A Good Society for Everyone
It's hard not to admire Western/Northern Europe for building some of the best societies in the world. But then, you see shit like this (transcript from a Terry Gross interview of Elaine Sciolino, a New York Times correspondent reporting on France):
SCIOLINO: Muslims feel stigmatized, and it's only gotten worse in the last couple of years with the rise of the radical right. The far-right National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, is brilliant. She's a lawyer, she's extremely clever and articulate and she's able to penetrate the hearts and minds of those franco-francais - the working class, lower and middle-class French, who believe that their country is being taken away from them. And she will run for president in 2017, and she's expected to do quite well. Even Nicolas Sarkozy, who was always center-right and, you know, he was president in France from 2007 to 2012, has created a new party. And he will run again on a law-and-order ticket that will call for much more security, fewer civil liberties and a return to something that will look much more like a French police-state.
GROSS: What are other signs of the far-right's growing power in France?
SCIOLINO: The far-right has won in local elections in some small but crucial cities in the south of France. And there are some absurd manifestations of some of the things they want to do and have done. For example, some of these mayors have said, there are too many kebab shops in France because kebabs - which are Turkish, not even North African Muslim - are not French. So we need to put back our (speaking French) [I think she is saying "boulangeries" - James] and our little French cafes and ban kebab shops from expanding. Recently, there's been a controversy because some of the far-right political leaders have called for forcible serving of pork in all public schools. Muslim and Jewish students cannot eat pork. So they're being told, if you don't want to adhere to our secular Republican ideal and what is part of the French cuisine, go to your own private schools.
GROSS: Whoa.Whoa, indeed. This is terrifying. The idea of forcing public school students to eat pork would be completely laughable in the United States. If some idiot in Alabama did that, the national press would come down on him like a ton of bricks. But certain elements in France want nothing more than to humiliate France's Muslims residents, with Jews as collateral damage (or possibly as the intended targets in some cases). For some reason (maybe because France never went through something comparable to the civil rights movement in the United States, or maybe because freedom of conscience is central to our conception of ourselves, whereas secularism is built into the French system of government), French politicians get away with provocations against Muslims/Jews that would be career-ending here.
Of course this is disgusting. Execrable. But it is not limited to France, they just happen to be the biggest assholes about it (excepting maybe the Russians). Assholes in Italy, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and (sadly) the United States are all playing this game. The key thing to recognize is that in a liberal society, the assholes are going to be permitted to voice their despicable opinions, and there's no legal way to stop them (nor should there be, unless they cross the line into harassment and threats). Even if a large majority of people want to be welcoming to Muslims, it only takes a handful of people to publish a Charlie Hebdo-like newspaper, and to rub Muslims' noses in their status as despised second-class citizens (even if only a small minority of people despise them).
So what is to be done? I don't know. "More speech" is the traditional liberal answer to hate speech, and certainly I think people should be expressing their support for Muslims, as Governor Jay Inslee of Washington did (and plenty of other Democratic governors have as well). (As a quick side note, this goes back to one of my old arguments about how the Democratic Party is one of the most reliable forces for morality in the modern world. Stands up pretty well, I think, especially when you consider how many liberals fell all over themselves to embrace Charlie Hebdo and celebrate its commitment to humiliating French Muslims, going so far as to give it an award for its despicable efforts. The Democratic Party as a whole has been far less willing to embrace hatred and fear.)
But there is really no replacement for basic respect, and this is something that the West will never give Muslims on a unanimous basis. It's true that Muslims who consider carefully our (by which I mean, the United States') commitment to freedom of conscience and pluralism may find a kind of structural respect built into our society's foundations. In other words, you might say that the United States has hard-wired a basic respect for all humans into its constitution (and Constitution—I acknowledge here the difficulty with blacks, but we fought and won that fight, eventually winning a clear victory on the legal/political level and a substantial if incomplete victory on the social level), and Muslims are welcome to come here and build good lives for themselves, regardless of a few assholes who hate them.
But this is a begrudging, legalistic kind of respect. The best you can say is that Muslims are on the same footing as other minorities that have faced discrimination. Catholics, Jews, blacks, Latinos, gays... almost no minority escapes a certain amount of antipathy and hatred here, but the beauty of our society is that the assholes don't get to intrude on your life too much (this was hard-fought, obviously, and there is still plenty of room for improvement, but we really have built a society where Catholics, Jews, blacks, Latinos, and gays—and Muslims!—can do all right). It's important to remember that these Republican governors fulminating about Syrian refugees can't actually prevent them from moving into their states. (Unfortunately I think they can make Muslims' lives miserable, if they want, especially Muslims who rely on public support. This kind of discrimination is deeply immoral and should be punished at the ballot box for as long as their sins are within living memory. Still, there are limits to how far these assholes can go, and those limits reflect well on the United States.) If Muslims realize that they are getting as fair a shake as Jews get, then... maybe that's good enough?
But that's too much to hope, I think. First, good luck convincing Muslims to take such a generous view of our society when all they have to do is flip on a television to see bloviating Republican assholes trying to drive them out of our country. But more importantly, it's just not true right now. Secular Jews are pretty well integrated into our society, and religious Jews have achieved a level of acceptance that Muslims have not. So even if we asked Muslims to settle for Jewish levels of social acceptance, we wouldn't be able to deliver it.
But we have to try. Right now the assholes are dominating the conversation. We have to fight to build a good society that welcomes Muslims, the same way we fought for blacks, the same way we fought for gays. We believe in a good society not just for a privileged few, or for a homogenous majority, but for everyone. Everyone. The most agonizing part of all of this is that by and large we have done a good job of welcoming Muslims into our country. Plenty of Muslims have better lives here than they would in a majority-Muslim country. That's because we are prosperous, democratic, free, and safe. And tolerant. But that tolerance is being sorely tested, and our struggle is to preserve it to the best of our abilities.