Religious Discrimination and Bullying

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A tableau graphic of the AFDI's winning Draw Muhammad cartoon.

Credit: CreativeCommons / Tjebbe van Tijen.

Imagine this: You read on a Facebook page that people opposing your religion have planned a large-scale protest rally at the major Christian church in your home town on your Sabbath day of prayer. The organizers instruct their supporters to bring posters denouncing Christianity and pictures of Jesus on the cross wearing a Hitler-style mustache with captions reading: “He Deserved To Die,” and “He Was a False Messiah,” because, as stated on Facebook, “…it’s what needs to take place in order to expose the true colors of Christianity.”
At the protest rally, organizers will be selling and wearing T-shirts announcing: F— Christianity. “Everyone is encouraged to bring American Flags and any message that you would like to send to Christians,” continued the message on Facebook. Though organizers have promoted the demonstration as a First Amendment “Freedom of Speech” rally, they urge supporters to carry weapons to express their Second Amendment rights as well.
Organizers say they are calling the rally because they “have had enough” of Christianity and people like Timothy McVey, Fred Phelps and his flock, Pat Robertson, and members of the Ku Klux Klan, who, rally planners claim, are not extreme outliers as media reports indicate. They are, rather, expressing the true sentiments in their book, The Christian Testaments (a.k.a. The New Testament). Organizers stated that they don’t want Christianity to spread any further in the United States of America. Argued the protest organizer on his Facebook page, “I am far from politically correct …. I’m outspoken, and I’ve just had it!”
How are you feeling emotionally reading this? What are your reactions about the way rally organizers represented your religion if you are Christian? If this were your house of worship, how safe would you feel attending Sabbath services with your family, including young children with a group of protesters waving American flags in your face as they pack guns in clear view?
Now, reread the above scenario and replace the words “Christianity,” “Christians,” and “Jesus,” with “Islam,” “Muslims,” and “Muhammad.” Attempt to walk in the shoes of the actual targets of the “Draw Muhammed” contest and protest stunt: members of the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, Arizona, and all followers of Islam in all its sects and denominations.
Jon Ritzheimer, a former U.S. Marine, organized the protest to demonstrate opposition, specifically at the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix that Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi once attended. These men drove from Phoenix to Garland, Texas where they planned an attack at a similar “Cartoon Contest” in May sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative. Simpson and Soofi shot a security guard at the event before another guard shot and killed them.
Ritzheimer planned events to begin simultaneously with evening prayers of worshipers inside the center. He stated that these lone shooters and larger groups like ISIS do not represent the extremes of the religion, but rather, “True Islam is terrorism.”
“I think the whole thing, the cartoon contest especially, I think it’s stupid and ridiculous,” Ritzheimer said prior to the rally, “but it’s what needs to take place in order to expose the true colors of Islam.”
Within two of the most prominent monotheistic religions in the world, Judaism and Islam, tradition dictates it blasphemous and highly insulting for any person to physically depict their G*d in Judaism, and the Prophet Muhammad in Islam, even positively or respectfully.
Very few regular worshipers attended prayer services during the rally over concerns for their safety.
Stereotypes & Bullying
A stereotype is an oversimplified, preconceived, and standardized conception, opinion, affective attitude, judgment, or image of a person or group held in common by members of other groups. Originally referring to the process of making type from a metal mold in printing, social stereotypes can be viewed as molds of regular and invariable patterns of evaluation of others.
Stereotypes depersonalize and dehumanize people and their ideas, in effect seeing individuals largely as members of a group and not as individuals with unique and distinctive qualities and attributes. This often results in the tendency to diminish the humanity of people by relegating them to the category of “other,” and as “different.”
Stereotypes may have originally contained some small grain of truth, but that element has since been exaggerated, distorted, or in some way taken out of context. Stereotypes, therefore, may be based on false generalizations derived from very small samples or even from a unique case. Some stereotypes have no foundation in fact at all.
I have learned many lessons in my studies of genocides perpetrated throughout the ages. Strong leaders whip up sentiments by employing dehumanizing stereotyping and scapegoating entire groups, while other citizens or entire nations often refuse to intervene. On a micro level, this is also apparent, for example, in episodes of schoolyard, community-based, as well as electronic forms of bullying. Everyone, not only the direct perpetrators of oppression, plays a key role in the genocide and bullying dramas.
Fortunately, many good people of Phoenix — Muslim and non-Muslim alike — intervened against the stereotyping and the bullying perpetrated by Ritzheimer and his malevolent and misguided followers. Police estimate that a larger group of counter-protesters faced the anti-Muslim haters at the rally. They carried their own signs reading “Love not Hate,” and “Provoke Peace” at their Love Rally.
So, I ask, which side are we on? This question brings to mind civil rights activist Eldridge Cleaver‘s call to action: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Today as in the past, no truer words were ever uttered, for in the spectrum from occasional microaggressions to full-blown genocide, there is no such thing as an “innocent bystander.”

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).