equal Jackson’s, you’d have to see 175 murders instead of 37. That would require of Fes a 79% increase in murders from one year to the next.

So, this isn’t looking too good for Jackson. But let’s look even closer at some of Jackson’s statistics: if you live in Jackson, you have a 1 in 68 chance of being a victim of violent crime. Compare that with 1 in 155 statewide and in 1 in 110 in New York City. That’s right, you’re more likely to be a victim of violence in Jackson than you are in the Big Apple. Not only New York, though. In fact, 96% of cities in the nation are safer per capita than Jackson is.

The thing is, Mayor Gist and the Chamber may well be right to suggest that the statistics are overstated. There are a lot of complex factors that contribute to crime rate, after all, and they’re certainly right to point out things like the Hub City’s location smack between Memphis and Nashville or directly on one of the busiest Interstates in the country (I would add that Jackson’s unemployment rate is at 9.6% compared with 7.3% nationwide; or that Jackson is filled with an even mix of white and blue collar professionals who are primarily “young, single, and upwardly mobile”). So, too, while the amount of violent crime in Morocco is significantly lower than Jackson or even all of America, I shouldn’t suggest that Morocco doesn’t come with its own set of issues. There’s far more likely to be a terrorist attack in Morocco than there is for one to happen in Jackson (although, if you considered gang violence as a form of terrorism, you might argue terrorism is a Jackson issue). And there’s a significant risk to females and foreigners, such that traveling at night across the Atlas Mountains would certainly be ill-advised, as it would be anywhere. Every city, every country, comes with its own set of complex factors that contribute to the problem of violent crime, and each of those places must come up with their own, unique solutions to those problems.

And yet, even if the statistics are overstated, Jackson has a very serious crime problem that neither the Mayor’s office nor the Chamber of Commerce nor local churches nor local citizens should ever be making excuses about or too quickly dismissing. Where are the people calling for and suggesting real solutions? Or, as someone who isn’t quite sure what the solutions might be, at least a real discussion, a conversation about how churches, citizens, the Chamber, or the Mayor’s office might take to task the crime before us lest it become the norm? As I see it, the Mayor and the Chamber are in the business of maintaining a positive perception, which is important to drawing companies and tourists to the area. But suggesting that Jackson’s crime rates are “normal for cities this size” in order to maintain that perception is risky business at the least. We live in a world where what social and news media tells us is all too easily the gospel truth when it’s backed up by our experiences or our preconceived notions. Yet, no more should we sell the perception of Jackson as a safe place than we should a Muslim country as one that’s filled with terrorists when in reality both have problems that need solutions beyond painting a pretty picture.

The Terror of the Shabaab, or why we’re our own worst enemies

My job when I worked in Morocco for two years with the Peace Corps was to work with the shabaab, that is the “youth” of Morocco. I worked out of a youth center, or Dar Shabaab (literally: youth house), which was akin something like the YMCA or the Boys & Girls Club. In North Africa, “youth” is defined as those folks who are between the ages of, say, their tweens to about thirty years-old or so (or until a person is married). So, it’s a little different from the way we define it in America.

If you keep up with the news, you already know this Arabic word. In the wake of some terrorist attacks, most recently those at a Kenyan mall, everyone is talking about an Al-Qaeda-affiliated Somali terrorist group called “Al Shabaab.” There’s a few things about this that deeply bother me.

The first is the way the media pronounces the definitive article “al” before the word “shabaab.” This shows a lack of understanding of Arabic. There are two types of letters in the Arabic alphabet – moon and sun letters. When you begin a word with a moon letter, you pronounce the “al” before the letter for a definitive article. However, with sun letters, like the “sh,” or sheen, in “shabaab,” the sun letter absorbs the “al” such that you don’t pronounce it. So, for some words, like “Al Qaeda,” the definitive article is pronounced before the root word, whilst for others it is not. This video takes you through which letters are sun letters (shamsiya letters) and which are moon (qamirya letters).

Perhaps even more disconcerting is the unfortunate reality that this terrorist group has chosen a catch-all term with a positive connotation and shoved it out into the world as though it’s all-encompassing of Muslim “youth.” This terminology is incredibly damaging to the Arab world (which I’m distinguishing from “Muslim world” here to refer to countries where Arabic is dominate, since “shabaab” is an Arabic word). I don’t think it’s good to allow these groups to get away with using this kind of terminology. It’s happened before; the word “taliban” really just means “the students.” It’s a little ridiculous that, after 9/11, we declared war on “the students” and today the world is fighting “the youth.” Can you imagine if the Nazi party had been called “the Peaceful Ones”? We probably would have changed their name.

Which is what I would advocate here. Instead of calling them “Al Shabaab,” we need new terminology. I’d argue for “the Cowards”: Al Jubna’a. By the way, similar to the Shabaab, you don’t pronounce the definitive article “al,” so it would just be “the Jubna’a” if transliterated into English.

What is truly scary about the Jubna’a, though, is their make-up: there were American teens among the members of the attackers on the mall in Kenya. The presumed leader of the group is a British female known as “the white widow.” There were also other Britons, Canadians, Somalis, Kenyans, and strangely enough, folks from Finland all involved in this terrorist cell. So, what’s that mean? The world’s new terrorists are, increasingly, radicalized westerners. 

After a Moroccan was jailed for planning an attack on the US Capitol building in early 2012, I wrote in my blog at the time,

I think it’s telling, by the way, that this man had been in America for twelve years, and I can’t help but wonder whether what ‘radicalized’ him was his time in Morocco or if it was his time in America?  I wonder how he was treated Stateside?  On some level, it doesn’t matter, because no matter how harshly he may have been treated, these kinds of actions aren’t justified. And yet, we can’t just assume this is as simple as someone hating America for no reason at all. We can’t assume in a ‘war’ where hate spawns hate, America is somehow spotless and perfect. We’re not responsible for changing them. We’re responsible for changing us. And that’s exactly where we’ve gotten this whole ‘war on terrorism’ so mixed up.

Now that radicalized westerners are the new rage among terrorist cells, I still stand by those words. These cowards, the Jubna’a, didn’t turn to terrorism overnight. This is a situation where the bullied became the bully. The way our society treats the Muslim community is deeply disconcerting and worrisome, and while our actions don’t justify theirs, it’s time for us to take a long, hard look at ourselves, at the way we really “love one another.” It’s time to ask who the cowards really are.

From Fallen Towers to Chemical Weapons, or why non-intervention may be just as inhuman as intervening

I didn’t pay much attention to the fact that today was 9/11, to be honest. In the past, that’s been a big thing for me – something I blogged about fairy regularly. Having served as a Peace Corps volunteer in North Africa, acquainting myself somewhat with Arab culture, I gained a new perspective on the relationship between Islam and terrorism. Or rather the fact that the two should never be equated. 9/11 for me became a day to highlight our humanity and not solely who we are as Americans. But that didn’t mean that I wasn’t interested in remembrance. When I was younger, I even wrote poetry to commemorate 9/11. But today just sort of went by. I didn’t stop and think about the planes or the towers falling. Or about where I was when it happened. I didn’t really stop and think about terrorism or our response to it. I just went about my day.

I remember that’s what we were told to do on 9/12. If we didn’t go about life like it was “business as usual,” then “the terrorists were winning.” They wanted to disrupt our norm, so we shouldn’t let them. But then, ironically, we rushed off to war, and in a way, that began to feel like the terrorists were winning. Our norm was disrupted. We became reactive instead of proactive. Two wars, actually, dwindled on for a decade and a little more.

In the wake of those wars, we’ve become a country both weary and wary of fighting. Our unwillingness to intervene in Syria probably stems from our worries about the failures of Iraq and Libya. It’s perfectly understandable. What’s happening in Syria is awful, and yet, we now realize that our intervention there probably won’t make anything any better.

“I am not my brother’s keeper,” we seem to say. Some of us would go further: “That’s not even my brother.”

I have struggled with what I think about the crisis in Syria, though. Maybe it’s the little Arabic I can pick up and understand as I watch what’s happening. Maybe it’s how similar Syria looks in video to me from my little village in the Middle Atlas mountains. Maybe it’s because, in a way, I do see the Syrians as our “brothers,” even Assad, even the rebels, even the terrorists. If you’re part of a family where one brother goes astray or attacks other members of the family, disowning both members of the family just doesn’t make sense to me. So, as much as I lament the fact that these problems always seem to fall in the lap of the United States when it should be the responsibility of the whole world, I also find myself wondering and wanting to ask, “Are you your brother’s keeper? Are they your brothers?”

I’m not making an argument that we should go bomb Syria. Or put troops on the ground. I certainly think the Russian proposal kicked off by Secretary Kerry inadvertently was probably a stumble in the right direction. Regardless of what we do or don’t do, though, I think the way we approach the question of action may need rethinking. And I’m referring less to what the government does or doesn’t do and just as much to what the average Joe-Schmoe posts in a social media forum saying ill-informed things, like “America shouldn’t be fighting for Al Qaeda.” I think we need to try our best to humanize our “enemies” in every circumstance even if doing so might make us look “weak” to the rest of the world. When I hear that “we need to take care of our own,” I agree with that. America seems to be tumbling toward another financial decline – not that it has gotten better since 2007. And yet, I think “taking care of our own” misunderstands that, in the global marketplace, they are very much us. And from a loving, moral perspective that seeks to find compassion and empathy, their problems are very much ours.

So, I guess I worry about this attitude of non-intervention or how close it sits to good old isolationist ideals of the early 20th century. And lately, I’ve wondered whether history just repeats itself. Is a great war brewing? Is a financial collapse worse than the depression brewing? It all sounds so doom-and-gloom and fodder for conspiracy theorists to almost be laughable. And yet, should America ever begin to go the way of the dodo, I sure hope there’ll be someone out there who is willing to say about us, willing to fight for us – “I am my brother’s keeper, and we’ll figure this out together.”

A Full Picture, or the time a Moroccan tried to bomb the U.S. Capitol but was in no way representative of Morocco

One of the major goals of the Peace Corps, if not also one of the sole reasons for its existence, is simply to educate folks back home about the countries we live and work in during our two-year tenure.  If I had ended up in Peace Corps Eastern Caribbean like I was supposed to, I can’t imagine how I would’ve managed to connect that to something that deeply mattered to me: “Surf was great today and got an awesome tan; sleeping in hammock now.”   I mean, I ‘d have to have a Peace Corps Twitter or something, because I just wouldn’t need a blog.  Actually, that’s not true one bit.  I’m sure I’d find a way to brood on the Eastern Caribbean the same way I do on life here in Morocco.

Yet, somehow, getting the message of my experience back home would be an entirely different animal.  Since when did you meet anyone who was bigoted toward St. Kitts?  Or, on the flip side, when was the last time someone from the Caribbean tried to bomb the U.S. Capitol?   When I opened up the CNN page and saw that a Moroccan was arrested for plotting a dirty bomb attack on America, my heart sank.  Just another story in the continuing narrative that says that Arabs hate the West, a narrative that seems to often imply that the West should somehow return that hate and deal with it in no other way.  To read that the person in question, specifically, was a Moroccan was just all the more troubling to me.

Over Christmas, I went to visit Greta Frensley’s 7th grade Geography classes to talk about my experience in Morocco.  On Valentine’s Day, over eighteen letters showed up in the mail from her students thanking me and telling me how wonderful Morocco sounded.  One girl wrote, “Some day when I am a famous singer I will visit Morocco.”   Another student wrote, “I was so excited I told my grandparents Salaamu Alaykum and Wa-alaykum salaam.  My sister looked at me aquiredly like Im crazy or something.  My grandpa got interested in the words I told him.”  You read something like that, and there’s just no better confirmation that I’m getting a positive message home.  I mean, there were kids going home and speaking Arabic to their parents, and they were excited about that!  That’s a big step forward for me, and it’s by far the most important work I can do.

And then something like this happens.  Something that questions the validity of everything I had to say.  How many parents will take note of that or will ask their kid in Greta’s class, “Morocco?!  Wasn’t that the country you were saying you thought was great at the beginning of January?”  Some of us work really hard to deliver a positive and honest message about our experience.  I hate, I really hate, to think that message could be tainted by what a handful of bad apples can manage to accomplish thanks to outlandish media coverage or even simply to the human mind’s inability to process that “Moroccan” doesn’t equate with Morocco.   [I think it’s telling, by the way, that this man had been in America for twelve years, and I can’t help but wonder whether what “radicalized” him was his time in Morocco or if it was his time in America?  I wonder how he was treated Stateside?   On some level, it doesn’t matter, because no matter how harshly he may have been treated, these kinds of actions aren’t justified.  And yet, we can’t just assume this is as simple as someone hating America for no reason at all.  We can’t assume in a “war” where hate spawns hate, America is somehow spotless and perfect.  We’re not responsible for changing them.  We’re responsible for changing us.  And that’s exactly where we’ve gotten this whole “war on terrorism” so mixed up.]

Today, I bought coffee for my friend  Youssef.  He’s been begging me for months to come out to his town of Belsfrat, about thirty minutes north of me, and I just haven’t yet had the time to go visit him.  But he’s been a good friend.  We chatted for awhile about religion and politics, and at one point even talked about the importance of respecting and loving one another despite our differences.  He was even telling me about a friend of his who is pursuing a Masters degree in interfaith dialogue between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism here in Morocco.  To go from a conversation like that, filled with kindheartedness and honesty, to reading a story that will likely only breed hate is a good way to sum up every blog I’ve ever written praising Islam or the Arab world and also why I find it so incredibly important to make sure that people are getting the full picture.

Because CNN is not going to tell you about me and Youssef chatting as friends over coffee.  CNN won’t tell you about my landlord insisting that I have soup with him every time I see him.  CNN has no interest in stories of love or hospitality from a country where those things are abundant.  That’s my job.  And I’m here to tell you, CNN isn’t giving you the full picture.  And Moroccans do not hate America.  Or as I said on Facebook, “this ‘Moroccan’ man in absolutely no way reflects the views of Morocco toward America.  Yes, there are tensions; yes, it stems from the ongoing, unfortunate saga where hate just butts up against more hate, but the Moroccan people I’ve met are, in general, kind-hearted, loving people far more hospitable than most of the Tennesseans I know.   There are ‘bad apples’ in every culture, so please, God, let’s not let this continue to feed the narrative of hate between our two cultures.”