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Maria Alexander

(s)Word Slinger

Category: religion

The Real Problem(s) Behind France and Its Rising Radicalization

I meant to write this blog post after the Paris attacks. I only bring it up because I often find my acquaintances have a limited understanding of the problem that France and its immigrants are facing. (If you’re already aware of this, good for you. Spread the word.) When I was living there nine years ago, I did touch lightly on the subject in an article I wrote for Thomas Roche‘s now-defunct ErosZine. Given that the violence in France and other European countries is only escalating, I want to talk about what I learned living there about what’s driving Islamic radicalization.

I’m afraid it’s going to tarnish the Tour d’Eiffel a bit. So, hold on, Francophiles.

Juste Moi (Just Me)

Please keep in mind that this is my point of view based on what I learned when I was living in France, as well as being in a relationship with a French educator for a few years. It’s by no means the definitive explanation for France’s woes. However, if you can appreciate insights from a person who’s had a foot in both countries, this is for you. I’m talking about this because I think we Americans can learn quite a bit from what’s happening in France to prevent future bloodshed in our own country and foster true peace.

Also? MURDER IS WRONG. I’m not in anyway apologizing for terrorists. I’m just providing some insight into what’s inspiring disaffection. Whatever it is after that that ignites homicidal shitheadedness is something else entirely.

The Surprising Problems with Egalité

“Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité ou La Mort” — Liberty, Equality, Fraternity or Death. That’s the national motto of France. As Americans, we can dig it. While France’s revolution was inspired by ours, it’s important to understand that France’s version of “egalité” or “equality” is very different from America’s. In America, you can believe whatever you like and (theoretically) not be discriminated against in various settings for expressing your beliefs. However, in France’s version, while you can still believe whatever you want, your faith must remain entirely private. That means you can’t wear anything that reveals your religious beliefs. For egalité to work, France secularism demands that everyone look the same. I know that sounds strange to us Americans, but that’s how everyone in France can appear equal before the state. As a result, the country bans people from wearing overt religious sentiments, such as headscarves and veils — a huge problem for French Muslims, as discussed in this great LA Times article, “In France, extreme secularism.”

Before Americans get too high on their horses about this, keep in mind that America, too, at times legally curtails the practice of religion, such as the use of peyote by Native Americans, the Santerian ritualistic killing of livestock, and Mormon polygamy. At one time, Mormons were considered terrorists or at least agitators. No small amount of blood was shed over conflicts with their communities, such as in the 1838 Mormon War.

Parlez Vous Français, Petites?

What’s not discussed in the LA Times article, nor in many articles on the subject at all, is that a lot of newer Muslim immigrants, especially second- and third-generation youth, are not learning French. When you have a country like France that values language above all else, this is a very serious problem. If you don’t know French, you’re simply not considered a citizen.

While living in France, I got to know a French high school teacher who taught in the Paris suburbs where the 2005 riots happened. She shared with me her daily challenges dealing with these youth who, due to language issues, are often at least two years behind in schooling. She said they simply didn’t care to learn French or any of France’s customs, citing religious conflicts. She often called them on their hypocrisy: they were fine with watching secular movies and listening to secular music yet they refused to learn Voltaire because he was an atheist? Yeah, right. Turn in your damned homework, kid.

calmez-vous-et-parlez-francais-3Another problem this teacher faced was that, even if they had some literacy, those same students couldn’t write a simple essay supporting an argument. I explained to her that one understandably has trouble effectively analyzing or constructing arguments if one has been taught to accept a thick bolt of religious ideas without ever unwinding it — I knew this from personal experience as a former Christian Evangelical. (The French find Evangelicals to be deeply weird for lots of reasons, by the way.) It’s a skill deficit that poses yet another stumbling block to education, albeit not as initially problematic as the language barrier. But still.

French people told me that older Muslim citizens — those in their 40s and up — tended to know French and integrate more easily. I never got clarification as to why this was the case. It does, however, line up with what M. G. Oprea writes in the Federalist: “In the 1980s, second-generation North Africans tried to blend in with mainstream French culture. They wanted to get into clubs, to drink, and to dance. They just wanted to be ‘French.’ Today, things are different.” (Her article, “How France Grew Its Own Terrorists” is mostly excellent, although I’d hardly blame France for the violence. Please refer to my earlier note about homicidal shitheads.)

Unemployment and Discrimination

By far, the language issue isn’t the only thing holding back Muslim immigrants and their children. While French people might in fact be favorably disposed to Muslim immigrants, in hiring practice, they can be outright racist. An Arabic name on a job application, especially from someone in a certain age range, means the applicant probably doesn’t know the language and therefore disrespects French culture. The results are devastating to the employment prospects of French Muslim youth in particular.

Out of despair, rage and poverty, some youth turn to crime. A friend of mine in Aix, a young woman named Aurelie, told me she’d been “jumped” (assaulted and robbed) numerous times at night leaving work, always by Muslim youth. She was ready to boot out every single immigrant, but sadly never acknowledged the vicious cycle behind the crime.

Hello, Irresistible Force? Meet the Immovable Object…

If it sounds like Muslim religious requirements and France’s secularism are in solid conflict, they are. Both contribute to the growing disaffection and radicalization happening in that country. I love my country and its melting pot values, but I don’t expect France or any country to unravel its culture in order to accommodate immigrants the way we do (and the way I hope we will continue to do after the next election). I also sympathize with minority groups. They shouldn’t be either ignored or demonized just because they’re different.

How They Can Come Together

Given that France’s immigration issues and patterns are tied directly to its colonial history, with the vast majority of Muslims coming from North Africa, France has to take at least some responsibility for how they handle these particular immigrants. They can’t just dig in their cultural heels and say, “This is not French and therefore not allowed” because, hello, these folk are French. France has a terrible history of simply not dealing or indulging in outright denial. Therefore, something must change around the current version of secularism. I think France is strong enough to handle it. Hell, man, they let in evangelical Christians and Mormon missionaries whose sole purpose is to do the one thing that most French people hate: proselytize. They can figure out how to handle their citizens wearing headscarves. Further, employment discrimination needs to be dealt with in the courts and laws, not just with nice sentiments in flimsy polls (referring back to the LA Times article). And if the headscarf ban seems misogynist, it kinda is. France is pretty crap when it comes to women’s rights, which is a whole ‘nother blog post.

That said, everyone in France needs to learn French to be literate, educated, engaged citizens that can compete in the job market and fight for their rights. Some soul-searching needs to happen around what the true integration barriers are. (And kudos to the high school teachers who are calling kids on hypocrisies.) How can everyone integrate with the culture in a positive way? Sure, there are always going to be family and belief conflicts as kids grow and make their own way, regardless of country or culture. But pretending to eschew education in favor of religion when you’re really just lazy should be called out. Too many kids are following the siren’s call to extremist violence for anyone to let that shit pass.

There must be some flexibility on both sides, though, to solve the problems of integration. This isn’t about just ISIS versus the general population. Anti-semitism is also on the rise in France, with growing violence against Jews from primarily pro-ISIS and pro-Palestinian factions. (Check out the horrifying photo in that Vanity Fair article I linked to. Drawing a swastika on the Statue de la République is both about as anti-French and anti-semitic as you can get.) French Jews are leaving France in droves, which is heartbreaking and shameful to France.

Francois Hollande had a good idea when he introduced increased employment aid for low-income youth. Ironically, the more conservative Sarkozy also had a good idea that was thoroughly blasted: funding the construction of mosques so that Muslims felt more included. Neither solution is or was enough. Both France and its Muslim population need to do more for one another if the two are to embrace. Until then, the answer to the question as to whether one can be both Muslim and a French citizen remains dangerously uncertain.

“The Question”

As mentioned in a previous essay, my parents were syncretists. (Or should I say syn-cray-tists?) Picking and choosing whatever they liked from each Judeo-Christian religion we visited, they held contradictory beliefs without apparent conflict — that is, until their teenage daughter confronted them one day. (That would be me.) I was 16 at the time of this incident, and we were all supposedly evangelical Christians.

Names have been changed to protect the innocent. And by innocent, I mean no one in my family.

 

The Question

 

Emily drops me off at my home in Cameron Park one Saturday afternoon after I spend the night at her house.

“I’m home!” I call out, letting my backpack slide from my shoulder. The odor of spicy taco meat wafts towards the front door like plumes of alchemical smoke from a medieval Mexican lab. I silently beg God that the cheese is done because the grater never fails to slice the flesh from my knuckles.

“Hello Mawee-ah!” my father squeals in a girly voice. He careens toward me in his dingy brown polyester pants and oyster white dress shirt spattered with food from last night’s dinner, not to mention fresh dribbles of this morning’s coffee. He wants his “kiss,” which means squashing a slobbery, noisy smooch on my cheek as he makes noises like a squeegee on muddy glass. I reluctantly offer my cheek, putting up a hand between him and my burgundy sweatshirt. While other teen girls cut their sweatshirts Flash Dance–style so that they drape off one shoulder, I’ve re-sewn mine into a Renaissance-style bodice. It laces up the front through metallic grommets with a leather thong over an indigo Academic Decathalon t-shirt that I’ve slashed strategically atop the sleeves and in the cleavage. This is my style: New Wave Renaissance Nerd Princess.

My father, an unworthy peasant, continues. “Did you eat lunch with Emily, Mawee-ah?”

“Yup!” I plow down the hallway towards my bedroom at full tilt, as if I could possibly escape The Question.

He abruptly ceases his baby babble, face darkening as his jowls sweat violence. “What did you eat?” he growls. And now, The Question: “Did you eat pork? YOU DIDN’T EAT PORK, DID YOU?”

Every time I leave their presence and return, The Question hits me like Chinese water torture. Did you eat pork? And every time he asks, I usually brush it off with a breezy “No.” To which he consistently responds, “Good! Because pork is a damn dirty meat! I don’t want any daughter of mine eating it.”

But this time the flint of impatience strikes my flammable teenage hormones and I explode in fiery defiance. “Yes! I ate pepperoni and sausage pizza! So what?”

My mother emerges from the master bedroom with a basket of laundry. She’s a domestic chameleon, her butterscotch slacks and vanilla blouse blending into the walls and carpet. “Awwww, Maria! You didn’t!” The way she says it, you’d think I had announced I’d spent the night at Emily’s robbing banks and shooting heroin.

“I did! Because I’m a born-again Christian, saved by the blood of the lamb, and the bible says I can eat whatever I want!” My bible study is about to payoff. Maybe.

“I’ll show you what the bible says.” My father stomps into the family room towards the lamp stand by the couch where his weathered King James Bible sits. On top of his bible squats his Inter-Linear Greek-English New Testament with Commentary. He loves reading the Greek in low, dry whispers, relishing his arcane knowledge over our monolingual ignorance. He could be making it up, for all I know.

Down the hallway, Danielle’s bedroom door flings open. She explodes from her adolescent alcázar. It wavers with the haze of cheap perfumes, Michael Jackson’s music pulsating within. Great feathery earrings swing from her swarthy lobes as she wades into the fray, heavily glossed lips ready for argument. “Dad? Dad! There’s nothing wrong with pork!” she yells.

Like my father, my pubescent sister has one volume for everything: raucous.

“You be quiet!” he roars.

The volume in the house cranks up as the two of them squabble, Danielle defending my position without any better argument than simply repeatedly shouting, “We’re not Jewish!” Of course, they never ask Danielle what she eats. She and her friends probably go to Long John Silvers for plates of greasy popcorn shrimp and juicy crab legs drizzled with butter. Unlike me, she’s also allowed to listen to rock music – that is, if one can call Michael Jackson “music.” Meanwhile, I have to hide my 45s of Annie Lenox, Pink Floyd and Iron Maiden in the album jackets of Brahms and Grieg to play whenever my family leaves the house.

“You go ahead and look that up. I’ll be in here with proof!” I dump my backpack on my bedroom floor and close the door. I then pull my New International Version bible off the bookcase shelf where it lives with my mother’s religious books, and collapse on my bed.

I’ve known this fight was coming. Thanks to my father’s penchant for violence, I’ve avoided the confrontation as long as I can. My heart now jackhammers in my chest as I anticipate something just short of Armageddon. Sick of the hypocrisy and ignorance, I am going to prove to them that the Jewish food laws don’t apply to us and then maybe — just maybe — my father will stop annoying the living hell out of me with The Question.

I examine the passages in the bible I’ve highlighted and memorized. Although quaking with apprehension, I briefly fantasize about an idyllic dinner at Sizzler ordering shrimps with my steak and potato.

The shouting between my sister and father stops. After a moment, someone knocks on my door.

“Come in.”

My father shambles in without even a bible in hand. I wonder what’s up, as he’s never knocked in his entire life and loves dragging out that Inter-Linear book for no reason. It feels unfair to duel an unarmed opponent, but I figure it’s his theological funeral. Of course, it could be my literal funeral.

“What’s this about you eating pork?” His gruffness is shockingly subdued. Still, you could have swapped the phrase “eating pork” for “smoking hash” or “cutting class.” Disappointment paints pouches under his eyes, his gaze strafing the walls rather than meeting mine. He enters the room and shuts the door, plopping down on the sagging edge of the bed.

I point to the bible lying open before me. “Dad, it says right here — ”

He grimaces. “I don’t care what it says. It doesn’t mean what you think it means.”

“Yes, it does! In Romans chapter 14, verse 14 it says, ‘As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself.’ And then he says, ‘But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean.’”

I reign in my enthusiasm for a moment to avoid stumbling into the next verse, which says, ‘If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love.’ I leave that out because I don’t consider my family to be “brothers,” and “love” rarely figures in the father equation. Besides, verse 16 follows, which somewhat undermines the previous verse. It says, ‘Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.’ I take this to mean merely that I shouldn’t eat unclean meat in front of people who are offended by it and that I should defend my actions when called on it. But I want to end the quote on a strong point, not one that seems to concede to my father’s bizarre obsession.

My line of reasoning clear, I bravely knot my thread of logic so that it can’t slip: “So, according to the bible, for you, it’s unclean. But for me, it’s not! And as long as I don’t eat in front of you, I’m acting in love. That’s what the bible says.” Although I wait with triumph for his concession, I also keep one eyeball on the window as an escape route.

“Maria, Maria.” He wrinkles his nose, his glasses nudging upwards. “The Old Testament lays out the food laws for a reason. It’s forbidden to eat unclean meat. Pigs and cloven-hoofed animals are filthy.”

Actually, cows have cloven hooves, but they chew their cud and therefore remain on Moses’ menu. Since my father is from Chicago and neither of us has ever seen a real live cow except in a field from the car window, the error is understandable. I let the error slide in favor of addressing the more egregious issue.

“Don’t you see that we’re Christian now and we don’t have to follow those laws?” I tear through the pages to 1 Corinthians, chapter 10 and read out loud from verse 25. “’Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, The earth is the lord’s and everything in it.’” I drill a finger into the page and turn the book towards him.

A tap on the door. “Ah, Maria? Steve?” My mother pushes open the door slightly, peering inside.

Jabbing a thumb at her over his shoulder, my father slides off the bed. “Listen to your mother.” He shuffles out as my mother ambles inside.

Stunned by his denial yet undaunted, I gear up to pitch the argument to my mother, although I know from many a debacle that the fabric of her reasoning is badly frayed. But since she’s here, I figure I might as well try.

“So what’s going on?” Her face lights up with excitement as she lowers herself onto the bed. She probably enjoys being included for once in an “intellectual” discussion between my father and I.

I show her the passages I showed my father and make the identical argument, which I end by saying, “Paul said it! It’s right there!”

My mother shrinks up into herself, folding her arms over her bulging abdomen. She squints at me as she doles out what will go down in history as the least scholarly response ever uttered: “But honey, Paul was the least popular of the disciples.”

Um.

“Nobody liked him,” she continues. “So, in other words, we don’t have to listen to him if we don’t want to.”

“Nobody liked him?” My mouth drops open and my mind somersaults as it attempts to follow the corkscrew logic. “He wrote, like, half the New Testament! I’d say he’s pretty seriously important!”

“But he wasn’t that important.” She turns up her nose with apparent indignation. The statement seems to clear up things for her. Standing from the bed, she digs her hands into her hips in her signature pose. “Are you having lunch with us? Or did you eat already with Emily?”

“I ate, Mom.”

“Oh. Well, then help me with the laundry.”

My mother’s logic has me hog-tied. My hopes of ever escaping The Question spiral down the gorge of insanity. I’ve been denied a rational discussion and, with despair, I realize I’ll only ever have peace once I leave the house.

That won’t happen soon enough.

Why We Need to Stop Saying That Something Isn’t “Christian”

As some of you know who’ve read my silly personal essay, I’m a recovering Pentecostal. When I was a teenager, I went to the Assemblies of God Church (just like Sarah Palin), and later continued onto the far less intense yet just as committed denomination of the Evangelical Covenant Church. In my childhood before that, my family converted to Judaism for several years. I went to Hebrew school and attended synagogue in the San Fernando Valley.

I have a long history of biblical study. While I certainly am not as up on my verse quoting as I used to be since I ceased to be a believer in 1996, I’ve been thoroughly steeped in both Old and New Testaments. As a result, while imperfect, my understanding of what many would call The Word of God is better than average. And I recall vividly the intellectual Cirque du Soleil I had to perform each day to make sense of my life as I tried to follow Christ.

So, when I see a non-believer telling Christians what is or isn’t “Christian” — and I see it multiple times a day in my social media feeds — it’s clear that they have a superficial understanding of the Bible. Of course, the definition of “Christian” has been an apocalypse-inducing topic for 2000 years. But the surface definition that secular people are using is only creating deeper rancor in our discourse as we struggle with cultural issues like the rights of LGBTQA people.

Did Jesus Preach Acceptance?

The greatest secular misconception about Jesus regards The Golden Rule. He certainly did preach in Mark 12:31, “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” And in Matthew 7:12, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (New International Version)

We love this. It makes sense and helps us get along, creating a more compassionate society. It’s not necessarily acceptance, though, or even tolerance, which is what secular folk crave.

You see, Jesus profoundly contradicts himself in other verses, giving Christians the ability to construct a far harsher, more nuanced stance on social issues.

The Catch

Many non-believers don’t understand Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament. You know Leviticus? That book with all the horrific commandments about stoning people to death for committing adultery and homosexuality? We like to trot out some of the more esoteric and ridiculous-sounding verses from that book as examples of its irrelevance to modern life, like how it’s an abomination to wear mixed fabrics or to eat shellfish.

But here’s what Jesus says about The Law in Matthew 5:17-20:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

By these words, Jesus was not only down with not eating shellfish, he was for stoning your daughter to death for adultery.

But What About “Casting the First Stone”?

This story (which was not even in the original Greek text) is told at the beginning of John 8. Most secular people are familiar with Jesus’ words in verse 7: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

What most do not know is how that story ends in verses 10-11.

“Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’

11No one, sir,’ she said.

‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’

That’s my emphasis. It’s clear that even when Jesus was hypocrisy hunting, he didn’t let anyone off the hook. Just replace “leave your life of sin” with “stop having gay sex,” and you’ll see what I mean.

It’s a Hot Mess

I first encountered the crazy dance between Jesus and The Law when I was in my early teens, trying to convince my parents who had purportedly converted back to Christianity that it was okay to eat “unclean” meat like pepperoni. One verse would say one thing, but the next two would reverse the previous conclusion. Whenever I questioned pastors and Bible teachers, they sorted out the contradictions by making priorities. Who cares if you eat pork? Just don’t murder anyone or sleep with the wrong person at the wrong time. That’s more serious.

So, Christians actually have quite the scriptural arsenal at their disposal if they want to create an argument, say, against gay couples adopting children or for denying employees health coverage for abortifacients (or what they think is an abortifacient, anyway). It’s perfectly “Christian” to do anything legally or morally that supports what the Bible says about certain human behaviors, even in the Old Testament.

That’s why secular folk are better off not playing the “This isn’t Christian” card in social issue debates. It doesn’t in the least, nor should it, shame a believer into thinking they don’t understand the Bible when they do — far better than the person making the accusation, in fact. You can imagine how infuriating and insulting that might be. Think about the last time someone contradicted your understanding about climate change evidence or even the age of the earth. We’re not talking about the same kind of data, obviously, but it’s the same reaction.

It’s totally legitimate to point out that people are clinging to some verses over others, such as eating lobster over stoning people to death. (For the record, even in my holy roller days, I was always a lot more about eating lobster. Not so much about stoning.) That’s getting to a deeper issue about biblical inconsistencies, but it isn’t about being Christian per se.

The Stronger Position

And I understand why this is so frustrating. The rest of us for the most part like to see the similarities in religions, to take the wisdom of each to create a more loving and peaceful place for us all. We seek tolerance in a world where religious conflict is eating us alive, destroying nations, ripping apart families, murdering LGBTQA people, and oppressing women and young girls. In our rage, our fear, we latch onto anything that might give us leverage in our discourse. But this, I’m afraid, isn’t it.

I don’t have any answers. All we can do is continue our quest for compassion and tolerance, to promote peace and understanding where possible, and to fight for justice for those who have been treated unfairly. Staying on our own turf and speaking about the benefits of compassion and inclusion rather than venturing into a religious debate when we don’t know the intricacies of that religion is the stronger position, giving us a more powerful voice.

And now I’m going to go eat some pepperoni.

(I’m also turning off comments. For the sake of my sanity and time, I have no interest in publishing the sort of debates that might ensue here. Thanks for your understanding.)

Obama Doubts His Faith? (Prediction Comes True)

Remember in this previous blog post when I said:

On the other hand, his transits on January 21, 2013 are definitely indicative of a pleasant inauguration day. Lots of heartfelt communication, expansion in power (although not an easy one), and a sense of new self. This comes  after a seriously brutal transit of guilt and self-doubt around the middle of December. He might even have heavy religious doubts. On inauguration day, he’ll still be reeling from the burst bubble.

And then this happened:

On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza, 20 years old, fatally shot twenty children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Connecticut. He had killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, at their nearby Newtown home before driving to the school. After shooting the students and staff members, he committed suicide.

If ever there was something faith-shaking…this is it.

While you have seen him tear up, you can believe he has taken this deeply to heart. He probably even blames himself — if not for what happened, then most certainly for anything that might happen later.

I don’t mind if he has a crisis of faith. It’s healthy and makes us rely more on reason than blind expectations. And while I want him to make this personal, I don’t want him to take this personally and crumple. I hope he finds the strength because he’s going against powerful foes as he backs an assault rifle ban. I want them to feel the concrete in his fist when it hits the political structures that have kept this country at the mercy of NRA interests.

Rock on, Mr. President. We, the People, are behind you. The reasonable People, anyway.

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