Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Moral in Imus - Rutgers Story

April 17, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida

Arabs and Muslims in America can draw some lessons from the Imus affair.

Last week Imus risked starting a wild fire of black rage against white America. His repulsive three-word phrase was a grave insult to honorable, young black women. The majority black American women in the Rutgers University team that Imus targeted represent all American black women.

The Imus curse generated a tsunami reaction from the black community and the reaction resonated in the wider society. Afro-Americans have been for several centuries the most vulnerable community in the US. Today, Caucasian Americans hold a large reservoir of guilt about white racism in America. What is this dormant guilt about?

The guilt is about, among many other issues, a punitive system of law and order that incarcerates too many young black men leaving too many black women to support their families in neighborhoods that lack adequate social services and cultivate multi- generational poverty.

Moreover, as American troops continue their mission in Iraq black men (and other minorities) are recruited in disproportionate numbers for the battles abroad. This war has left behind too many black women as single parents attending to children in difficult social circumstances. And here comes Don Imus, who with his selective audience represents affluent white American society, labeling a group of black feminine role models with insulting terms.

With his callous and brutal cuss words Imus rubbed salt into a deep ethnic social wound.
Now, with the war in Iraq pulling down the status and morale of America and sapping its resources, the country needs all its communities united. This is no time for opening a new chapter of domestic rage in civil rights.

American business leaders quickly saw the ramifications of the wild fire that Imus almost casually started and they contained it by firing the perpetrator. In contrast to the blacks in this country, the compassion index for Muslim American victims of slander is low. They are regularly exposed to shame or hate speech. For no good reason, daily stories in radio shows, TV programs, films and print media present the image of Arabs as being a backwards, angry people. The pain inflicted on Muslim American community by show hosts like Don Imus, Bill O’ Reilly, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter deserves more attention from wider society. If the compassion index for Arabs had been a notch higher, Glenn Beck, the leading scorer of Muslim slander, would not be on CNN tonight.

Muslims are not well protected from public prejudice in America not because they lack strong personalities such as Al Sharpton and Jessie Jackson or because they lack strong legal defense agencies like NAACP. American Muslims are not well “protected” because they are not perceived as vulnerable.

Europeans may be more compassionate than Americans toward their Muslim minorities because Muslims there are seen as the down trodden. The reaction to the incident of the Danish cartoon of the Prophet is similar in dynamics to the Imus story. Across Europe, the satirical image provoked outrage and controversy on issues of censorship and free speech.

Muslims of America, unlike Muslims of Europe, are on the whole educated and employed in comfortable positions. They do not project the image of vulnerability.
But Muslims should realize that public indignation and censorship are not aroused merely by the substance of hate speech. The media tend to cater to the local taste of its public. Since Muslims are not too “popular" in America, the media are simply reflecting the Muslim image and caricaturing it to satisfy readers or listeners.

Muslims should not expect a dramatic change in their exposure to American media slander until American attitudes about Muslims change for the better. The media mirror personal attitudes of people they entertain and inform.

The Muslim population is increasing in the US, in Europe and around the globe. The Americans’ psychology of prejudice toward their Muslim minority is underlined by fear for the future of the white majority. Many Americans are simply afraid of Muslims, here and abroad, but they do not admit this fear and they hesitate to work creatively to bring about better cultural, religious and political understanding. Similarly, while Muslims admit that the political systems in their countries of origin are regressive, they are reluctant to organize for creative political reforms.

The essential conflict between the West and the Muslim world is attitudinal. The Muslims expect the West to celebrate cultural variants rather than to fear diversity. The West expects the Muslim world to adapt to social change rather than to fear modernity. Visionary leaders from all sides are badly needed to inspire transformation.

There is a moral in the Imus story for all ethnic groups of American society. The first lesson is that Muslim advocacy should focus on enhancing the image of its people in American society. Work with national networks of American media is important. Efforts to introduce more Arab and Muslim culture into America are crucial in reduction of prejudice. The recent emergence of Middle Eastern stand-up comedians in mainstream media, such as Comedy Central, is a hopeful sign. The new Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, is a significant contribution of inter communal relations. Exchange of music, art, literature and humor can help put a human face on Muslims and Arabs. America’s Diaspora Muslims should reflect more authentically on their level of integration into the larger society and take better advantage of their relative freedom to address autocracy in the “old country”.

Arabs and other Muslims should look for new modes of bridge-making between America and the Muslim world. American Muslims are the future ambassadors of America and the future facilitators of international peace.


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