Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Hate Blooms in Bloomington

Indiana is no stranger to hate—the KKK flourished here after World War I, and then there's Ron Artest—but Bloomington is a different story. Or was a different story until last week.

On July 9, not long after the London terror attacks, someone tried to burn down the Islamic Center of Bloomington. An unidentified attacker threw a Molotov cocktail into the mosque's kitchen at around 4 a.m. in an incident that is being investigated as a hate crime by the FBI. A burned copy of the Koran was found on the sidewalk outside.

Fortunately, there was a worshiper in the mosque observing early-morning prayers who was able to extinguish the fire before any serious damage was done.

The attack came as a shock to the city's residents and has put Bloomington's Muslim community on edge. Home to Indiana University, Bloomington is a little blue oasis in an otherwise solid-red state. Thanks to the university, Bloomington is one of the most diverse and tolerant small cities in the country.

Bloomington officials and residents were quick to condemn the attacks. Mayor Mark Kruzan pithily summed up the prevailing attitude: "The person or persons responsible for this action need to understand that they've just struck a blow on behalf of terrorism. They've chosen anarchy over democracy and insulted freedom." People at the Islamic Center reported being overwhelmed by well-wishers from the community who stopped by to reassure them that those behind the attack do not speak for the majority.

Unfortunately, a small minority of residents in Bloomington and the surrounding areas harbor more hostile feelings toward our sizeable Muslim community. A group from Old Paths Baptist Church in nearby Campbellsburg—a group that is mentioned in an unrelated Time article about Christianity on campus—regularly pickets at IU, harassing Muslims, Jews and sorority girls in short skirts.

This minority is also represented in the student body. On July 14, IU's newspaper, the Indiana Daily Student, printed a letter from a Hutton Honors College student named Mark Zacharias. The letter is shockingly ignorant for any college student, let alone for one who attends a division that focuses on community service and stresses the diverse and pluralistic nature of IU.

Here is an excerpt from his letter:
The incident at the Islamic Center sounds like an inside job. There are aspects of the story that are suspicious, such as the member who just happened to be at the scene at 4 a.m., happened to have a jug of water (on his way to the bathroom) and immediately put out whatever small fire had started. The attempted burning of a Quran is also suspicious. There has been so much media coverage of Gitmo and the alleged "desecration of the Quran," that this was likely done on purpose to make the situation sound even more sensational.
Only an ignorant or incurious person would find such aspects of the story suspicious. After a cursory investigation on the Internet, I was able to ascertain that Fajr, the first prayer of the day, is scheduled for 4:04 a.m. in the Bloomington area at this time of year (imagine that!). Furthermore, it is common (or easily acquired) knowledge that Muslims perform ritual ablutions, called wudhu, before praying. That would explain the jug of water.

With Zacharias' first two points obliterated, we are left with only the burned Koran which must be a hoax because it's the kind of thing that other non-Muslims have been accused of and therefore could not have been done by a non-Muslim. Similarly, because the KKK has been accused of putting burning crosses on black people's lawns, any burning cross you find must have been put there by a black person fishing for sympathy. Occam's Razor seems to be getting a little bit rusty.

As it turns out, he simply uses his fallacious argument as a meager justification for his hate.
Even if a member of our community did do it, there should be no surprise. People do not have to be misguided, mentally ill or an "extremist" to think about and then commit such an act. When humans feel increasingly fearful, powerless and threatened, then it is natural to want to strike back.
Zacharias goes on to weakly suggest that arson is not the answer, but this doesn't carry much weight after having justified the attack in such strong terms just a sentence earlier. This quote also contains a telling locution that one suspects is not a mere slip of the pen. In what way does "our community" not include the Muslims who inarguably make up a part of it? In setting the Muslim community apart from the greater Bloomington population, Zacharias' prejudices become crystal clear.

The attack on the Islamic Center is justified by the alleged threat posed by its members. The nature of this threat is not disclosed, and this is because there is not one. The Bloomington Muslim population is incredibly diverse—about as far away from the rigid and doctrinaire Islamic environments that actually produce terrorists as can be imagined. Zacharias and his ilk are not threatened by members of the Islamic Center, but rather by Islam itself. There is a name for this kind of thinking: bigotry.

Yesterday the Indiana Daily Student ran a sort-of apology from Zacharias as well as a strong rebuke from two members of the Muslim Student Union amongst others. Unfortunately, the paper also ran an ill-timed opinion column by Adam Sedia called "The Ugly Side of Islam," about Mohammed Bouyeri, the killer of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. In the column, Sedia's mantra is "No tolerance, no dialogue, no mercy." While this certainly applies to people like Bouyeri, the wisdom of printing such an article so close to the incident at the Islamic Center—an incident which bears all the hallmarks of a vile misapplication of this very philosophy—should be called into question.

There are encouraging signs that people like Zacharias may not be in the majority in Bloomington. On Sunday, an interfaith rally in solidarity with the Muslim community was attended by hundreds. Now is the time for Bloomington to prove what kind of community it really is.
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