Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Michael Muhammad Knight: The Innocence of White People

[For the English 102 students working on the "Contentious Identities" book, this post by Knight is a great exploration of identity]

The Innocence of White People: Popping the Marks
By Michael Muhammad Knight

So I’ve just received an email from a reader, asking whether I might have something to say about The Innocence of Muslims. “Is tolerance for satire really a concept that is not compatible with Islam?” he asks. “Is there something about all this indignation that ‘we,’ the West, don’t understand?”

When asked to explain Muslim rage, I have an answer, but I already know the response to my answer. A defender of “Western civilization” will tell me, “Yeah, but we aren’t violent. They’re the ones who kill people over religion.” If numbers matter, however, the mythology of “America” kills many, many more people today than any myth of “Islam.” To sustain a pseudo-secular military cult, we have produced a nation of cheerleaders for blood and murder. We speak of the cult’s heroic work as “sacrifice” and say that it’s all for a divine cause of “freedom.”

That’s what we send out there, at them. This is not simply a world in which one side has a sense of humor and the other does not, or one side is “modern” and “enlightened” while the other side needs to catch up. The modern, enlightened side is burning people alive. Innocence is simply the playground bully calling your mother a slut after already breaking your jaw, and then wondering why you can’t take a joke.

I am not trying to excuse violence. As an artist, I support everyone’s right to make shitty, cheap-looking art, and I do not believe that bloodshed is ever an acceptable way of responding to art. But in the big picture, this isn’t really about violent religion vs. nonviolent art; it’s violence vs. violence.

Last week, the day on which my column runs happened to fall on September 11. My column was not about September 11; I offered no recollections of the day, no meditation on where we’ve gone as a nation since then, no diagnosis, no hope for a better future, and no apology on behalf of “moderate” Muslims. Instead, I wrote about drugs. It seems that every year, the anniversary produces a number of Muslim bloggers and commentators publicly performing our love of peace, assuring everyone that we, too, shared in the suffering of that day. I am thankful for them and respect their efforts, because this is work that needs to be done. But I did not try.

The reason for my silence on 9/11 is that I am not only Muslim. I am also American. I am also white. I am male and heterosexual. However, I am not asked, as an American, to reflect on the yearly anniversary of our atomic bombs falling upon Japan, or our countless military interventions throughout the world. There is no date on the calendar for me, as a white person, to demonstrate that I have properly reflected on slavery and the generations of inequality and naked white sadism between the slave era and our own unjust present; we could potentially have such a day, but often turn it into shallow self-congratulation. As a white person, I am not asked to consider the wanton murders of young black men by white cops or white civilians, or the white terrorism of shootings in gurudwaras, as directly relevant to my identity. Nor do I have a designated anniversary for reflection, as a straight man, on the horrifying statistics of rape or the ways in which heterosexism makes this country unsafe for so many.

As a Muslim, however, people do expect me to show evidence of my soul-searching over a single event, and I am regularly instructed by popular media to imagine 9/11 as a cancer within my own self. Journalists ask me about Islam’s “crisis” as though it’s a private demon with whom I must personally wrestle every day; meanwhile, my whiteness remains untouched and unchallenged by the decade of hate crimes that have followed 9/11. Journalists don’t often ask whether “white tradition” can be reconciled to modern ideals of equality and pluralism, or whether the “straight male community” is capable of living peacefully in America. When it comes to my participation in America, my whiteness and maleness are far more likely than my Islam to wound others, and thus perhaps more urgently in need of “reform” or “enlightenment” or whatever you say that Islam needs. Again, this is only if numbers matter.

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