Lesley Williams of Evanston is the inaugural recipient of the Spirit of Open Communities Award.
Thank you all so much. To be honored at the same program as the astounding Susan Trieschmann and legendary justice team members like Nina Raskin, Betty Ester and Bennett Johnson is overwhelming.
I want to start by acknowledging 2 wonderful people who really embody the Spirit of Open Communities, my in-laws, Lynn and John Benson. You won’t see them leading an anti-Islamophobia rally, but for over 40 years they have lived the values of Open Communities, intentionally choosing mixed race neighborhoods, despite the not so subtle warnings from well meaning friends of the dire consequences. You know…”Property values! Crime! Interracial marriage!”
What Lynn and John have always known is that if you believe black lives matter, you have to live that way. Last December, a lot of us were being told that black and brown lives, especially Muslim and refugee lives did NOT matter. We heard a lot about walls, and deportations, and people who didn’t belong here. It had gotten so bad that my friend and rabbi, Brant Rosen, said he felt as though we were living in Weimar Germany just before the Nazi takeover.
So, a bunch of us decided to stand up for our values. I started calling people: the YWCA and Jewish Voice for Peace and Interfaith Action. Clergy from Second Baptist Church and Beth Emet and JRC and the Unitarians and Lake Street and Dar Us Sunnah. And of course, Open Communities. Before I knew it, we had a movement, hundreds of people gathering in downtown Evanston on a cold December night, and later in March for a city wide canvasing project to affirm that yes, Muslim lives matter.
It was an inspiring moment, but really that was the easy part. Anyone can give up an evening to hold signs and cheer on speakers you agree with. What’s hard is what Lynn and John; Nina and Betty and Bennett and Susan and the justice team do: living your everyday life as though others have as much right to safety and security and economic largess as you. What’s hard is resisting the forces that made that rally and that canvass necessary.
There are many sincere religious people condemning Islamophobia, pointing out the similarities between the Qu’ran and the Torah or the Christian scriptures, encouraging non-Muslims to learn more about the faith and the people who follow it. But Islamophobia is not really about theology. After all, the first person killed in a revenge attack after 9/11 was NOT a Muslim but a Sikh. The 481 documented hate crimes of 2001 connected to 9/11 involved not just Muslims, but Sikhs, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, all of whom looked as though they might be Muslim. And though hate crimes in general have been trending down, those against Muslims and people perceived to be Muslim have been skyrocketing… since this election season.
Islamophobia is not about protecting women. This fall we’ve seen women in hijab demeaned and threatened, often by the same people who celebrate an anti Muslim politician who demeans and threatens his female critics. We’ve seen U.S. born women, American citizens, afraid to wear a symbol of their faith for fear of violent repercussions.
Let’s face it: Islamophobia is a form of racism. And while I’m all for interfaith book discussions and playgroups, racism is never eradicated merely by conversation. Racism is institutional, and there are institutions that profit from Islamophobia, that need Islamophobia to keep going. When I was a kid in the 70s, our Muslim bogey man was not the fanatical Islamic terrorist, but the greedy OPEC oil merchant: Islamophobia in the service of economics and politics. I think it behooves us to look at our current economic and foreign policies, our wars on terror, and Isis and Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan and Palestine and ask: are these wars creating Islamophobia? Or is Islamophobia used to justify these wars?
As you know I’m a librarian, my job is to give people the resources to make sense of our world. So look at your library collections: see how many books about Muslims are actually written by Muslims. How many library programs feature Muslim speakers, and present a range of Muslim views, including unpopular political views? If all you hear promoted by your library or your school or your church or synagogue is the view of ”good” Muslims who are, “on our side”, then you, (and they) have bought into institutional Islamophobia. And shame on any library or university or house of worship which allows that to happen.
My friends, racism didn’t end when we elected Barack Hussain Obama, and Islamophobia isn’t going to disappear because of one rally. Like racism, it will only end when we find the courage to confront our complicity in keeping it alive.
Shukran and Salaam Aleikum!