On the stereotyping of Muslims, and of certain other groups considered by many to be undesirables

A young friend of mine, whom I like very much, recently expressed concern that some Americans were driving a wedge between America and the world’s Muslims by “associating all Muslims with terrorists.” This is a very common theme on Facebook these days – lots of people, such as Will Smith, seem to think it is very important to warn their fellow Americans, “Don’t judge an entire religion by the actions of a few,” apparently under the impression that (a) America is full of people who are actually doing this, and (b) these people give a northbound rat’s south end what Will Smith thinks. (Of course it could be argued that what Smith is mostly doing is virtue-signalling to his cultural tribe rather than actually trying to change anybody’s mind; but that’s a separate topic and not one that I, not being capable of reading minds, can speak to.)

Insofar as this is a reaction to Donald Trump’s latest bloviation, and to the fact that the percentage of Americans who support Donald Trump is significant enough to be probably comparable to the percentage of the world’s Muslims who support sharia law, I can sympathize with the reaction. (Full disclosure: I have never been able to be in anything remotely resembling charity with Donald Trump. For as long as he has been in the public scene I have felt a strong desire to find a nice heavy blunt object and hit him with it. This is very unchristian of me and I wish it were not true, but there’s no point in pretending to be more of a saint than I am, and at least it means I can fully empathize with the people whom he has most recently infuriated.) But still, I would like to reassure my upset friends very sincerely of one thing, and remind them very gently of another.

To begin with the reassurance: in actual fact there are very few people associating all Muslims with terrorists, and of the ones who are, the majority is actually I think composed of the people who are accusing others of “racism.” There are very few people saying, “All Muslims are terrorists” – in fact I have never met anybody who does. I don’t even know anybody who says “MOST Muslims are terrorists” (not even Donald Trump says this), though I’m sure they can be found if you look hard enough under the same rocks that shelter our society’s remaining David Dukes and Robert Byrds. This is true even for people who say, “The biggest threat to the free world is Islamic terrorism.” What people are actually saying is not, “Most Muslims are terrorists,” which would be false and slanderous. They are saying, “Most terrorists are Muslim.” That is not at all the same thing. For one thing, the former is false while the latter is true. For another thing, people such as myself, who do not labor under the intellectual handicaps of the stupider varieties of liberalism, are perfectly capable of saying, “There are one to two hundred million people in the world who are in favor of the execution of apostates and homosexuals under Islamic law, which leaves something like 1.4 to 1.5 billion people who self-identify as Muslims and have no inclination to the beheading of their friends and neighbors. This means that Muslims in general are nice people, and also that the problem of terror and religiously-motivated brutality in the modern world is both a primarily Islamic problem and a very serious problem indeed – particularly for America, which practically every Muslim nutjob in the world identifies as the Great Satan. And this further means that in solving the problem, we will (unless we are insane) have to recognize that the Muslim terrorists will try to blend into the general Muslim population, and that therefore, given that we have limited resources and high stakes, we will have to pay special attention to any given group of Muslims until we have been able to sort out which individuals in that group are in the nice 90% and which are in the crazy 10%. And that really, really, sucks for the nice Muslims – but if you want to point fingers at the evil people causing such unpleasantness for nice Muslims, you would be a fool to point at the people who are doing the necessary vetting, rather than at the Muslim terrorists who make the vetting necessary to begin with. I mean, to compare small things with large merely for the sake of illustrating the point, it sucks that I have to pay so much more money to my insurance company to insure my eighteen-year-old son than my neighbor pays to insure his twenty-three year old daughter; but if Rusty wants to blame somebody he should be blaming all the eighteen-year-old boys before him who have totaled their cars, not the insurance company that is accurately assessing its risk. Still, we really do very much hate to inconvenience nice people; so to the point that we can manage the vetting process so as to limit the inconvenience to nice Muslims as much as is possible without compromising the safety of everybody else, we certainly should do so.” All of that can, and frequently is, said by people who are very firmly of the opinion that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are nice, and who absolutely do not associate nice Muslims with terrorism. In fact I would venture to say that most people who talk like that are even aware of the fact that not only are most of the world’s terrorists Muslim, but also the overwhelming majority of the innocent victims of terrorism…are Muslims. Islamic terrorism is a major problem for America, but baby it is a mildly itching mosquito bite of a problem for us compared to the problem it is for Muslims in Iraq who aren’t themselves ISIS nutjobs.

Now, there are people – mostly, so far as I can tell, liberals, though the ones who aren’t liberals stand a good chance of being Trump fans (but note that I did not say that “liberals / Trump fans are, mostly, people like this,” which would be, you know, a DIFFERENT THING TO SAY) – as I was saying, there are people who are largely imprisoned by an intellectual model that conceptualizes almost all human action in terms of groups rather than individuals. For these people, apparently, anything you say about one Muslim, you are saying about all Muslims – even though the rest of us, not being intellectual cripples, have not the slightest difficulty recognizing that what we say about Muslim terrorists does not apply to more than one billion nice people who think Mohammed was God’s Prophet. That is, for most of us, the part of “Muslim terrorist” that matters most is the “terrorist” part, and what we say about terrorists we clearly are not saying about non-terrorists, and it’s hard for us to take seriously the idea that any honest person would be dumb enough to accuse us of indulging in stereotypes about Muslims when any half-wit could confirm, by asking a single simple question, that insofar as we have a stereotype about Muslims – that is, something we believe is true about Muslims in general – it is, “nice people who don’t go in for terrorism.” It seems obvious to us, in other words, that if we expressing a stereotypical view of anybody, we expressing a stereotype about terrorists. But we get pounded on by the group-thinkers for whom the “Muslim/non-Muslim” distinction is more important than the “terrorist/non-terrorist” distinction.

Now what kind of people would think “Muslim/non-Muslim” is a more important distinction than “terrorist/non-terrorist”? I can only imagine four kinds, though, as I have said before, I really don’t understand the emotional processes of liberals and so there’s probably other dynamics going on over on that side of the aisle that somebody else would have to explain rather than me. But here are the four kinds I can imagine.

The first kind are the sort of people who really, genuinely, don’t think there is any difference between holding a stereotype about terrorists that makes you assume that somebody self-identifies as Muslim if you are told he cut off an innocent person’s head, and holding a stereotype about Muslims that makes you assume that somebody is craving the opportunity to cut off innocent persons’ heads if you are told that he self-identifies as a Muslim. These are very stupid people; but they deserve pity and patience, not anger and contempt. As John Wayne once said, “Life is hard. Life is REALLY hard if you are stupid.” People like this have a hard enough life without our hating them; give them a break.

The second kind of people are the sorts of people who, to take one example, make up a significant percentage of the leadership of…well, lest I be oh-so-coincidentally targeted by “random” jihadist workplace violence, let’s just say “terrorist front groups” without naming any names. These are people who very badly want to insist that anything that is said about Muslim terrorists is said about all Muslims, because they are in the business of protecting Islamic terrorists, and it is very much in the interest of Muslim terrorists if nobody can criticize Muslim terrorists without being accused of hating Muslims in general.

The third group is the kind of person who has fallen into the habit — this type of person is practically always liberal, but again, that does NOT mean most liberals have this habit — of calling people either “racist” or “fascist”  whenever they utter any political opinion with which the liberal happens to disagree. This type of person has allowed himself to get into the habit of assuming that everybody who disagrees with him is a bad person, and has gotten into the equally bad of habit of using the terms “racist” and “fascist” to mean simply, “jerk.” In other words, he is being a jerk. I suspect a large number of the people who heard what Donald Trump had said and reflexively said, “What a racist!” are people who have gotten into these twin bad habits. If you’re one of those people…well, the rest of us would really appreciate it if you would stop being such a jerk.

The fourth and final subset of these people that I can somewhat, to a limited extent, comprehend – and again this subset is pretty much 100% liberals, though it is far from true that 100% of liberals are such people –are those who are not only obsessed by group-driven analysis, but who are obsessed by race. — By the way, I remind you that I am not a mind-reader, and that the most I can say is that these people behave as if what I describe is what is happening inside their head. Once a person has behaved in a manner consistent with this pattern, I find that they can be expected to behave that way habitually; thus this model that I have drawn has predictive value in practice. But it is only a model that serves well as a predictor of future behavior. Whether it’s really what’s going on inside their strange, sad little minds, God only knows.

These are the people who hear a person say something about “Islam” and instantly (and insanely) respond, “You racist!” — and really actually mean it as a genuine accusation  rather than as a regrettable verbal tic. I do not have words adequately to describe how moronically stupid such a reaction is, given that it is patently obvious that while Islam is many things — a group of more or less related religions (I agree with my Muslim friends that ISIS’s religion is not theirs), a group of more or less related world views, a group of more or less related cultures, all of these are true – it is not by the wildest stretch of imagination a race…except in the eyes of particularly stupid racists for whom race is everything and everything is race. But what seems to go on in these people’s mind (I emphasize, again, the phrase “seems to”) is this:

They hear the word “Muslim” and the image it conjures up in their mind is not that of my good friend Gayla Bruce, a very sweet and very white American who converted to Islam from Christianity a few years ago; nor of my deeply admirable Kazakh friends Zharas and Gulmarzhan Shunayevi, who have spent their entire adult lives helping the poor and orphaned in Kazakhstan out of the Shunayevs’ heartfelt conviction that what pleases God most is when we help those who need help; nor of Aliya Shaikhina, whom I would trust with my life; nor of my son-in-law Roma’s foster mother, who played such a major, and entirely positive, role in his life. Gayla, Zharas, Gulmarzhan, Aliya…that’s not what these people think when they think “Muslim.” What these people subconsciously visualize when they heard the word “Muslim,” is an Arab – that is, somebody with (the one thing that really seems to matter to these people) darker skin than your average white male. And because they are incapable of thinking about any social issue at all in any terms other than race and gender, they treat anything you say about “all Muslims” as though you had said, “all Arabs.” This is true even though there are millions of Arab Christians and hundreds of millions of non-Arab Muslims. They do this because they are, in the most fundamental sense, racists: they believe race is the fundamentally causative engine of all social interaction, rather than a physical characteristic that is primarily correlative with culture rather than causal in its own right, and they turn every social issue into a racial issue whether it actually is one or not. (You know these people – if you ever try to suggest that perhaps they are overstating the role of racism in modern America, they respond to you in more or less the way that well-meaning redneck fundamentalists used to respond in my childhood when you suggested that perhaps the King James Version was a less than ideal translation of the Bible for modern use.) It is an article of faith with these people that everybody else is as obsessed with race as they are, and that any non-liberal who claims not to care about race is either self-deceived or (more likely) not just a racist bastard but a lying hypocritical one as well. (Ah, there’s nothing quite like betraying one’s age with a subtle and affection allusion to a cheerful old feminist-fantasy flick…)

Then they hear you say something about “Muslim terrorists” and treat you as if you had said, “All Muslims,” because they are group-bound thinkers whose intellects are simply too limited to be able to perceive any difference between “Most terrorists are Muslim” and “Most Muslims are terrorists,” and because, since they speak and think in terms of groups rather than individuals within groups, they also can’t see the difference between “Most Muslims are terrorists” and “All Muslims are terrorists.”

So you say, “Most terrorists are Muslims and are motivated by an Islamic ideology that they perceive as being spelled out by God in the Quran and whichever set of ’Ahadith they happen to endorse, and we will not solve the problem without recognizing this fact and devising our strategies appropriately.” And this type of liberal hears “Most terrorists are Muslims” and, with a mental process no less rapid and no less tortuous than that of The Brain’s sidekick Pinky, run through a series something like “Most terrorists are Muslims” = “Most Muslims are terrorists” = “All Muslims are terrorists” = “All Arabs are terrorists” = YOU RACIST BASTARD!

The thing is, this kind of person can’t separate Muslim beliefs from “the Muslim race” (whatever such a nonsensical term means in their highly personalized reality). And as they simply, literally cannot conceive of any person’s being free of their sort of racial obsession, they simply cannot recognize the possibility that a person might form approval or disapproval of a religious or political ideology on any basis other than melanin count.

So, let’s say Donald Trump says, “We shouldn’t let any Muslims enter our country.” (Which, just to be clear up front, is exactly the sort of thing I would expect Donald Trump to say…and coming from me that is never a compliment.) Any of the following are responses that could be made by a decent, well-meaning, honest, reasonably intelligent person, even though I myself would disagree with most of them. (“Decent, well-meaning, honest, and reasonably intelligent” is not the same thing as, “Agrees with Kenny” – as pretty much every decent, well-meaning, honest and reasonably intelligent friend I have would tell you, and emphatically at that.)

By the way, in what follows I am assuming that Trump is NOT being understood to mean we should exile American citizens for being Muslim, in which case tar and feathers would be too good for him, IMHO.

“I would rather let the good ones in…but the problem is that the people who run our immigration services are some of the most utterly incompetent people this side of the TSA [by the way, having married a Chinese national and adopted four Kazakh children, I have much more experience with those idiots than do most Americans and I am inclined to think this would not be much, if any, of an overstatement]. Knowing who we have in charge of deciding which people to let in and which people to keep out, I can’t believe it would be hard for ISIS to send literally hundreds of mass-murdering lunatics into the country posing as nice Muslims. So, I don’t want to keep good Muslims out, but somebody needs to give me a reason to think we wouldn’t let in lots of terrorists along with the good Muslims; and the reason needs to be better than, ‘Just trust us; we know what we’re doing’…because, you know, no offense, but you people couldn’t find your rear end with both hands, a GPS, and a pack of well-trained bluetick hound dogs.” Now, this does not seem to me to be an unreasonable thing to say (well, admittedly the last part could be considered to verge on slight hyperbole). I don’t think that we actually ought to stop letting Muslims into the country; I think the policy Trump proposes and that this responder comes close to endorsing as at least a temporary measure, would be a bad policy, even as a temporary measure. But I think the people leading our government — especially given their recent performance in accurately gauging the thread posed by the jihadist JV and the degree of containment thereof that has been achieved — ought to treat the concerns as legitimate, and ought to give good, clear explanations of exactly how we are identifying high-risk populations and vetting the individuals therein, rather than just saying to responders such as this, “You racists!”

“I don’t think Trump means it; he’s just in negotiating mode and this is his opening gambit, which he is deliberately making outrageous so that after the compromising is over he’ll have wound up with something more like what he really wants.” (I have seen several people say this, really and truly, and despite my initial reaction of, “That’s a pretty funny piece of satire,” I think they actually seem to be serious.) Um…I suppose that could be. It still seems more likely to me that he’s a blowhard and a jackass, but I admit that this responder has at least a marginally defensible theory. You will note that such a responder would be a sincere Trump supporter and yet would not actually support this particular Trump proposal.

“I see where he’s coming from but he’s going miles over the line. I think we ought to have stricter restrictions on would-be Muslim immigrants or visitors than on people of other religions, since there is no significant worldwide movement of, say, Buddhist terrorists whose leaders all agree that the United States is the Great Satan. And I think we ought to have stricter scrutiny on Muslims who come from specific cultures that are especially prone to terrorism – Kazakh Muslims are not much of a threat; Uzbek Muslims are rather more of a threat than Kazakhs, and as for Syria…well, something like 10% of the Syrian ‘refugee’ population is composed of people who think the United States is more of a problem in the Middle East than ISIS is; so you’d better have some really intense scrutiny on any of those people before you turn them loose inside this country. So, basically, yeah, I think it ought to be harder for people from high-risk populations to gain entry into the United States than it would be for low-risk populations, even though that’s not perfectly fair; and there are some Muslim subcultures who definitely represent high-risk populations. But a general ban of everybody in the world who self-identifies as Muslim…sorry, count me way, way, WAY out.” This is reasonably close to my own view. So obviously I think it is eminently reasonable and thoroughly unobjectionable. Anybody who doesn’t think so…well, all I can say is, you must be either a racist or a fascist.

“Look, I know where he’s coming from, but it is just not right to discriminate against people because of their religion.” It depends upon exactly what this respondent means, and I would want to explore it with him a bit more before deciding for sure, but probably I would disagree with this statement in this particular context. (There are a small number of English words whose meaning has suffered violent distortion in modern American political discourse, and “discrimination” is high on that list of words; so one always has to clarify what the other person specifically means by the term whenever it is used.) Partly this would be on the obvious pragmatic grounds; but also, more than likely, it would be because of a rather subtle point of political philosophy in which I think Locke and the Founding Fathers, while on the right track, had not quite succeeded in thinking through the doctrine of “inalienable rights.” But that is a discussion for another day, and while I disagree with this respondent in this particular context, I think there are a great many honest, well-meaning, sober and respectable people who see it this way, and I certainly don’t think the worse of them for it.

“What a contemptible racist that man is.” (sigh…) Let’s just say that when one is dealing with people whose light bulbs are low wattage, it is always nice when they self-identify early in the conversation so that you can know right away what you’re dealing with.

—-

I am almost done. But I said at the beginning that I wanted to do two things: to reassure people who are worried (I think due to exaggeration of the threat) about Americans who think Muslims are mostly terrorists, and to remind them of something. The reassurance, I am done with, and the reminder will not take nearly as long.

I don’t know what is the percentage of non-liberal Americans who actually believe in a stereotype that  identifies Muslims with terrorists. But whatever that percentage is, it is at most roughly in the same range as…the percentage of Muslims who at least theoretically support the imposition of sharia law – which is to say, the percentage of Muslims who think that in a properly-run world that was truly run according to the will of Allah, any person who had ever been called a Muslim, even if just because he was born to Muslim parents through no choice of his own, and who then were to decide that he actually thinks atheism is true, would promptly be executed. It would be both foolish and immoral to talk as though everybody who was a Muslim was a terrorist. It is equally foolish, and equally immoral, to talk as though everybody who thinks Islamic terrorism is a problem that has something to do with Islam, is a holder of vicious racist stereotypes. I hope that anybody reading this agrees wholeheartedly with me that it is both stupid and evil to make sweepingly negative statements about all Muslim people just because somewhere between 10% and 20% of the world’s Muslims support, at least theoretically, the evil of sharia law. But it is equally stupid and evil to make sweeping statements about white conservatives, or Republicans, or rednecks. If, when you utter the words “right-winger,” your lip curls in exactly the way you imagine a “typical right-winger’s” lip curls when, racist that he is, he utters the word “Muslim”…hmmmmm.

There are, you know, quite a large number of things that Christians like me and Muslims like Gayla agree on. One of them is that Jesus was a good man and the things he taught came from God. It was Jesus, you remember, who gave this trenchant advice: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

If you are one of the people rushing around warning all your Republican friends about the evils of stereotyping Muslims, I’m not telling you to stop doing it; false and negative stereotypes of Muslims are, after all, a bad thing. May I just, as diffidently and politely as possible, ask whether you have checked your own eye for planks? Muslims are not, after all, the only people in the world about whom stereotypes can be unjustly believed.

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