In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, there’s been a lot of talk about assimilation, in particular about the suspected perpetrators’ religiosity and prayer habits and in general about foreign immigration. I’d thus like to take a moment to clear something up.
Muslimness does not make you a terrorist.
I get it. It’s human nature to crave safety for oneself and one’s surroundings. That’s why we install alarm systems and pay for identity theft prevention and buy insurance – we want protection. To protect, we must predict by fitting people into our preexisting schemas: Burglars will usually burgle at night or when the house is empty, so we turn on our alarms before we go to sleep or leave for the grocery store. Identity thieves prowl on the internet, so we limit our online credit card use and sign up for email alerts in case of a breach. Disasters could strike out of the blue, but at least we can breathe a little easier if we know we’re covered.
But terrorism, by definition, is a psychological strategy. Instead of targeting your possessions, terrorism uses fear to target your peace of mind and ability to predict. Indeed, it is effective because the only true goal – terror – is also the inevitable emotional outcome.
You feel, you lose.
You can ask “Why?” all you want, but the explanation doesn’t exist; indiscriminate violence is not a rational tactic, and terrorists rarely achieve their proclaimed political goals. If terrorism is beyond the reach of rationality, it follows that it can happen anywhere, anytime, to anyone. To our precaution-seeking brains, that is unacceptable; it makes me uneasy just to type it. To cope and compensate, then, we grasp at straws, searching for the nearest possible explanation that will separate them from us and make predictability and protection possible –
It’s the Arabs, we say, and devise all sort of litmus tests to smoke them out. A CNN reporter recently characterized one of the suspects arrested in Watertown (when everything was still hazy and no one really knew who anyone was) as being “Middle Eastern in complexion.”
Would you like some non sequitur with that burger? Don’t worry, it’s okay if you have no idea what qualifies as a Middle Eastern complexion – you can ask the group of Hispanic guys who beat up a Bengali gentleman in the Bronx because they thought he was Arab.
It’s the Muslims, we proclaim, and proceed to verbally accost hijab-clad female doctors out on a stroll with their kids and analyze the fact that the suspects in Boston bombings “prayed five times a day.”
FYI, we all pray five times a day. Or at least we try, because there is no such thing as being “very” or “not very” Muslim – you’re either Muslim, or you’re not. You either commit to prayer and to peace, or you don’t; there is no in-between. The fact is that the so-called Moderate Muslims are actually The Muslims, and I hereby move to reclassify Extremist/Radical/Violent Muslims with Anders Breivik, McVeigh, and the other far more numerous non-Muslim murderers, ideological extremists, and terrorists as The Putrid Scum of the Earth.
Do I hear a second?
It’s them, then, whoever they are, and in order to stop terrorism, they must assimilate. Patriotic, blue-blooded Americans come in only one shape and size, and those who wish to be seen as such must ditch their hummus and weird prayer hats and conform. To what extent, you ask? Until that arbitrary and unclear point in time and space when they stop being “weird,” of course.
And that is where I draw the line.
Because, see, my Muslimness does not make me a terrorist, and neither does my supposed difficulty assimilating. Unless you enter this world on Day 1 as a middle-aged Protestant Caucasian male or Ann Coulter, who decided to offer up a solution for the whole grievous situation by proclaiming that a woman “ought to be jailed for wearing the hijab,” you are guaranteed to have trouble assimilating at some point in your life. Ever been to high school? It’s a roiling cauldron of pubescent, flustered boys and girls of all shapes and colors who haven’t the foggiest idea how to assimilate. It’s even harder for people of religious or racial minorities and for immigrants – remember reading In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson in elementary school? And it’s not just immigrants to the US; ask anyone who’s immigrated abroad whether it’s easy to assimilate into British culture (I tried once, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it meant to be “queuing around”), or Asian culture (four words: Take. Your. Shoes. Off.) or Latin American culture (admittedly the food makes this easier).
Assimilation is no picnic. But even so, the Tsarnaev brothers were remarkably good at it – Tamerlan married an American convert named Katherine, and Dzhokhar was a regular at dorm parties. (I was born here and I’ve never even seen the inside of a dorm because I hold the suspicion that it’s a place of drunken revelry and Facebook poking come to life where propriety goes to die; and so I refuse to go, for fear of having my drink spiked and inspiring a tragic episode of Law & Order.)
In fact, the two were assimilated to the point of actually neglecting their religion. Islam forbids premarital relationships and dating, but Tamerlan’s wife was his girlfriend first. Partner violence is condemned in Islam, but he was arrested for battery against a different girlfriend in 2009. Muslims don’t drink alcohol or use intoxicating drugs like marijuana – Tamerlan and Dzhokhar did, respectively. In fact, Tamerlan was infamous for rudely interrupting mainstream imams at his mosque even after he gave up drinking on the grounds of becoming more religious. He was also a boxer; I’d like to see you try to convince any set of Muslim parents that boxing is an actual career – you will lose and exit the conversation defeated and wondering why you wasted your life becoming anything other than a doctor or engineer.
A lack of compassion and active disregard for the rights of others made the Tsarnaev brothers terrorists – not their Muslimness, because Muslimness does not make you a terrorist. Please stop saying that it does, because once upon a time, there was a man who grossly mischaracterized a group of people and in so doing single-handedly precipitated what is perhaps the ugliest stain to date on the fabric of civilization, also known as the Holocaust. Accusation holds immense power, and blame misplaced is the gunpowder of crimes against humanity; heard of the ongoing mass genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma?
I will not change my Muslimness. If you would have me prove myself patriotic by wearing shorts and drinking alcohol and dating guys and tweaking the color of my skin and frying bacon every Saturday morning – I’m sorry. I can’t do that, because I believe in something different. As my sister said quite aptly, that’s not assimilation – it’s “ethnic cleansing but without the whole violence thing.” But I’ll tell you what I will do, and not because I fear retaliation:
I will pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands. I will condemn with every fiber of my being the taking of innocent lives by anyone – whether they call themselves Muslims or followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster – as a crime against humanity and a personal offense against me as a human being. I will love my neighbor and treat others as I would like to be treated. I will make friends with people different from myself (kind of a no-brainer, because I’ve taken inventory, and my circle contains a disproportionate number of atheist and agnostic friends and people who tell me to calm down). I will even show you my birth certificate from a Southern US town in the middle of nowhere, my collection of all-American pinch pots and macaroni art from elementary school, and my fabulous apple pie recipe (the key is Granny Smith apples; I don’t believe in cooking secrets). I will pray next to you, with you, for you to the God I believe in – the God of Abraham, the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, the Gracious and Merciful, the End and the Beginning of our existence Who created us with love in His image and will call us back to Him come Judgment Day. I will accept your peaceful beliefs, and learn about them when I’m not drowning in textbooks. I will use my talents and skills for good, and I will try to leave this world a better place than I found it. I will wholeheartedly embrace my right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of pepper spray. I will bear witness against injustice, discrimination, and the culturally ubiquitous glass ceiling. I will, finally, refuse to lose hope in humanity’s capacity for love and solidarity. And I hope you’ll join me, because after all, there’s nothing more un-American than eating an apple pie alone.