Thursday, May 20, 2010

Jacksonville, Florida Mosque Bombing and the Othering of American Muslims

Last Monday, a pipe bomb combined with gasoline exploded in back of the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida in Jacksonville.  Sixty people were worshiping inside at the time.  No one was injured, although the building suffered minor damage and filled with smoke for a short time. A $20,000 reward has been offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the bomber, who was captured on surveillance camera.  He appears to be a middle aged white male.

The national media has not picked up the story of the Jacksonville mosque bombing to any great extent.  If you do a Google News search for "Jacksonville Mosque" you will turn up numerous stories from the Florida press, as well as an assortment of national blogs discussing the fact that the national media has ignored this story, but not much else.  Most of these national blogs note the implied prejudice of major news outlets failing to pick up what certainly appears to be an attempted terrorist attack that could have killed 60 people, but whose victims are Muslim.

I don't disagree with these bloggers.  However, I think even they are guilty of what scholars sometimes call "othering."  They are outraged at the act itself, and at the media for failing to cover it.  But they don't go as far as to express empathy with the community that was attacked.  They are reacting to the politics, but not to the impact of the attack itself.  Someone has attacked those "other" people, and we (presumably "typical") people are outraged by the attack and outraged at the media.  But we aren't caring for the victims.

For the religiously affiliated among you, try to imagine how you might feel if your church or synagogue were attacked.  How safe would you feel at the next service?  How confident would you feel parking in the parking lot?  How much sleep would you lose?  How much grief might you feel for actual damage done?  And how much anticipatory grief might you feel at the thought of damage that might yet be done?

Now imagine that the bulk of those who support your congregation expressed that support by insisting that the news cover the incident.  Surely you'd appreciate that.  There's nothing wrong with taking a firm stand that such attacks are unacceptable regardless of who the victims are, and that media should report them without bias.  But wouldn't you want some of those same folks to stop by your church or synagogue or your house?  Wouldn't you want them to try to understand your fear and how very personally you took this attack?  Wouldn't you want people to stand up, not just for you, but also with you?

I have nothing against the bloggers who have pointed out the media's bias.  It needs to be done.  But it is only the first step.  I challenge my blogging brethren not just to cover the politics of this attack and its coverage, but to really try to understand how it feels to be a victim of it, and bring that experience to their readers.  Until we are able, as a blogosphere, to see victims of anti-Islamic violence as "us" rather than "them," it will continue to be easy for people to turn that othering to violence.


Abraham Fisher said...

I'd argue that what you call "othering" is in fact a stage in the road towards accepting/joining/whatever you want to call it. Before people can react appropriately, they have to go through a process of knowing what an appropriate reaction is, even though they aren't going that way automatically. Then later, possibly a lot later (as in the next generation), people start to forget about the differences and automatically react in a way that reflects that the former "others" are in reality not different from them in any important way. But it takes a while...

Alan said...

I do have a lot of empathy for those who are attacked for both their religious beliefs and their political leanings. I'm a member of a minority religious faith, Unitarian Universalism. Our congregation in Knoxville, Tenn. was attacked in July, 2008 by a man armed with a shotgun during a children's performance of "Annie." Two adult congregants were killed, both heroes who took shotgun blasts to save kids' lives.

"The Unitarian Universalist Association, one of the most liberal denominations on the American religious scene, is reeling from the revelation that the unemployed man who police say opened fire at a member church in Tennessee Sunday cited contempt for liberals and gays among a long list of grievances that motivated his attack."

All sorts of places of worship have been targets for violent people, more or less insane, mostly driven by hatred of the other and feeling justified by the need to cleanse the world of what they see as an aberration.

This violence is possible precisely because our media and other institutions benefit by "othering" one population or another. Rush Limbaugh dehumanizes political liberals; the dramatic series "24" justifies torturing suspects, even though experts know the technique is useless for obtaining intelligence; our embedded press in time of war cheers and runs war-porn over and over again, leaving it to academics and lone investigative journalists to reveal later that the smart bombs are being dumped on civilian populations, "over there." Them.

My faith doesn't believe in a standardized creed -- we make our own out of beliefs which make sense to us. But one thing most all of us value is tolerance. Tolerance, of course, of everything but evil, and dehumanization.

"Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto." -- Terence

Alan Benard

Edwin Aoki said...

Hear, here...

I think this points out an interesting difference between empathy and sympathy. My dictionary defines "empathy" as "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another", while it states that "sympathy" is "understanding between people; common feeling" (using its second definition). Empathy to me still implies a certain sense of distance, that "other" as you describe it. We're empathetic to people we assume must be going through some tragedy, but I don't know that we necessarily feel sympathetic for them, not in the sense where we share their feelings and grief, only hold it up and commiserate with it.

I fear that many years of fear, of being told we're threatened, of anxiety and anger over the world and politics and our inability to control our fate will lead to greater and greater isolation (and ultimately xenophobia). In an environment like that, the compassionate will still have empathy, but it will be very difficult to be in sympathy with others.

Colleen said...

You mean, like when someone painted a swastika on the sidewalk in our town, the newspaper published the contact into for the synagogue in town, so people should show support by making a building fund contribution?

When churches are damaged, people all over send money, to help rebuild.

But the first thing I remembered when I read that there was a surveillance camera, was I how I worried, after 9/11, when our synagogue started keeping its doors locked, and you had to be buzzed in. It's so sad, how the terrorists, from various places, have caused this.

Meet the Quarterback

My Photo
Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
View my complete profile

Subscribe via email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Quarterback for Kindle