Because of Daesh. Because of the American Constitution. Because of my great aunt, who survived the Holocaust.
Mikey Weinstein directs the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a pit-bull watchdog defending separation of church and state in America’s armed forces. Most of the time when MRFF engages, it is because a service member has reported some type of violation and asked for assistance. Over 95 percent of MRFF’s clients are practicing Christians, who nonetheless reject being forced to participate in a superior officer’s Bible study or prayers, or who believe their vow to defend the Constitution bans state-sanctioned, state-funded religion, period.
Weinstein fights like a Republican and a soldier, deploying whatever force of language and law he can bring to bear with little regard for the rules of polite society. He uses words like “putrid” and “wretched“ when describing military displays of Christian triumphalism. His detractors react with even fewer filters. Much to the chagrin of moderate Christians, daily hate mail rains down curses laced with anti-Semitism and graphic images of death and dismemberment for Weinstein and his family—all in the name of Christ.
You might think Weinstein, who spends much of his budget on security, would lay low as assaults on Muslims heat up. Not so. I recently had the chance to ask him why. To my surprise, and his I think, the question brought him to the point of tears.
Tarico: Your detractors seem to be taking a break from calling you Christ-killer and instead are calling you ISIS sympathizer. They say that you are anti-Christian and anti-American, that you are aiding and abetting Islamic terrorists. One recently suggested that you were the third man in the San Bernardino slaughter.
Weinstein: Christian dominionists, like Daesh [ISIS], see themselves as part of a Holy War. Some see the U.S. army as an army of Christian soldiers and even say so. We’ve had to fight to get Bible verses off of weapons and to stop soldiers in uniform from handing out Christian tracts in the Middle East. We have fought over and over to get crusader imagery off of U.S. military insignias. There was a marine squadron in South Carolina with VMFA-122 who had the crusader shield with a red cross on it as their symbol. At Fort Rucker still there is a regiment whose symbol is a cross on a white shield with a helicopter (E company 1st battalion, 212th aviation regiment). It’s a training squadron and it’s at a place where we train helicopter pilots from Islamic nations, like Jordan. Think about that.
Are we aiding and abetting Daesh by fighting this crusader iconography, or—as in another recent media storm—by exposing the fact that the Air Force football team is holding Christian prayers on the field? No. We are stopping the aiding and abetting. The narrative of Daesh is that they are fighting a noble defensive jihad. Defensive. We want to destroy the false narrative of Daesh. We are saying, “We don’t tolerate this Holy War, crusader mentality here.” If we don’t stop it, then we reinforce their narrative. A senior Air Force General recently wrote to me confirming that the optics of this aren’t just bad—they are potentially deadly.
But if we challenge it, which we do, fundamentalists like Franklin Graham broadcast that we are on the other side—the side of Daesh (and Satan). I don’t like being called anti-Christian and a traitor. But for soldiers who are active military and who challenge the crusader mindset, it’s worse—and it’s especially bad right now for our American Muslim soldiers. If the role of the military is to defend Christianity rather than the Constitution, then Muslims don’t belong. The same is true for other religious minorities like pagans and atheists, but right now the hostility and discrimination are directed at Muslims.
Tarico: You’ve said you’re getting a lot of calls and emails from Muslims lately. I can’t say that’s surprising, but it’s painful.
Weinstein: Somewhere around 4,000 Muslims currently serve in America’s military, and we now represent about 13 percent of them, meaning they have reached out to us at some point. These are people who have contacted us because they feel like they are facing bigotry merely because they are Muslims. Their child has been called a terrorist in an on-base school. They have been denigrated by a superior or colleague. One was spit on in the commissary. They are the butt of jokes. I’ve been asked to submit testimony twice before Congress on the denigration of military personal who are Muslim. Today, being a Muslim in the U.S. military, you can feel like you have a target painted on you. The Muslim American community in the military is insular and xenophobic. They remind me of my ancestors, the Jews who came to America at the turn of the century.
Tarico: How so?
Weinstein: They feel like guests rather than citizens. It wasn’t till the 1960s that Jews were getting into Ivy league. When I was growing up, people didn’t even want to talk about the Holocaust. My relatives told me, “Mikey, we live in a Christian country.” I didn’t know enough to stand up and say no.
Tarico: But now you are saying no, not only on behalf of Jews but also on behalf of other religious minorities—in fact, these days, probably more often on behalf of Muslims. I want to understand that.
Weinstein: I had a great aunt who was a concentration camp survivor, a tiny woman from Berlin who spoke with a thick accent to the end. When she reached an advanced age, the family took her car keys away for safety reasons. Our family members lived close and we always insured that she was driven everywhere, but she got very upset, and she just couldn’t get past it.
When she was in hospice and a few days away from death, I went in to see her in part because I was troubled by this—her distress and anger and sense of betrayal. She was in bed and dying—in fact she died the next day—but very lucid, very clear. And I asked her about the keys.
This is a woman who had never talked to anyone in the family about the Holocaust. She had talked about it with Stephen Spielberg, giving him hours of video testimony when he was making the film Schindler’s List, but she never would talk with us. But when I asked about the keys, she said, “I remember when the first pronouncement came down from the Third Reich that we couldn’t gather in groups of 100 and no one did anything. Then it was groups of 50 and no one did anything. Then came Kristallnacht. After that, we couldn’t gather in groups of three. Then we all had to have the same letters and numbers on the license plates of our cars. Don’t ever stop what you are doing, Mikey, it’s important.”
She said don’t stop, because she knew about my work at MRFF.
But I wanted to get her forgiveness for our family taking her keys away. I didn’t understand why she was so upset when we were willing to ensure that she was driven everywhere, so I asked again. She leaned forward and looked at me—and said— [long pause]
“When you are a Jew you always have to be ready to get away.” [long pause]
I’m sorry, I’m struggling for words here—
There she was, 90-something and—having lived in America for 45 years—she needed her keys because she still feared she might need to get away!
I keep her picture on my desk. She had terribly suffered what happened in a Germany; a predominantly-Christian, presumably-civilized country—and it happened very, very quickly. I think the Islamic community in this country feels a lot like that.
Tarico: Her picture is there on your desk, reminding you of why you do what you do.
Weinstein: We had a firebombing at the Mosque in Albuquerque last year. I went down and met with the Imam and he had me address the brothers and sisters. I could see the fear in their eyes. Someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail against the childcare center. A couple of days later I overheard someone in a restaurant actually laud that attack- saying that would teach them. And then at my gym I heard someone say all Muslims are jihadists and I just went off at them.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Later he added that “there comes a time when silence is betrayal.” Most Americans don’t really remember the Japanese-American internment camps after World War II. We have presidential candidates that are making statements violating our law, and you can hear crickets chirping among most of the American public and the candidates who are not saying those things.
In many respects, I picture the American people—together—as the collective body of that young person who stood in front of the tank in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Are we going to stand in front of the tank or lie down and let it roll over us?
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.
Thank you Valerie for providing this platform, and thank you Mike for this touching story. But Mike, if you really are still a Republican, you might want to think about another option.
Thanks for writing this, Valerie.
When I was in the Army, I was told that they could not print ‘Atheist’ on my dogtags – ‘Deist’ was the closest they could come to it. There’s nothing secular about the US Army.
Having long admired Mikey Weinstein’s courage in confronting the crusader mindset in America’s armed forces, I thank you, Valerie, for interviewing him about the current climate of Islamophobia. I was moved to tears by his description of his Jewish great aunt’s felt need to be able to flee on a moment’s notice, and I imagine that’s an apt analogy for the Islamic community’s experience right now.
While scapegoating is a slippery slope in any age, I think it’s particularly insidious in this time of mass communication, when U.S. presidential candidates and the mainstream media (including and especially NPR) jump to brand any mass killing not only as a “terrorist” attack but specifically as a “jihadist” attack — long before there’s been any examination of the crime scene. As with the events of 9/11, there are MANY discrepancies and unanswered questions about the Charlie Hebdo, Bataclan, and San Bernardino attacks — discrepancies that could well point to entirely different perpetrators than those who were initially named as suspects IF we allowed time for a thorough investigation.
It’s essential that we keep our heads about us and NOT succumb to the psychology of fear that feeds into crusades of many kinds. In the current instance, we need to take a deep breath and ask ourselves who keeps perpetuating the “war on terror” by destabilizing one country after another in the Middle East, and who besides the weapons manufacturers actually profits from sowing fear and discord around the world. How is it that we in the U.S. allow ourselves to be “terrorized” by “jihadis” with guns and homemade bombs when we managed to live through the entire Cold War in nothing like this state of mass hysteria? Who benefits from collective suspicion and panic, and what’s the cost to us in terms of civil liberties and healthy communities . . . ?
Thank you again for this timely and insightful interview,
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I’ve always maintained that, due to our actions after 9/11, the terrorists won.
Unfortunately, the current state of paranoia is nothing new. During World War II, we turned away boatloads of Jews escaping Nazi persecution, under the (preposterous) notion that some of them might be Nazi agents.
I was born in 1948, and was a toddler during the McCarthy era. Nonetheless, I suspect that the same sort of paranoia existed then, with no evidence whatsoever except the baseless accusations of a Senator who was voted 96th out of 96 by his colleagues.
One of the verses to “Where have all the flowers gone” is appropriate here: “When will they ever learn.”
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Is it not the case that the Nazis didn’t care whether a Jew or a Gypsey or whoever was an Atheist. It was parentage they were concerned with – like Yahweh murdering the first-born of the Egyptians …. for the crime of having Egyptian parents, not for their thoughts or behaviours.
And so please can we deal with the facts, one’s Muslim-ness, one’s Christian-ness, one’s Judaism is a CHOICE. There is not gene for religion or supporting Manchester United FC. .
Stop examining this issue as if one’s religion is inherent. It’s not. People can become Muslim apostates and they can convert to being Muslims. If it was inherent none of that would be possible.
We must support those Muslim apostates by not subscribing to the fact that they are somehow deviants who are able to shed their beliefs despite their make up.
When it comes to grounds of discrimination, stop including religion along with gender, race, and sexuality as the former is a CHOICE and the latter three are inherent. Let’s recognise that distinction or else we are doomed to forced respect of an ideology.
I’m afraid that I must disagree with you here.
First, it was one’s grandparents, not one’s parents, that determined whether someone was sent to the death camps. The Nazis asked the seemingly innocuous question “Jewish grandparents”. The determining factor was whether the answer was yes, meaning that the person in question was at least 1/4 Jewish.
Second, whether or not religion is a choice doesn’t change the fact that it is, indeed, an excuse for discrimination.
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“…little regard for the rules of polite society…”
Keep up the good work Mikey. Here’s a fitting quotation for you.
“An obsession with polite or correct public language is a sign that communication is in decline. It means that the process and exercise of power have replaced debate as a public value. The citizen’s job is to be rude — to pierce the comfort of professional intercourse by boorish expressions of DOUBT. Politics, philosophy, writing, the arts — none of these, and certainly not science and economics, can serve the common weal if they are swathed in politeness. In everything which affects public affairs, breeding is for fools.”
John Ralston Saul, “The Doubters Companion”, p. 237
Reblogged this on Musings by George Polley and commented:
What is happening here as reported in this blog sickens me. When will we as a people learn this fundamental lesson: Unless we learn to treat one another with compassion and respect, this kind of abusive thinking and behavior will end in destroying us. Thank you Valerie Tarico, and you Mikey Weinstein, for doing what you do.
So you move back into space, find a comfortable spot and turn on your parabolic mic while adjusting your earphones. Then you listen to the sounds of earth, the music and the cries that overwhelm the music. You scan through the 7+ billion of minds and mouths of people and with your empathic sense fully open you abandon yourself to the cacophony. You hear Valerie and Mike talking and you isolate that bit for a few moments. Then you switch to rational thought, comparing that to the rest of the world’s output. And your mind says to you: shut it down, I want to say something. So your turn off your equipment, close your eyes and listen. You hear one word, repeated very slowly and deliberately: singularity. Singularity. And of course you know what it is saying: until the whole species is transformed by the irresistible force of a singularity, nothing can change. Every struggle is like a bubble in a heating pot. Each burst creates a short lived series of concentric circles quickly absorbed in the rising surface chaos. And with tears in your eyes you turn your back to that global event called humanity and continue your journey through the depth of space. You saw, you interacted for a bit, you recorded your results, but you did not come to initiate the singularity. “It” has its own agenda.
Just read this one. Good for Mikey and Valerie. (As I think I’ve commented elsewhere, I experienced the Military’s Christian fervor.) We live in the Real, Natural world. Of cosmic physics.
Thank you for all of your encouraging comments, Allan. They are much appreciated, even when I don’t reply.
Reblogged this on Mysa.