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14 Jan 2015

Know Your Neighbors: Yo Soy Coachella!

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The horrific massacre in Paris at Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine that generated much of its reputation via provocative cartoons, has united much of the world in standing against terrorism, saying, “Je suis Charlie!” (“I am Charlie!”)

Our outrage at terrorist tactics by radicals, of course, is justified. However, using a broad brush to stereotype all members of a faith is unjustified and, in my view, un-American.

We pride ourselves on being a “melting pot”—more specifically, a Cobb salad, where everything retains its own status, but is thrown together to make something bigger and better. Yet immediately after the events in Paris, we heard exhortations against all followers of Islam, claiming they are inherently murderous and dangerous. Remember, we’re talking about more than 1.5 billion people in countries all over the world, including 2.6 million in the U.S. It’s the fastest-growing religion in America.

Characterizations of Muslim immigrants are often overblown generalizations. The rhetoric I hear from many callers on my local radio show includes assertions that Muslims only believe in Sharia law, refuse to assimilate, hate the U.S. and everything it stands for, yada, yada, yada. There are even insinuations about Muslims having taken over the White House.

What about here in the Coachella Valley? In November, there was a report of shots fired at the Islamic Society of the Coachella Valley mosque, which has been around for about 16 years in Coachella. Four people were praying inside at the time. Local police classified it as a “possible” hate crime.

Where were we as a community after that happened? Mostly unaware. Ask your friends and neighbors if they even know a mosque exists here in the desert. I’ll bet few, if any, know there is one.

While we lament that disaffected youth around the world seem susceptible to appeals by terrorist groups, we somehow see that as distinct from our own vulnerable young people being influenced to join gangs. We need to wake up. Terrorism is the extreme politicized and armed version of bullying. The guns are just a lot bigger.

According to the National Counterterrorism Center in 2011, “In cases where the religious affiliation of terrorism casualties could be determined, Muslims suffered between 82 and 97 percent of terrorism-related fatalities.” The threat of violence, including death to oneself or one’s family, does tend to keep people quiet in places where that threat comes from their own neighbors.

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, almost 3 million people flooded into the streets of France, with many others marching around the world, to say we stand together in refusing to keep quiet out of fear. With all the claims made by the broad brush folks, here are some myths that to be debunked:

Muslims want to institute Sharia law: While some Muslim immigrants still adhere to the old ways of religious law, there are other cultural and religious traditions in which people prefer to decide their own legal matters. In some orthodox Jewish communities and on Native American reservations, they believe the old ways are preferable to the secular law of the greater community. Throughout history, religious law has often been in conflict with secular law.

However, take heart: The laws of our nation prevail (regardless of the satire about Dearborn, Mich., adopting Sharia law, which was repeated as gospel by political conservatives like Sarah Palin), although legitimate debate does exist.

Muslim immigrants are unwilling to assimilate: Second-generation immigrant Muslims, just like second-generation immigrants from all cultural or religious backgrounds, tend to become more like the communities in which they are raised. This has been true since my grandparents came to America and lived in a “ghetto” with signs in a foreign language and stores catering to their homeland tastes. Most of our ancestors had the same experience—with their children and succeeding generations becoming totally American.

According to Pew Research, social scientists say that “societies in which people feel constant threats to their health and well-being are more religious, while religious beliefs and practices tend to be less strong in places where ‘existential security’ is greater.” So it’s not surprising that in a generally healthy, wealthy, orderly society, there is often a gradual movement away from traditional religion. Also according to Pew, “more than six in 10 (Muslims) do not see a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society, and … that most Muslims coming to the U.S. today want to adopt an American way of life.”

For young Muslims, as for second-generation Hispanics (about which I have written previously), the pattern is the same—but the more they are alienated, the more likely they are to follow the old, more conservative ways. That is the challenge for the rest of us.

Muslims don’t speak out about violence done in their name: They most certainly do. The Islamic Circle of North America, as just one example, strongly condemns “the deadly attack in Paris committed in the name of Islam. … (It is) not only a cowardly and ghastly act; it also goes against everything taught by the person in whose name the heinous crime was done.” There are many others in Europe and America, as well as sheikhs and mosque leaders around the world, who have denounced the attacks. Check out #notinourname.

Muslim countries are not democratic and deny women any rights: Many predominantly Muslim countries have democratic elections and treat women well—including electing them to important leadership positions. Examples include secular democracies (Turkey, Indonesia, Azerbaijan), and religious democracies that recognize Islam as the state religion, but do not incorporate religion into public policy (Malaysia and Maldives). Of course, there are countries, like Saudi Arabia, which are not Muslim and are not democratic, and deny women equal rights.

We can’t paint each other with broad strokes and lump people together based solely on their beliefs about how we all got here and why. We need to remain vigilant and unite with others around the world, regardless of whether we agree with them on other issues, to fight this virulent threat to us all.

We can start by paying attention to what is going on right here in our own community, with our own neighbors. Nobody should ever feel ashamed or threatened to admit what they believe in and freely practice their religion.

Yo soy Coachella!

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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