Back when the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland used to be guarded by concrete checkpoints set up by the British Army, suspicion would fall on just about every Irish person who approached them.
To the young English squaddies in their black berets we were all potentially bomb-throwing terrorists, and they often treated us like it. Unless you had the lamentable experience yourself you probably won’t remember how insulting it was to have to constantly explain what you were doing in your own country.
That provocative assumption, that you had to somehow prove your good intentions, made it clear that the man you had to explain yourself to was the one with the real power.
In the last 10 years I’ve watched cable news hosts nightly fall prey to that odious “prove yourself to me” kind of thinking.
It’s odious thinking because it’s a fact that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has raped, tortured or beheaded many more Muslims than any other group.
But that kind of significant detail doesn’t seem to concern HBO talk show host Bill Maher, who said recently that “vast numbers of Muslims want humans to die for holding a different idea” and that they share “too much in common with ISIS.”
Really? This is, how to put it, inflammatory nonsense. There are 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide who largely abhor those lunatic extremists.
But Maher didn’t stop there. He then called Islam "the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will f***ing kill you if you say the wrong thing.” That led his guest Ben Affleck to describe Maher’s views as "gross" and "racist."
It goes without saying that Muslims had been invited on the panel to defend their religion. They are condemned for not speaking up against violence and they are condemned for not being given a platform to speak up against violence.
Would it surprise you to learn that the vast number of Muslims in the world doesn’t will to convert you to their faith or kill you? Would it surprise you to learn that five recent Nobel Peace Prize winners are Muslim?
Maher seems to believe that ISIS isn’t a terrorist organization but rather a reflection of the violence and intolerance of Islam itself. Does that mean that the people who blow up abortion clinics or target gays are an expression of Christianity?
In American courts of law you are innocent until proven guilty. It’s a foundational comer stone of a civilized society. That’s why it is especially galling to watch people who claim to be defending Western values abandon those same values when it comes the faraway nations they perceive as a aggressors rather than potential allies.
Perpetuating widespread murder and mayhem is not the default setting of any major world religion, but it is a handy way to identify extremists. The problem is that once ideas like Maher’s take hold, they set the agenda and damage relations rather than mend them.
It is true that in many Muslim societies inequality between the sexes is an observable phenomenon. It is also true that there is inequality between the sexes in the United States. Many more Muslim societies lament these inequalities than codify them in law.
It’s a fact that there are men in every nation on earth who think themselves and their laws (which they often author themselves) to be the most enlightened and rational. But ignoring the challenges of your own society to condemn the challenges in others is a waste of everyone’s time.
The hallmark of bigotry is taking one example to generalize a race or a religion. Some Irish enjoy a drink, but that does not make us a nation of ungovernable alcoholics. Neither do the restrictions on women’s freedom in Saudi Arabia represent the worldview of al 1.6 billion Muslims.
Suggesting it does is an example of exactly the kind of lazy, reactionary thinking that sees us freaking out over one Ebola death in the U.S., but ignoring 30,000 gun deaths on our own soil.
Being Irish does not promote alcoholism, being Jewish does not promote greed, being gay does not promote promiscuity, being black does not promote crime.
It’s risible to think that America’s 2.6 million Muslims have to daily defend themselves from surveillance by the authorities and nightly attacks on America’s cable networks. We should refuse the fear and loathing that some men seem to want us to feel toward them, and we should remember in our bones what it felt like to be targeted with so much suspicion once ourselves.