Commentary: We've been down this road before

The beads fell out of the pocket of some pants I hadn't worn in awhile.

"Ah, man!" I said. The lucky charm I thought I'd lost was back.

The brown beads, called a sibhah, resemble a Catholic rosary or the "worry beads" Greeks and Turks rub through their fingers. They were given to me two years ago by the Iraqi drivers in the McClatchy Baghdad Bureau after my first six-week tour there. I carried them in a pocket with my wallet ever since.

They come from Karbala, one of Shia Islam's holiest places. It was a moving and meaningful moment when they handed them to me as we said goodbye. We didn't know if we'd ever see one another again. So I've carried them ever since -- not for any religious purpose but because people who took care of me during a war gave them to me.

So when I found the beads after they'd gone missing, they reminded me of my Muslim friends. And of the recent local response to the whole question of Islam in general and, in particular, Muslims in Merced.

We published a story about the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, and a gallery of photographs about it. Online comments and letters to the editor flew hard and fast, demanding that our local Muslim residents "denounce" radical Islam. Several commenters attacked the whole "Muslim world" while baying at the imam who wanted to put a community center and mosque two blocks from ground zero in Manhattan.

This is dangerous. We've been down this road too many times before. We've got to get a hold of ourselves and think through what some of us are saying. How can we Americans, a nation founded on the principle of freedom from and of religion, tar more than a billion-plus believers as subhuman zealots?

Do I think putting a community center and mosque that close to Ground Zero is dumb? Yup. Would I have changed the plan when so much resistance was raised? Yup, again. But it's a giant leap from one guy's tone-deaf construction blueprint to desecrating the religious beliefs of one-fifth of our planet's population.

Are there wing-nut Muslims? Sure. Do some pose a threat to the U.S. and Western countries? Some do. Should we take effective precautions to keep Islamic terrorists from hurting us again? No doubt about it. Just as we did after Tim McVeigh and the Unabomber.

But we can't blame an entire belief system for the insane actions of a few. Which too many Americans -- and Mercedians -- are doing nowadays.

Do we blame all Catholics for the sins of a few pedophile priests? Do we blame all Jews for the collective punishment inflicted on Palestinians by some Israelis? Do we blame all Protestants for the Westboro Baptist Church whose members gather near the graves of soldiers killed in action and chant, "God hates fags!" because of the Don't Ask/Don't Tell Pentagon policy about gays?

We've been down this road too many times before. Just take a look at the solemn memorial at the fairgrounds commemorating the Japanese-Americans who were interned there in 1942. Page through some of the old newspapers Sarah Lim keeps at the Courthouse Museum about "the yellow peril" posed by the Chinese in our town early last century.

Some folks hereabouts still bristle when called "Okies," remembering that in the '30s it was a slur against those who crossed half the country looking for work in the Valley's farms and fields.

As professor Juan Cole notes in his excellent "Informed Comment" blog at www.juancole.com: "Even though the United States was founded by a ragtag series of religious heretics seeking freedom to worship as they would, even though the constitution enshrines freedom of religions, even so, periods of religious intolerance have reared their ugly heads repeatedly in American history."

And he cites the vicious opposition in the 1840s to Olde St. Augustine Church in Philadelphia and "its dangerous Irish congregation and their Catholic Bible."

So we've been down this road before. I'm surprised and disappointed at this ugly spirit spread by some Mercedians. I sensed we were better people than to line up with the likes of Martin Peretz, editor of the New Republic. He blogged that "Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims" and added that Muslims haven't "raised a fuss about the torture and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood." (He later issued the ritual apology after he'd made his toxic point.)

Jews would call that a "blood libel," and they'd be right.

The Sun-Star will continue to cover Muslims in our community, just as we cover Sikhs, Hmong, Lao and others. Just as we cover Christmas, the Jewish High Holy Days (two weeks ago) and other religious holidays. It's part of our journalistic mission to inform our readers about parts of our communities they may not know much about.

I like what one of my Muslim friends, an Iranian-American, wrote for us in an op-ed earlier this week: "The ability to be civil about disagreements, and accept people regardless of their faith and political beliefs, may be the main requirement for moderation. Moderation should not equal naïveté. What the world needs today are some pragmatic and gutsy moderates who stand for what they know is right."

I also like what Monir Ahmed at UC Merced wrote to us: "There is a small Muslim community in Merced. It is also true that most of the members of the community are immigrants. As such they lack the acumen and are unable to articulate the proper way to communicate their opportunities and challenges, likes and dislikes, agreements or lack thereof."

Sounds like most Americans at one time or another in our history, right?

We've been down this road before. We've seen what happens to us when we take that wrong path. And we've seen what happens throughout history when other societies surrender their good sense and their open hearts to the darker devils of our nature.

We're better than that.

Aren't we?


Mike Tharp is the Executive Editor of the Merced Sun-Star. He can be reached at mtharp@mercedsun-star.com.