Thursday, July 31, 2014

Crimes in the Name of God

When ISIS (now called the Islamic State) took over Mosul in northern Iraq recently, its leaders ordered all women to wear full face veils. "This is not a restriction on her freedom but to prevent her from falling into humiliation and vulgarity or to be a theater for the eyes of those who are looking,” they said.

There were also reports that ISIS ordered all girls and women in Mosul to undergo female genital mutilation. These reports are less well substantiated, but the horror they describe is unimaginable.

In parts of India, Hindu widows are still shunned, and a woman who leaves her husband will not be taken back by her own family. Often her only choice for survival is to go to the city and become a beggar or a prostitute. Facing that, some commit suicide by setting fire to themselves in their marital beds.

If you are a Mormon mother, you are expected to stay at home. “The husband is expected to support his family and only in an emergency should a wife secure outside employment. Her place is in the home, to build the home into a heaven of delight.” (From the website of the Mormon Church.)

If you are a woman and a Catholic, you cannot aspire to be a priest.

If you are a woman who works for a company run by someone who, on religious grounds, opposes IUDs as a form of contraception, you must pay for your IUD yourself, even though the Affordable Care Act requires that your employer cover it under your health plan. (U.S. Supreme Court, Hobby Lobby.)

If you have business before the town council of Greece, New York, or many other governmental bodies in the U.S., you will have to miss the very beginning of the meeting if you don't want to hear the prayer that opens the session. (U.S. Supreme Court, Greece v. Galloway.) "When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another," Justice Kagan said in dissent. "And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines." But for now, they will.

Having to listen to a Christian prayer at the beginning of public business is not the same as having to cover your face with a veil. Having to buy your own IUD is not the same as suffering female genital mutilation. But both the inconvenient and the horrific are ushered in under the same auspices: religious conviction. 

Religious conviction often motivates good works, but it sometimes inspires despicable acts. Which is why we would prefer to keep the government out of the business of sponsoring it. Zeal is dangerous, especially to infidels.

Religion is particularly hard on women. Men aren’t forced to cover their faces or have their genitals mutilated to the point they cannot experience pleasure in sex. Men are not the chattels of their wives' families, nor are they directed to say home and raise the kids. Men are not asked to submit to spiritual guidance exclusively by women.

If you are a woman and you want to stay in a misogynist religion, that should be your choice (if you really do have a free choice). But it is not the place of government to force other women or men to play by religious rules they do not accept. It is, instead, the proper role of government to round up the metaphorical members of ISIS when they force their religious commandments on others and put them on trial for their crimes. For make no mistake, they are crimes.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Flag Waving

They're waving American flags in Murrieta, California. They're taking a bold stand, blocking busses bringing women and children who have crossed into the country illegally but now just need shelter while we decide whether to send them back to the terrible conditions they fled. The Murrieta flag-waver's angry faces are mirrors across half a century of the faces twisted by hatred in the crowd in Little Rock, Arkansas taunting black high-school students trying to be the first to attend a white school there. I was not proud to be a Southerner that day, and I am not proud to be a Californian today.

There is something about national flags that scares me. Meg and I were just in Paris for a month. She has a book coming out about the liberation of Paris in WWII, and we went to museums and looked at a lot of old photos of the Nazi flag draped over the buildings of Paris. Even now, so many years later, those images terrify me. They capture what we are capable of in the name of nationalism. They symbolize intolerance and oppression. They symbolize the notion that one people are superior to another.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." That is the lofty ideal upon which our nation was founded. We have stumbled in fulfilling that promise. We fought a terrible Civil War over it. It took us another century to give blacks anything like equal rights under the law. And now we are struggling with what to do with what amounts to our second big influx of cheap labor. African slaves in the first wave, Hispanic crop workers in the second. We like the work people of color do for us, but it seems that many don't like the people themselves so well.

I understand xenophobia. I understand its roots in our cave-dwelling past. But understanding is not the same as liking. Or respecting. I grew up in the South in the middle of the civil rights movement. Naively, I thought that great struggle, which culminated in the Voting Rights Act, was behind us. That we were moving toward more tolerance, more inclusiveness. When I moved to California, instead of blacks, the minority that did all the hard work was Hispanic. My gardener was Hispanic. My children's nanny was Hispanic. She and her family are dear friends now. California is the Golden State. It's not the bigoted south. Except in Murrieta.

I know better than to believe that everyone will like everyone, or even tolerate everyone. I think we're making progress in learning to get along together, to accept one another, to understand that we all share a common humanity that has at its core a desire for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I don't want to try to tell people how open-minded they must be. They have to find their own way to that. A mind cannot be forced open.

But I do want us to stop waving the flag. I don't want to see it in front of immigration busses. I don't want to see it at libertarian rallies. I don't want to see it at gun shows. I don't even want to see it in politicians' lapels. I don't want to see the easy demagoguery of draping it over bigotry and intolerance. That's not what we fought for when we first raised it. That's not what makes us proud of it today as we celebrate the birth, if not the complete maturation, of our way of living together here in America.