African-American Anger and Muslim-Arab Anger

Many Americans have some knowledge of the roots of African-American anger. . .

Many Americans have some knowledge of the roots of African-American anger. . .

What are we to make of the most recent spate of shootings? Orlando, Nice, Dallas, Baton Rouge, Normandy — before the names begin to recede in our memory as a collective bloody blur, let’s see if there are some lessons we can take from the latest round of pain we’ve been through.

Has there ever been a period of history when so few people have caused so much fear in so many people? I doubt it. The terrorists have sown vastly more fear in Americans than the threat they actually pose to us. Let’s remember, as President Obama frequently reminds his staff, that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than handguns, car accidents, and falls in bathtubs do. (April ’16 Atlantic)

So let’s recognize the danger we face but let’s not simply surrender to fear. Let’s instead keep our wits about us and see if there are some lessons we can learn from the very scary and evil events which have been happening and some steps we can take in response. Yes, one lesson is a theological one: evil exists. But before we reflexively blame Muslims, let’s remind ourselves that German Christians committed unfathomable evil in the holocaust and our own Christian American ancestors perpetuated slavery and contributed to the genocide of the Native Indian people of North America. And the cause of what is arguably the worst situation of violence in the world today was the invasion of largely-Muslim Iraq by the semi-Christian nation of America.

Another basic lesson we’re seeing once again is that that the people who commit these heinous acts are very often deeply troubled people who do not in any way represent Islam. The father of the Nice, France, “truck terrorist” said that his son had “‘almost no links to religion. He didn’t pray,’ the father continued. ‘He didn’t fast. He drank alcohol, and even used drugs. . . he had problems that caused a nervous breakdown. . . He would break anything he saw in front of him.’” (New York Times, July 17, ’16)

But something very different happened in recent weeks: shockingly, police officers were killed by African-American gunmen in Dallas and Baton Rouge. These shootings were clearly of a different category than the terrorist acts by people of Middle Eastern origins. What might we learn by comparing and contrasting these two categories of violent acts? No, a thousand times no, nothing justifies any of this violence. But there are historical grievances in both categories which helped to propel a handful of deeply troubled people to cross a moral line and commit evil acts.

. . .but very little understanding of the roots of Arab-Muslim anger.  Above, a severely malnourished child in Basra, c. 2000, just minutes before she died.  She was malnourished because of economic sanctions imposed on Iraq with the backing of the U.S.

. . .but very little understanding of the roots of Arab-Muslim anger. Above, a severely malnourished child in Basra, c. 2000, just minutes before she died. She was malnourished because of economic sanctions imposed on Iraq with the backing of the U.S.

The key difference is that we Americans know in our bones the historical roots of African-American anger, but we have almost no understanding of the roots of Muslim-Arab anger. The accompanying photo from the African Burial Ground here in Manhattan shows us the first of the horrible injustices which Americans of European descent inflicted upon African-Americans, beginning with the horrific “middle passage” during which Africans were packed on ships and brought here as slaves. Since then African-Americans have suffered from poverty, discrimination, lynchings, segregation, and now police abuse and the wholesale imprisonment of young men for minor offenses.

With TV shows like “Roots” and movies like “Twelve Years a Slave” and Black History Month our media has helped us better understand the roots of African-American anger. As a result we better understand we know what we need to do: work harder for racial justice and healing. On the other hand, we know almost nothing about the sources of Muslim-Arab anger. As a country we’ve never been able to fully address the question: Why are they so angry at us? And not only is our news media not helpful; it’s part of the problem. Instead of helping us understand the influence of the Crusades, colonialism, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the CIA-backed coup in Iran in the ’50’s and recent regime change in Libya, and the continuing Israeli theft of Palestinian land, our media only talks about terrorism instead of speaking about all of the endless meddling we’ve done in the Middle East, all in the name of helping the people there.

What should we do? We should deepen our empathy and understanding of the Arab and Muslim world, enormously multiply our assistance to the humanitarian catastrophe which is happening there, and redouble our protests again the idea that more violence will solve the problems of the Middle East.

Mel Lehman
Common Humanity
August 20, 2016

Top photo: Historical sketch on display at the African Burial Ground in New York City, print from Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture.

Bottom: Mel Lehman

Mel Lehman

Mel Lehman is the director of of Common Humanity. He has worked in international humanitarian issues for several decades, inducing two decades at the National Council of Churches. He has traveled extensively in the Middle East and has published a number of articles about his experience.
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