On the public radio show “This American Life” last week, there was a segment in which an American Muslim family discussed how the last 10 years have affected them. A year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks happened, a girl in the family started being harassed at her suburban school. The mother first refused to believe the anti-Muslim sentiment she was seeing could be typical of Americans, but after years of experiencing it, she’s come to accept that America is just bigoted against Muslims.
I have a different view. I’d say it’s misguided to say that intolerance is an American thing or a Christian thing or an Arab thing or a Muslim thing. Instead, it’s really a human thing.
I’ve seen plenty of misguided bigotry against Muslims over the past 10 years, although we’ve been seeing it for decades (going back to the early days of the Arab-Israeli conflict). I’ve heard casual bigotry against Muslims from people I’ve known, but I’ve never seen anything that would rise to the level of violence or even direct confrontation. It would be wrong to deny it’s there, but’s it’s also wrong to pretend that it’s anything except an ugly part of human nature.
People want to be part of a group — and groups have a strong tendency to compete. When a majority group competes with a minority group, it can be ugly. People can believe lies about each other, and people can be willing to do terrible things to other people — just because they’re part of the “other” group.
It’s always been this way. It will always be this way. It’s the ugly, brutal tribal nature of human beings.
I’m sympathetic to people who have experienced bigotry on the part of Americans. In the radio segment I mentioned earlier, I was angry at the teacher and students of the Muslim girl, because those people represented the rest of us poorly. But I’m just as sympathetic to people who experience bigotry everywhere. And there’s plenty of anti-American bigotry around the world. You don’t have to look very hard to find some extremist Muslim cleric preaching, “Death to America.”
I’m not suggesting that we give a pass to the bigots among us. We need to call them out and make it socially unacceptable to treat people poorly just because of their ethnicity or religion. But I’m also not willing to put all the blame on bigoted Americans when there are bigoted Arabs and bigoted Muslims in the Middle East who hate us. It goes both ways.
We should oppose bigotry wherever we find it, but we don’t need to condemn entire groups of people because of the bigotry we find. We need to judge individual people by their actions, not get caught up in the tribalism that makes it feel good to condemn entire groups of people.