‘Given today’s excitement in Ottawa, I hope you’re all OK,” said my mom in Vancouver in a voice mail. She was cautious in her description of events, wondering whether I’d yet seen the news (she temporarily forgot about my intravenous social media feed). Then there were the Facebook posts, private messages and texts from family and friends in the U.S., England and Israel. Amidst the fear and tragedy emanating from Parliament Hill, I felt surrounded by love and support in my own little corner of Ottawa. Many Ottawa Jewish Bulletin readers probably felt the same.
Sudden violence has a tendency to bring people together. As we hunker down behind our barricades, we band together in empathy and solidarity. Pettiness melts away as we play the long game together.
But violence can also tear societies apart. There is the tragedy of the victims’ fates, of course, and the circles of pain that ripple out from them. And then there is the polarization that often results as people look for answers. Societies must remain vigilant, which may mean extra security measures or the tarnishing of civil liberties. This vigilance may also lead to seeing enemies where they don’t exist. In the case of Islamist-inspired terrorism, the tendency is particularly dangerous, as fellow citizens may be viewed with suspicion. The same caution necessary to keep citizens safe can lead to xenophobia of the worst kind.
One recent video campaign out of a society that knows political violence all too well trades brilliantly on the emotions conjured up fear of the other.
“We don’t want you here,” declare various men and women, boys and girls, in Hebrew and Arabic. Not until the end of the video is it revealed that these individuals represent members of the Parents Circle Families Forum, a group for bereaved family members of victims of political violence. What seemed at first glance to be xenophobia is revealed to be compassion for the living and hopes for a better future. We don’t want you to have to join their widening circle of the bereaved, they are saying.
Then there’s another, much more controversial video clip from the HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher that recently made its way around social media. The host, comedian and commentator Bill Maher joined writer Sam Harris to denounce Islam as actor Ben Affleck challenged them. In response, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof – who was also on the Real Time panel – wrote a piece urging a realization that Islam, like most any religion, is diverse. There are bad apples among all religious adherents, and every religion has its unsavoury strands.
We all know the most important fault line in our society runs between peace lovers and those very few who would use violence against innocents to pursue their political agenda, however coherent (or not). But there are tinier, more-jagged fault lines that threaten to leave cracks within the peace-loving bloc. There is a fault line, one drawn by those who seek to pillory Islam publicly.
Islam, by virtue of its many Western adherents living as fairly recent immigrants, I would argue, simply isn’t ready for that level of criticism. In the West, the Judeo-Christian tradition can arguably withstand the kind of public scrutiny Harris and Maher lay on Islam, because Christians (the majority) and Jews (though a tiny minority) form the bedrock of the social establishment in Canada and the United States.
I’m trying to picture, given the sharp stench of anti-Semitism still drenching North American society in the 1940s and 1950s, for example, how we, as a Jewish community, would feel if the teachings of the Torah were put on display for entertainment show hosts to lambaste.
So, while like Harris and Maher, I think intellectually that any set of ideas is fair game, I also understand that, sociologically speaking, there is a time and a place. This is particularly the case when religions like Islam are loosely tied to ethnicity. I simply don’t think we’ve reached that point yet.
While we work out these grander questions, in the meantime, there are smaller steps we can take right here. In a heartening move, Cantor Daniel Benlolo of Congregation Beth Shalom has been engaging publicly in interfaith dialogue with Imam Mohamed Jebara, headmaster of Cordova Academy. We can follow their lead and seek out others, all around us, with whom to talk and to listen, to share fears and concerns and dreams.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University.