All right, I know it’s extremely sensitive to mention the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and really touchy to muse on Muslims and altogether reckless even to bring up any issue besetting the Middle East. But would you mind, reader, if I take a moment to do all of these things? For the record, I should clarify that I’m not a Muslim hater, an anti-Semite or a Christian basher. I’m just not! I happen to love matzo-ball soup, hummus and wafers. There’s no hidden agenda here. This isn’t some stealth mission to promote Freemasonry, scrapbooking fundamentalism or the doctrine of ladies who wear clumpy mascara. I’m just your average Iranian American comedian/filmmaker (slash former policy adviser, slash Muslim, albeit a secular, booze-swilling Muz) with some thoughts on the way we look at the Middle East.
As Americans, we are pretty uncomfortable with the idea of a Muslim state. I get it: we haven’t had great precedents with those. Iran didn’t do itself any favors when it followed up on its Islamic revolution by taking dozens of Americans hostage and establishing a totally repressive regime. That was a real downer. So yes, by all means, let’s be against Muslim states. But then, mysteriously, we have some kind of Saudi Arabia exceptionalism clause whereby we support the Saudis even if their state is just as repressive (or more depending on whom you’re asking). As I see it, our government bases its foreign policy on a totally inconsistent fear of a Muslim state, whereas the American public at large has a totally consistent fear of a Muslim state. Sheesh, it gets confusing.
But things got even more confusing with John Kerry’s Middle East peace talks, which now seem to be a thing of the past. Looks like Israel pulled out of any agreement over the Palestinian Authority’s unity deal with Hamas, giving Kerry diplomatic blue balls. You might be surprised to hear this, but even before that whopper, there were some hurdles, hiccups and blockages, which got a few international panties in a ruffle! Here’s one biggie: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. It would have been more reasonable for Netanyahu to demand mandatory SodaStreams in every Palestinian home (they’re made by Palestinians in the Occupied Territories after all). But no one listens to me! Netanyahu’s demand puts the Palestinians — and the international community — in a pickle. Because it might mean that you’re allowing a country to create classes of citizens (Jews, non-Jews, sorta Jews, meh Jews), or it might mean that Jews themselves have to submit to genetic testing or rabbi testing or I don’t know! Guys, it sounds like it could be a mess. (The inimitable Juan Cole really laid out all the problems on that front.)
As the peace talks have progressed, collapsed and sputtered in all directions, what has really struck me is that we rightly fear a Muslim state — though in Palestine, the birthplace of Jesus, the idea isn’t even on the table! — but we seem to be comfy with a Jewish state. And never mind that, we are ridiculously comfortable with places like Monaco, Costa Rica and Argentina that claim Catholicism in their constitutions. You might think of Greece as a dominion of salads and broken plates, but it is a solidly Greek Orthodox Christian state. Forget those, the Vatican is a straight-up ecclesiastical Catholic state ruled by a pope! And we are INTO IT! Why is that? What makes our perception of these countries so different?
Now look, again, I get it, some of these Muslim countries have been messy, violent, repressive and what have you. But there’s repression and violence in every state (including the United States, amiright?). Our fear doesn’t seem to be based on actual political realities. It seems to be based on how we think of Muslims.
We could think of Muslims as club kids, raging into the night at Beirut soirees. We could think of them as foodie types, blending dazzling spices for discerning palates, like every Iranian mother. Or you might think of Iranian women as cosmetic zealots with the highest rate of nose jobs in the world!
But that’s not how we perceive Muslims; instead we think of them as dusty people wielding guns in the desert. We think of them as burka’d ladies who aren’t allowed to drive, with radicalized husbands who constantly yell. We are served this depiction of Muslims all across the American popular media landscape. We’re talking the terrorists in 24 or in Homeland or in dozens of action-packed Hollywood films. We pit these scary brown Muslims against really boneable, emotionally-unstable-but-with-hearts-of-gold leading celebrities who save the planet from the Muz epidemic. Meanwhile mainstream cable news outlets pump us with fear of Muslims taking over geopolitical space through Sharia law, constant prayer and the banning of bacon. These depictions feed into our understanding of Muslim countries and color our reactions to Arab Spring revolutionaries who even flirt with the notion of going Muslim.
Perception controls everything. The fact of the matter is that Israel is seen as a Western country. The ladies are hot, the dudes have surfer bodies and Birthright persuasively promotes Israel to American college students as ancient Rome meets contemporary Miami. Meanwhile Netanyahu, who went to Harvard, sounds like he’s lived on the East Coast all his life, for Christ’s sake! And the Vatican? What’s there to fear about that lil’ country? It’s like a giant Hail Mary generator. They’re Catholic, they walk around with some kind of vague guilt, nibbling on wafers. It makes sense to this American-blooded American!
But could it be that we’re unfairly using Judeo-Christian and occidental standards to judge Muslim countries that don’t look like us? Could it be that we conveniently omit from the conversation Muslim countries that maybe do look a little more like us — let’s say Turkey — because we need to be able to pump the Muslim fear when it suits us?
Should we instead be uniformly skeptical of countries that are based on religions? Because that’s where I’m at. I say, I don’t care how pointy your hats are or how rock-hard your bods are — if you’re a state with a national religion, I’m nervous. We’re American. We believe in the separation of church and state. So let’s insist on that. We’ve already stained our international diplomatic efforts with oil and other murky, likely unethical strategic interests — why let religion add to that mess?