The Last Respectable Racism

By Jesse S. Wheeler

In the West, Arabs and Middle Easterners have long been the target of the “Last Respectable Racism.” Comments made in reference to any other ethnic or religious group, comments rightly resulting in widespread scorn and condemnation, will go virtually unnoticed when made in reference to Arabs, Muslims, or others of Middle-Eastern or North-African backgrounds.

This is a problem.

Unfortunately, racism still exists in every society. Yet, the extent to which such views are given a public voice, go unnoticed, or are accepted within popular discourse differs from place to place. And in the West, anti-Arab or anti-Muslim sentiment (when one has the ears to hear it) can be quite appalling. But it often goes virtually unnoticed, without many realizing how hurtful their words or proclamations can be. Personally, my heart breaks to the point of tears when I look at my remarkable 3-year-old Palestinian-American son knowing that certain people, some in positions of influence, harbor enmity toward him simply because of his “objectionable” ethnic background.

Yet, before we can find deliverance from the chains of mistrust, fear and hatred within which we are too often held captive, we must first name and frame racism where we find it, repenting when we find it within ourselves.

Racism is a problem.

First, the not-so-subtle interpersonal racism of everyday life.

First, there exists the racism of daily life. From the casual gathering whereat an inebriated acquaintance declares before my Palestinian wife that the U.S. should “bomb the whole thing and make a parking lot of the Middle East,” to the mass email chain I once received not-so-subtly implying that all Middle Eastern shopkeepers in America are somehow harboring the secret desire to watch America burn, as if Arab Americans constitute some nefarious 5th column in need of police observation, if not outright internment. Furthermore, there are the border police and airline security agents who have trouble handling the presence of “too many stamps on a passport,” let alone brown skin. I understand that fear is a very real emotion, but when fear translates to behavior (or policy) it can get very ugly very fast.

This is not just ignorance.

This is racism.

And it is a problem.

Second, the eschatological racism of the “end-times crusader.”

This is the racism that sees Arab Muslims as the foot soldiers of evil committed to the destruction of “God’s Chosen,” however defined. Not mentioning the historical and theological problems inherent within such ideological systems (systems I may have at one time held myself), this type of racism literally demonizes our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters.

And to do so apparently makes it easier to justify the eradication of entire cities, as the “apocalyptic drama of last days” unfolds. In fact, prominent US politicians (as opposed to the typical apocalyptic soothsayers) have recently made headlines by declaring,

“Christians should be prepared for war.”

And,

“Rather than seeing [war in the Middle East] as a negative, we need to rejoice. Come Lord Jesus. His day is at hand.”

In-fact, recent reports indicate that as many as 1-in-3 Americans believe that events in Syria are indicative of the end times. Yes, 1-in-3! And at one time in my life, I might have believed this myself.

Yet, not only is this theologically flawed and extremely dangerous.

This is, in-fact, racism.

And it is a problem.

Finally, the subtle (and not-so-subtle) racism of the “highly educated expert.”

The not-so-subtle racism of neo-atheist lightning rods like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens has been well documented. Yet, it is the subtle orientalism of professional analysts and “expert” editorialists that has been especially wearisome lately. For example, I recently came across this passage with regard to events in Syria from a well-respected commentator on Middle Eastern affairs in a rather prominent and internationally renowned publication:

“Please do spare me the lecture that [our] credibility is at stake here. Really? Sunnis and Shiites have been fighting since the 7th century over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad’s spiritual and political leadership, and our credibility is on the line? Really? Their civilization has missed every big modern global trend — the religious Reformation, democratization, feminism and entrepreneurial and innovative capitalism — and our credibility is on the line? I don’t think so.”

To find such a statement within such a widely read publication isn’t, but should be alarming. I find it personally difficult to see how this can be anything but racism masquerading as enlightened, critical analysis. Newsreaders deserve better than the non-self-critical acceptance of tired modernization theories of development, coupled with an ahistorical civilizational elitism and utter lack of analytical nuance with regard to the socio-political realities of the contemporary Middle East.

This is not the space to explore history in depth, but in response:

  • It is impossible to speak of the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi “Wahhabism,” or even “radical” Islam without speaking of religious reform movements. (By the way, one cannot speak of the Protestant Reformation without reference to the 30 Years War.)
  • Multiple Middle Eastern nations (Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iran, among others) have each had significant and at times quite powerful movements towards democracy. And, such movements have been disrupted by external as often as they have been by internal forces.
  • Middle Eastern feminist movements were at the forefront of the nationalist, anti-colonialist movements of the early to mid-20th century. (I found this article from Lebanon’s The Daily Star particularly interesting: When Feminism Wears a Hijab.)
  • Finally, one cannot understand modern history without exploring the international impact of the emerging global market system and the integration within that system of the modern Middle East.

To somehow blame the troubles currently plaguing the Arab world on some “inherent civilizational deficiency” without reference to globalization, colonialism, international markets, nationalism, Zionism, Cold-War politics, the “war on terror,” and myriad other political-economic factors relevant to the region is not just misinformed, it encourages dangerous, short-sighted policy.

And, it’s nothing short of racist.

And it is a problem.

What then is the solution?

In my view, it’s honestly as simple as this:

“Whatever you want people to do to you, do that to them.”  (Luke 6:31 KNT)

6 thoughts on “The Last Respectable Racism

  1. I, too, am tired of the ignorance inherent in the idea that the US should somehow reshape the Middle East to our liking. “We should nuke the whole place and make a parking lot out of it” is something I’ve heard far too often. What arrogance! It is God himself who will cast our broken earth aside and create a new heaven and a new earth. Until then we need to do the best we can to live together in peace, and that starts by recognizing the right of others to be different, and to disagree with us.

    • Thanks for the comment Chris! Amen! (I might prefer redeemed, restored, renewed and recreated, a la NT Wright, rather than cast aside, ha, but otherwise AMEN!)🙂

  2. While I agree with you as far as your analysis goes, it doesn’t go far enough. Until the Arab and Muslim world deals with the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric that soaks its mainstream political discourse, those who hate Muslims and Islam will always exist and have plenty of ammunition.

    Those of us at the margins of our communities, kneeling together at the foot of the Cross, must be willing to engage with those who demonize and delegitimize one another, preaching that perfect love casts out both fear and hate.

    We must decry all hate speech and we must make room for the other in our worlds. Only then will freedom and dignity be upheld for all.

    • Dear sir,

      With all due respect, your call for the “Arab and Muslim world” to “deal with the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric” is not justified for the following reasons:
      1- The Arab people are sick of the West telling them to show love for Israel. Any attempt at talks with Israel has only led to more land being taken by Israel. The only instances where the West has backed down have been when they suffered a military defeat.

      2- Until the west decides to deal with justice with the people of the East then I suggest they lower their expectations. The West is the stronger guy in the “playground” and they have the have the power and the systems in place to stop racism and oppression. Or at least to work towards that. Until that starts to happens the Arab leaders cannot ask from their people to treat the West “nicely.”

      However, I do agree with you that the church has the responsibility to spread love rather than hate. It is our role to be show the love of Christ in the midst of racism.

    • Hi Dr. Rood,

      I am honored that you have read my post. Thank you for your comment. I absolutely agree that “we must be willing to engage with those who demonize and delegitimize one another, and decry all hate speech to make room for the other in our worlds.” All hate speech and all racist attitudes, from anyone towards anyone, must be challenged and is incompatible with Christ-centered love.

      Nevertheless, I think we can both agree that the underlying cause for much tension, anger, and ultimately hate is Israel’s longstanding occupation of Palestinian territories and ongoing settlement enterprise that is dispossessing people of their land, homes, and livelihood. If Israel continues to destroy and/or occupy the houses of Arabs in East Jerusalem, the Arab and Muslim will remain enraged and feel justified in doing so. The same thing applies for Israel’s “Prawer Plan” that will dispossess more than 100,000 Palestinian Bedouins from the Negev and confiscate their land. In essence, until Israel and its Western allies adequately address the daily injustices committed against the Palestinians by Israel, “those who hate Israel and the Jewish people will always exist and will have plenty of ammunition.” Yet, most Arabs don’t at all hate Israel or the Jewish people. But they are angry. They are angry at the very real injustice they daily endure.

      As followers of Christ, our mandate is love. We have an obligation to come together at the foot of the cross as one and work towards reconciliation and healing between all persons, everywhere. Yet in seeking to do so, we must never overlook the injustice which lies at the heart of much of the anger being expressed. Without justice, reconciliation is virtually impossible.

      Blessings,
      Jesse

      • Hi Jesse
        I’m very like minded ,I’m so grateful that I have lived in the middle east and experienced the Arabs first hand as a young single mother, it gave me me an insight into the Arab way of thinking, and it is different to ours. they are such a wonderful deep people, who have suffered for generations I have learnt so much from them, especially about being a mother,. I too think the palastanian issue is the problem, and not forgetting how the British and French broke their promises after the Turks were defeated.
        Good on you Jesse
        Leonie

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