Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Intersectarian Joke

"There was once a Christian man in Syria who was known for how much he hated Muslims. He constantly cursed them and wished the worst things on them. When he grew old and became ill, he asked to be converted to Islam. His family was completely perplexed and couldn't understand why he would ask such a thing when he had always impressed on them how much he hated Muslims and how terrible he thought they were. He said "Don't ask. Just let me convert." So the family respected his wishes and brought the sheikh to witness his profession of Islam. On his death bed, the man called his family over and said "I have something to tell you. Do you know why I converted? So that when I die there will be one less Muslim in the world." Then he passed away.

Yes, folks, this joke is offensive and bigoted. I share it with you, of course, not as a statement of my views, but as a tidbit of anthropological data. When you ask people here about sectarian relations, the first thing out of their mouths is something like "We don't have sectarianism here! This isn't Lebanon. This isn't Iraq. And thank God. We all live together in shared community. We are all brothers. We love each other."

One doesn't need to be too perceptive to realize that this is the ideal and expected party line that they are reciting. It's similar to racism in the US. If someone asks you whether you are a racist, we generally say "No! Of course not!," and we all know the cliched response "I have many black friends...." to prove that we aren't racist. It doesn't particularly matter if we see those friends once a month rather than everyday, although frequency is a significant diagnostic for the social researcher.

But as we get to know each other more deeply, we can begin to see the racism of our society that has seeped into our views, even if we have the best of intentions and the most tolerant ideals. We hear the language of people of color being described as "uneducated" rather than "black", even if the person in question is highly educated but chooses to retain a certain pattern of speech for particular social contexts. We hear the disdain for certain "urban" clothing styles and how they are "ragged" or unprofessional. We hear the complaints about the "loud," "unintelligible" music and the television shows that focus on America's minority cultures (like on the WB), or how they are "taking over."

The treatment of sectarianism in Syria is very similar to our treatment of racism back in the US. We know that we aren't supposed to be sectarian or racist, so we say that we aren't (and many times we truly believe this to be the case), and we want to present our society in the best light (particularly to outsiders), so we give them the party line rather than talk about the problems with prejudice that do still exist. And just as in America, comics and humor are given more or less free reign to deal with these sensitive, often taboo, issues (I challenge you to visit a comedy club in New York or L.A. where race won't be the basis for a set), issues that we have trouble dealing with in a head-on fashion.

Yesterday I interviewed the first man I have met whose initial response when questioned about the relations between the sects in Syria responded that "There are no relations. They all hate each other." His personal stance stems largely from his own sectarian experience as a Druze (although non-believing, non-practicing). Stay posted for my reportage on this interview in the next installment.

Thanks to David Bender for sharing the above joke with me, which he heard from a Syrian associate.


Blogger douglas said...

I disagree with your premises about racism in the United States. Urban clothing is "ragged" and "unprofessional" by design- that's not some false perception placed on the style, that's how it's meant to be read.

"We hear the language of people of color being described as "uneducated" rather than "black", even if the person in question is highly educated but chooses to retain a certain pattern of speech for particular social contexts."
I think this would more accurately be presented as some people of color (and some people not of color) utilize the 'urban' pattern of speech to maintain 'street cred', even though it is deliberately uneducated and improper speech. I offer you the all too common "you're acting too white" ridicule used against those who speak proper English in some communities as evidence that it's not about color, except as a means of using peer pressure to assure the self-fulfillment of victimological prophesy.

One has to beware seeing one set of distinctions as a cause where in fact another set of group distinctions is at work. Just as Northern Ireland was often incorrectly portrayed as a rift between religious sects, it was in fact a division between political loyalties- royalists vs. nationalists, whose religious sect allegiance was dictated solely by political allegiances, and was therefore a byproduct and not a cause. Likewise, you are here seeing race as a determinate where socio-economic issues are the driving force of division. Race is simply used to reinforce this, and unfortunately, used primarily as a mark of victimhood by those seeking to find someone to blame for their woes.

2:35 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home