Sunday, September 23, 2012

Ishmael and Isaac: Brothers from a Different Mother

Something that has been weighing heavy on my mind lately is the Western view of the Muslim world. Being a member of a religion that has been historically persecuted, stereotyped by misinformation and misrepresented by extremist factions, I feel somewhat qualified to feel empathy for the ideological assault on Islamic faith and culture.

From a historical standpoint, the LDS church has been the victim of religious persecution, forced mass exodus and attempted mass extermination. We know what it's like to have others judge us inaccurately based on faulty stereotypes and extremist offshoots. We know the pain that accompanies negative assumptions that give our religion a bad name. We can understand what it means to be ridiculed for wearing religious tokens and to be scorned for our sacred rituals. We understand what it feels like to have our blood boil when we turn on the news and listen as beliefs we hold dear are misinterpreted and torn apart by exaggerated claims or outright fallacies. We resonate with feelings of inadequacy as one assumes we are omni-gifted in crafting talents, only to discover that most of our Pinteresting projects were actually created by our husbands (yes, that was a confession. Rivs is quite a creative whiz).

Likewise, the misrepresentation of the Muslim faith is a result of religious and cultural misunderstandings, exacerbated by minority extremist factions.

One of the main failures of mainstream media news coverage is its contextual omissions in delivering information. For example, when we learn of a violent attack on CNN or FOX news, we hear it explained as though it were a spontaneous and isolated event, occurring in some kind of political vacuum. We are rarely given an in-depth analysis or historical context as to why a certain group would commit such a heinous act. This is often due to a lack of programming time (AKA lack of the audience's attention span), or corporate sponsors who don't want a particular political view expressed on their network. Am I sounding like a Michael Mooreian conspiracy theorist? Well, maybe. But rest assured that I attended an accredited graduate school to study Media, Peace and Conflict and I'm not just blowing smoke up your bums. That being said, without proper contextual background or historical explanations, it's understandable how an entire religion can be misrepresented and misinterpreted, Mormons and Muslims alike.

Without boring you to death with a history lesson, let me briefly draw some parallels between Mormon and Muslim persecution.

Mass Exodus
Ingrained deep within collective Mormon consciousness is the memory of LDS pioneers trekking across the plains to evade religious and cultural persecution. In the mid-1800s, being active in the LDS faith was enough to legally warrant death and practicing Mormonism itself was an illegal act. A state sanctioned "Extermination Order" was enacted by a Missouri governor in the 1830s, making it legal to kill anyone found to be a member of the Mormon church. As a result, thousands of Mormons fled the Midwest United States on foot, leaving behind their homes and all earthly belongings that couldn't be fit on a wooden handcart. They became refugees in their own country until they reached Utah, which at the time, belonged to Mexico. There they were able to practice their religion freely, without threat of expulsion or death.

Similarly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become one of the longest standing examples of cultural and religious persecution, causing a mass exodus of (mainly Muslim) Palestinians from their homeland. After World War II and the subsequent dissolution of the British Empire, Palestine (which was previously a part of the British Mandate), was handed over to the United Nations. At this time, Arab Palestinians had been living on Palestinian land for many generations, and there was only a very small Jewish population within Palestine. The Jewish Holocaust had caused a major displacement of Jews throughout Eastern Europe, and for this reason it was decided that the Jews needed a unified homeland. Although the notion of a geopolitical Israel had not existed for centuries, it was agreed that the new Jewish homeland would be placed in Palestine. As a result, a forced mass exodus of Palestinians ensued as they were driven from their homes, often at gunpoint, to make way for the new Jewish homeland. With nowhere to go, no unclaimed 'Utah' to turn-to for cultural and religious refuge, Palestinians were forced into refugee camps in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. They had no organized military to defend against the extremely powerful Israeli army, and Palestinians were unable to hold their ground. They now live in permanent refugee camps, with little infrastructure or resources to build their economy. They continue to be expelled from their homes to make way for new Israeli settlements as Israel continues to expand despite the tenets of international law. Perhaps Mormons would have faced a similar fate had we not been blessed with the political refuge of Utah.

Misrepresentation by Extremist Factions:
I don't know about you, but I'm often asked if I practice polygamy. My initial reaction is to think: "Really? Do people still believe that about Mormons?" Then I have to take a step back and assess what media are saying about my religion. There are excommunicated factions of the Mormon church that practice polygamy, but they are in no way condoned-by or affiliated-with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Although this sect is not related to the official LDS church, those who practice polygamy still refer to themselves as "Mormon". Because they share the same name as mainstream Mormons, they are labeled as 'Mormon Extremists' or 'fundamentalists'. This can give the illusion that all devout Mormons believe-in, or practice polygamy. It then becomes easy to understand how people outside of Mormon culture might come to the conclusion that some/many/most Mormons are polygamous, based off of what they might hear via media outlets.

Nowadays, when we think of the word "terrorist", the stereotype of a bearded Muslim man might come into our minds. I wonder how often we worry whether the bearded man sitting across from us on the plane is a terrorist, just as I wonder how many people who, upon discovering my religious identity, silently worry if I'm one of many wives. There is only a minute faction of 'Mormon Extremists' who practice polygamy, and likewise only a tiny group of Muslims who are Islamic Fundamentalists. Unfortunately, 'extreme' tends to be loud and news worthy ("If it bleeds it leads" is a journalistic mantra), and so all we hear about the Islamic faith is that which is represented by the violent fundamentalists. Being assumed to be polygamous is hard enough, so I can only imagine the pain many Muslims endure when they are assumed to condone the murder of innocent civilians for religious or political purposes.

Another more controversial parallel that can be drawn between Islamic and Mormon extremism is the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the consequent stereotyping that ensued. In the 1850s, a rogue militia composed of active members of the Mormon church attacked and murdered a large group of emigrants who were fleeing the then war-torn Southwest. The militia allegedly attacked out of revenge based on suspicions that some members of the emigrant group had participated in an earlier attack against Mormons in the Eastern United States. Those murdered were unarmed, and many were women and children. These attacks were not ordered or sanctioned by any LDS church authority, but instead were carried out by men who happened to be members of the Mormon church. Although this horrific incident in no way defines or reflects LDS belief, Mormons are sometimes still stereotyped as violent militants based off of this incident, which can readily be defined as an act of terrorism. Likewise, the acts of terrorism committed by some Islamic factions do not accurately represent the Muslim religion, however we still often equate terrorism with Islam.

I think what is important to remember is that people have the agency to choose how they want to interpret and represent their faith, whether good or bad. It just seems as though the good representations are often glazed over while the bad make headlines, and therefore define the entire group.

As the media onslaught continues against the Muslim world, I try to remind myself just how hurtful stigmas, stereotypes and misinterpretations of the things I hold sacred can be.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Libya, Obama and the Path to Peace

In my field of Conflict Analysis studies, we refer to two parties engaged in intractable conflict as being in collusion with one another. As parties enter a cycle of conflict, they begin to dehumanize the other and employ conflict tactics in order to provoke or display dominance. These tactics are justified-within each party's mantra-by rhetoric of self-preservation against an evil,now-inhuman enemy. In protracted conflict, tactics often include violence and can quickly escalate into extreme displays of offense and defense, also known as war. This type of conflict is seen as zero-sum, meaning there can only be one winner, compromise is seen as defeat and collaboration is deemed 'negotiating with terrorists'. Both parties believe they are right/good, the other is wrong/evil and, most often, that God is on their side. With this conflict mentality, it's no wonder that the world is entrenched in inexorable war. Believing that our party is infallible, we become unable to look inward and ask ourselves: "In what ways have we contributed to this conflict? Are we, in some small or big way, at fault?" Being unable to take a step back and look at the bigger picture with introspection and contrition, we hinder our ability to take steps toward what we profess to want most; peace and freedom.

Admitting fault, whether large or small, does not excuse the other party's acts of aggression, nor does it denote weakness in our own party. Instead, it allows us to look at conflict in a more objective manner, without the paralyzing and blinding defense of dehumanization. When we render an entire group of people into a stereotype of evil, we relinquish the capacity to see conflict clearly. Understanding how we may have insulted, provoked or offended another doesn't justify their acts, but it might help to explain them. In beginning to grasp the reasoning behind another party's motives, we start to once again reveal their humanity by recognizing (not validating) their reasons for hostility. This doesn't mean we have to agree with their reasoning, but often times understanding and empathy is what it takes to mend or create a positive relationship. This is the only way to permanently break a cycle of conflict. This is the only way to sustainable peace.

Relating this rant to current affairs, the inexcusable attack on the US Embassy in Libya by Islamic extremists is a prime example of collusion. It's no secret that the USA and Islamist factions have been engaged in a cycle of conflict for the past two decades, although due to dehumanization and stereotyping, the scope of conflict has-from a Western perspective-proliferated to include most of the Arab world. As a very firm disclaimer, I have to state that I in no way condone, excuse or justify any acts of terror committed by any faction. What happened on 9/11, the aftermath and most recently, the attack on the US Embassy in Libya are inexcusable acts of aggression and the result of dehumanization.

That being said, a response to the attacks which would further a rhetoric of hatred and stereotype, which would place blame with no accountability, which would communicate ignorance without introspection would only escalate conflict. It would foster more resentment for America, thus creating more hatred, more ignorance and ultimately, more violence. This is not the type of foreign affairs campaign America needs.

On the other hand, issuing a statement of empathy and, to some degree, culpability is a monumental step in the direction of peace. Although I am not a die-hard Obama fan, I have to say that I was deeply impressed with his response to the attacks in Libya. In a moment where everyone expected the President to continue a narrative of hatred, he took the high (albeit unpopular) road in an attempt to break down the cycle of conflict.

The general response to Obama's statement of empathy to the Islamic world took me aback. How can we be so entrenched in our narrative of 'right and wrong' that we view an act of peace as weakness? I can understand being deeply upset over the loss of American lives. There truly is no excuse for murdering innocents. But to persecute someone for taking the (dare I say Christlike) route of peace and humility makes little sense to me.

We say we want to protect our freedom. Well, what better way to do so than to break the cycle of collusion that has fostered outside hatred for America? By lessening our dehumanized resentment for our aggressors, we will invite our aggressors to lessen their resentment towards us. What better start than to offer public declarations of empathy and understanding? People may say that this is the "soft", idealist approach to foreign affairs; that Islamic extremists won't respond to these gestures. Well, I ask you, how do we know? Have we ever attempted, over a sustainable amount of time, to offer our enemies empathy and understanding? Over the past few decades we have fought fire with fire. And guess what? We're all getting burned. Don't you think it's time to start looking for a new way?

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Politics of Sunday School

I've been away. In the past month, our family has visited Hawaii, Portland, Hermiston, Los Angeles and finally, Flagstaff. Oh, and I guess if you include our impromptu decision to take a weekend road-trip to watch the 70.3 Ironman World Championship, we've been to Las Vegas too. Compounded with the stress and excitement of furnishing a new house and slowly (very slowly) unpacking boxes and suitcases, this is my very credible excuse for being so bad at weekly blog posts. Are my fantasies too grandiose in believing that you've actually missed my ramblings? What is for sure is that I've missed writing them. This blog has been truly therapeutic in helping me sort through thoughts, feelings, beliefs and doubts as I wade through the occasional paradoxes of being a liberal-leaning (but politically independent) Mormon.

A topic that has been pervasive in media news coverage over the past few weeks is Mitt Romney's presidential nomination by the Republican party. As I've said before, I consider myself to be politically independent. I tend to lean left on certain issues, just as I lean right on others. I try not to support a political leader solely based on the identifying letter prefixed to his name ((R) or (D)). I'm inclined to be skeptical of politicians in general as their policies must cater to lobbyists, donors and-most importantly-the left OR the right. If you've followed Romney's campaign journey, you can easily see how he's transformed from a bipartisan moderate to a somewhat staunch conservative in order to appease the GOP. This isn't unique to Romney, of course. All presidential candidates shift their policies to secure a party nomination and win over half of America's population, which is why I think politics are a load of (excuse my French-or should I say Freedom?) le crap. Because of this unfortunate but realistic fact, in my eyes both Romney and Obama are excused from being political shape-shifters just as both the Republican and Democratic parties are excused from forcing their candidates to conform to partisan policies in order to receive their endorsement. It's just the name of the game. What my eyes do not excuse is religious endorsement of political candidates, especially when it happens covertly in Church meetings.

Since the beginning of Mitt Romney's race to secure the presidential nomination, it has become almost implicit that if you are Mormon, you should support Romney. There is a small but outspoken counter cultural group that call themselves "Mormons for Obama", who pledge commitment to the current Democratic president despite their religious beliefs. I think this is quite nice, as it shows diversity within our mostly homogeneous religion. Still, the fact that a group like this has to exist denotes that Mormons are generally expected to support Romney, otherwise there would be no need for a 'rebel' faction. Now I ask: is the Mormon allegiance to Romney based on his politics or his religion? If members of the LDS church support Romney because they agree with his politics, well that's just peachy. But what I'm becoming increasingly aware-of is the religious rhetoric that surrounds LDS political support for Romney: "He was a Bishop!" "He was a Stake President" "He's Mormon!" While these are admirable accomplishments, they should not increase someone's political credibility. Remember that little thing called the Constitution that requites a separation of Church and State?

I don't want to make is sound like I think it's wrong for people to admire Romney because of his religious beliefs, but when religiosity is the primary factor for political endorsement, Romney's political stances become obscured by the fact that he is Mormon. For instance, when Romney was governor of Massachusetts he supported a healthcare reform law that, at the time, was viewed as a bipartisan-if not leftist-move. Many members of the LDS church do not support health care reform, but nonetheless support Romney because-hey! He's Mormon!

The point at which the religious endorsement of Mitt becomes problematic, in my opinion, is when members of the LDS church use Sunday church meetings to endorse him. In the past months, I've witnessed Mitt Romney being discussed as the only viable presidential candidate. I've heard Sunday school teachers praise him, and listened to comments suggesting that we, as Mormons, should rally around Mitt because he is Mormon and thus his political views must obviously reflected our own. Of course it's fine and dandy to express opinions-even political ones-in church. But when opinions are expressed as absolute truth, things get a little hairy. What if there are people in that Sunday school class who do not support Romney? What if they begin to silently feel, as I once did, that there must be something wrong with their faith because they don't endorse the Republican party? What if they are too embarrassed, as I once was, to express their dissenting opinion for fear of ostracism?

There is little else that makes my blood boil quite like the use of Sunday school as a venue to present political opinion as doctrinal belief. What ends up happening is schism within our religion, as those who support Romney feel ratified in their beliefs and contrarily, those who support Obama begin to feel like outsiders in their own religion.

So, let us support Romney. Let us support Obama. Let us support John Stewart, or Stephen Colbert, or Tom Hardy or who ever else we think would best lead this nation as a political figure. But please, PLEASE let us be conscious in separating religion from politics.