Tuesday, August 01, 2023

Question: Are Protesters Just Regular Anti-Gay Bigots, or Not?

In the ongoing Montgomery County protests about opt-out for storybooks, county residents -- especially county liberals and progressives -- are seeing the Muslim protesters as being the same as our familiar antidemocratic, authoritarian, homegrown anti-gay haters. On the other hand, the Muslim leaders say things like, "This is not an anti-LGBTQ+ movement. We understand this is a pluralistic society. If we become anti-LGBTQ+, we’ve lost the point." On the other other hand, MAGA extremists Moms for Liberty have promoted and planned these protests, and Muslim group Family Rights for Religious Freedom's leader Wael Elkoshairi (quoted above) personally handed the microphone to a Moms for Liberty speaker at one of the protests. On the other other other hand, he then told MoCo360 that "he 'had no idea who she was' at the time and that she wasn’t visibly affiliated with Moms for Liberty, resulting in what he called 'an honest mistake' on his part." There is some skepticism. Like, lots.

Local liberals see the protesters as garden-variety conservative haters, with Muslims making up the great majority of the crowd, and it is admittedly hard to see any gap between the Muslim groups and their rightwing allies. They are collaborating and both groups are covering it up, each is taking advantage of the other, and viewing them as one enemy certainly makes opposing them easier. And, the bottom line, both of them are trying to discriminate against our LGBT+ family members and neighbors -- yes, leaving the room when a kind of person is mentioned is discrimination. The Muslim leaders claim a religious rationale and criticize anyone who complains about them as "Islamophobic," but we have seen Christians do the same thing, also claiming to be victims because of their religion.

Is an alternative hypothesis plausible?

No one agrees with me, but I am hesitant to lump them together. I have listened to a lot of the speakers, interviews, mosque sermons, and so on, and there is an alternative hypothesis. There are nearly two billion Muslims in the world. It is one of the World's Great Religions, and has been going for a millennium and a half. In all that time, they have consistently considered homosexuality to be a terrible sin. Nobody reading this can defend all the stuff some religions believe, that's just the nature of religion. No Muslim country would ever try to call itself "The Land of the Free" -- some of them have morality police, fer cryin' out loud. In recent history many Muslims have migrated to the US, a very different kind of place, and they are learning to balance between maintaining their traditional culture and adapting to the new one they have voluntarily joined. And I think I can safely say that approximately zero non-Muslim Americans want to live under Sharia law, which is what is behind the Muslim opt-out demand. (In one Michigan town that is majority Muslim, it appears they are implementing a social order that conforms to their own norms, which the rest of the townspeople might not like, but that's democracy for ya.)

I don't believe they hate gay and trans people like our homegrown bigots do. They just have a different view of what it is, and that view is built into their way of life, and it puts them in conflict with the liberal Western democracy they have moved to, where "all men are created equal" is an ideal we always strive for. It must be a shock to see gay and trans people walking around unashamed and unpunished -- and remember, our own American culture is still straining to climb to the next rung ourselves. I do not know how they got swept up in this particular issue about English classes, but have some thoughts. Obviously storybooks with LGBT+ characters do not violate the tenets of Islam, they're just stories that kids read. As you will see below, the current local controversy seems to have started with our ordinary haters, and then the Muslims somehow took it up and became the face of it, and now they are in too deep to back down or compromise, which they will have to do, or else separate from the rest of American society. The alternate hypothesis is that our Muslim neighbors are not authoritarian bigots, but have a traditional belief that is discordant with US society; they have been swept up into the MAGA movement but -- the alternative part -- they are reasonable, educated people who would make the right choice, given accurate information.

Rightwing origins

At the first "opt-out" protest, County Council member Kristin Mink mingled with the protesters, listened to them, and then horrified liberals and offended Muslims by saying, to their face, "This issue unfortunately does put some, not all of course, some Muslim families on the same side of an issue as white supremacists and outright bigots." Even so, she said, she "would not put [them] in the same category." For which she was called an Islamophobe and roasted at the stake by the right and the left. Her honesty was punished but she identified a big part of the problem.

Here's something interesting. A statement submitted by an MCPS Assistant Superintendent in the "opt-out" lawsuit mentions that, before MCPS stopped letting schools decide informally, "parents sought to excuse dozens of students in a single elementary school from instruction using the LGBTQ-Inclusive Books." The statement also notes that many of the informal requests were not religious in nature.

You know what that means? It means it was not Muslims that started this. There aren't dozens of Muslim families at any single elementary school. They make up a little more than one percent of the county's population.

Local reporter Em Espy tweeted a meaningful observation: "in the dozens of convos I've had with protesters, when I remember to ask the question, *most* indicate they haven't read the LGB[T]Q+ inclusive storybooks for themselves. This experience has been echoed to me by other reporters as well." This raises the question -- where is the framing coming from? Why do they believe these books are so bad, if they haven't even seen them? The answer is very likely that Moms for Liberty and other MAGA hate groups are deliberately misleading them, trying to motivate the Muslims to act in a way that does not serve themselves at any level.

The Muslim groups say they are fighting for religious values but they are collaborating with groups who represent an entirely different religion altogether. I don't like to think it but it is not unreasonable to conclude that Councilmember Mink was wrong, and they are "in the same category with" our homegrown haters. If there is a difference, now is the time to reveal it.

Parents' rights are not a religious question

It is not clever or new to invoke religion as an excuse for bigotry -- our Christians do it all the time. I am pretty sure there is nothing in Islam -- a religious culture that has led the world for centuries in philosophy, mathematics, science, and the arts -- that says your kid can't read a story about a family with two moms.

When the Muslim group leaders are asked about their religious values, they immediately switch the topic to "parental rights," which is simply a rightwing talking point: "We just want to be the ones who decide when our children should learn about these things." They stand outside Carver chanting "Save our children." From what? That is an entirely different point from religious values. And it is not a point that holds water; it only expresses loathing for LGBT+ people, as if these stories are some kind of danger to their children. It may sound outrageous to say so, but in the real world parents do not dictate what a public school will teach, and the school is not obligated to comply with squeaky wheels. Tell me, in Islamic scripture, what is the right age for a child to read a story about a knight and a prince falling in love? A: it is not mentioned. I would like to hear someone explain exactly what religious requirements these readings violate. Theologically, it does not seem any different from a Christian or Jew steeped in "Thou shalt not kill" reading a murder mystery. It would be sinful to murder somebody; reading about it is nothing.

Is there an honest religious objection, or are these groups simply under the influence of rightwing Christian bigots? It looks like it's just another gay wedding cake. And the follow-up is, having been backed into a corner by bad influences, can these protesting groups still negotiate and reason with the school district to come up with something that actually works? As Councilmember Mink said, "It's complicated."

Liberal backlash

The people who support gay and trans rights, and that is a great majority of this county, consider these protesting Muslims to be ordinary haters. They see them pushing to impose their prejudices on our public schools just like the rest of the radical right is doing. You can call everybody in the whole county Islamophobes, if you want, but that's how it looks to a normal person reading the newspaper. There is no public sympathy from Democrats or progressives, nobody is buying the "religious values" argument, nobody believes the Muslim groups are capable of reasoning with the school district, people just see more gay-bashing. These people want to leave the room when LGBT+ people are even mentioned, which is insulting, and isn't that the point?

I have been trusting that there is a core of sincerity in the Muslim protests, and that they have been misled by cynics along the way. Of course I had to be officially kicked out of the liberal cabal that is advocating for one-sided "inclusiveness" -- I've gone several weeks now without my Soroscheck, and am not even receiving my daily classified documents from Hillary's personal email server. The self-labeled progressives seem to think that the readings are being criticized and need to be defended, yay gay people. No, that is not the problem; nobody is criticizing the readings. In misinterpreting the situation they envision a crisp duality, as usual, in black and white, us against them, and the Muslim protesters are "them." I actually do believe in inclusiveness and do not see any good outcome resulting from othering the Muslim groups, to borrow the liberal-approved lingo. That is, dehumanizing and excluding them, which is the opposite, you notice, of "inclusion." I don't believe these protesters want to destroy our democracy like the other anti-LGBT+ groups do, but they are being intransigent about a position that does not actually make sense and cannot become the norm in our county. They don't like the reaction they are getting, and are doubling down but they're losing friends fast. In my opinion, liberals should be working on ways to bring the Muslim groups into the fold, to educate them and negotiate with them. But the one-dimensional progressives reject that possibility.

The lawsuit is a separate thing from the protests but nobody cares about the details. Everybody likes to say "the issue will be settled" but it won't be settled by the court -- one side or the other will have to accept something they find unacceptable. If "they" (an alliance of conservatives including Muslims) win the judgment and the schools have to implement opt-out, the public will resent the Muslim community for a long, long time, because it's their face on this. If their kids are standing up and walking out of class when rainbow stories are read, it will make a statement every time, and the resentment against that kid and his community will be palpable. They will not be trusted again. I'm just saying. Think it through.

How to resolve it

I obviously support the LGBT+ community. I think these diverse storybooks are good for our county and are good educational policy. Characters in pedagogical fiction have traditionally been whitewashed, pasteurized and homogenized, and it is better in all ways when they reflect the real makeup of our society. As Councilmember Mink said, "we cannot modify our fact-based, science-based curriculum to reflect particular religious beliefs that are not aligned with that science based curriculum." The authoritarian right wants to destroy secular public schooling; allowing families to pick the classes they approve of would be like planting a bomb in our educational system, and it can't happen. I am holding out that the Muslim protesters are not part of that, but are reasonable people who have gotten backed into a corner, and I think our best future follows from helping them out of that corner with their integrity intact.

As Councilmember Mink said, "It's, again, complicated, because they're following the same side of this particular issue." It's more complicated than that, when they meet with rightwing extremists and feature them at their protests: what are we supposed to think? Our Muslim neighbors have been good citizens, good for our county, good people; it is painful to think of them as run-of-the-mill haters, and I hope they are not. But they are going to get nothing but pushback from Montgomery County residents including the school district at this rate; the situation is polarized with no flexibility on either side. If this is resolved by the imposition of authority there will be bad feelings for a long time, no matter which way the court decides.

You can't make them believe God approves of homosexuality. We believe in freedom of religion, and some religions teach that it's a sin -- it's not just Islam. This is simply a fact of life in the free world, people can believe whatever. But MCPS is not trying to make anybody be gay or do anything their faith says they shouldn't do. It would be good if everybody was tolerant and reasonable but you can't demand that. What you can demand is that all students should show overt respect for one another, and you can at least hope that parents support their children in learning to be respectful. We have to educate our children about the diversity they will be discovering in the real world, so they can grow up to be good citizens.

Of course I disagree with the Muslim view of sexual identity, and I hope that the rest of us can help them evolve to a more comfortable place with it. Remember, mainstream America has been trying for a long time, and we still have a long way to go -- we are not in a position to judge somebody else's beliefs. But we cannot permit dehumanizing and disrespectful (never mind rude) behavior in the public schools. Muslim kids can sit through a story, it won't hurt them. They will learn about their friends' families and about people they will meet in their lives. MCPS should have prepared the families for this and they failed, but we can't go back now. I hate to say it but the Muslim groups are blowing it here, they are embarrassing themselves affiliating with bad people, and it is up to them to make a conciliatory gesture. For instance, offer to sit down and look at the books with an open mind, and evaluate the actual threat objectively. MCPS should offer an opening, too, and work with these groups, trusting they are different from the haters we are so familiar with, but are a population trying to adjust, who have hit a rocky place in the road.

Unrequested advice to Muslim protesters: distance yourselves from the haters.