December 12, 2004

When in Rome

I considered moving to Tokyo to teach English right out of college but then chickened out. I wasn’t ready to live abroad in an alien culture at 22. (Actually, I probably was. I just thought I wasn’t.) Six years ago, before the eruption of the second intifada, I agreed to move to Jerusalem for an Intel tech writing job. But I didn’t go because the position was eliminated before I could start.

I thought long and hard about what it would mean to live in a culture different from mine. The first thing I would have to do – obviously – is accommodate myself to people who are different from me. If I moved to Japan I would expect to encounter Buddhism once in a while. If I moved to Jerusalem I’d expect something around a Jewish theme. And if I ever decide to move to Istanbul (to pick a random example), I'll expect a reduced selection of restaurant options at noon during Ramadan.

I can't imagine moving to one of those places and pitching a fit about and getting “offended” by the local traditions. Only the ugliest of ugly Americans would even think of it.

But some people do behave that way and – amazingly – fools let them get away with it.
Last week, a public elementary school in the northern [Italian] city of Treviso decided that Little Red Riding Hood would be this year's Christmas play instead of the Christmas story.

The teachers said the famous tale was a fitting representation of the struggle between good and evil and would not offend Muslim children. The school's traditional nativity scene was scrapped for the same reason.

In another school near Milan, the word "Jesus" was removed from a Christmas hymn and substituted with the word "virtue." In Vicenza province an annual contest for the best Nativity scene in schools was canceled.

Conservative politicians and Churchmen blasted the moves.

"Are we losing our minds?," said Reforms Minister Roberto Calderoli, an outspoken member of the populist Northern League. "Do we want to erase our identity for the love of Allah?"
Some places are more hospitable than others, and the Muslim countries are at the absolute top of that list. But there’s a flip side to hospitality. It ought to go both ways. Let's not forget there's such a thing as a rude guest. Those brats and their parents in Italy are perfect examples.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at December 12, 2004 10:30 PM

Comments

I don't disagree with your conclusion, but your premise is disturbing. Is every person who is not of the dominant religion or culture merely a "guest"?

So, every Muslim in every country with a Christian majority has only the rights and privileges of a "guest," as opposed to those of a citizen?

You're smart enough to see the ominous implications (and ugly ironies) of that proposition.

Posted by: Mork at December 12, 2004 11:10 PM

Mork,

I see your point and thought of it myself. Keep in mind I used the word "guest" in a paragraph about "hospitality" (can you suggest a better word for my point here?) in a post that started off with my thoughts on moving to another country on a temporary basis. I framed this a bit narrower than straight immigration. I could have framed it differently, sure, but I never personally have considered how I would behave abroad as an immigrant, so I didn't.

I would have made the same point either way, but with different language.

If I ever write up a post saying Muslims should be second-class citizens, you'll be more than welcome to resume this line of argument. But since that's not at all what I said, let's move on from the hair-splitting PC for now.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at December 12, 2004 11:53 PM

But, Mork, Muslims who live in Christian-majority countries had damn well better learn not to be offended by the religion of their neighbors. Before pouncing on me you might want to remember that I am not a Christian myself and couldn't give two shits about the religion one way or the other.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at December 12, 2004 11:56 PM

Mork, I fear you missed the point...the forest for the trees, if you will. I read what Michael wrote and I think of all the issues my friend in Egypt is having about wearing a veil. You want to respect local customs and traditions but sometimes local customs and traditions fly in the face of everything you believe in. Sometimes, also, you see an appeal to those traditions after a while...like my friend is warming up to the veil for the simple fact that without it, in some places, every man within a 50-foot-radius will sexually harrass her, otherwise. And by sexual harrassment I mean sexual harrassment, not some bullshit-PC crap but the real thing.

That's my take and personal perspective. I dunno. I think you're nitpicking, Mork, and reading into it what you want to read into it.

Posted by: Grant McEntire at December 13, 2004 12:01 AM

And to quickly disagree with one thing you said, Michael...

Yeah, I think, as a general rule, Muslim peoples are extremely hospitable. But they treat women like absolute shit, man. I keep hearing this from Beth in Egypt, that staying there is one kind of experience if you are a man and a completely different one if you are a woman. She's told me, flat out, that she feels afraid and anxious around men, now, and that it might actually be something she'll need counciling for when she gets back here.

Some of the stories she's told me in particular would give you the creeps. Trust me. It's like I said in my last comment up there...there's flirting and even flirting in bad taste and then there's sexual harrassment. Legitimate sexual harrassment in commonplace in alot of the countries you're talking about.

Posted by: Grant McEntire at December 13, 2004 12:15 AM

Grant,

Yeah, I know. My wife went with me to Tunisia and Libya. We had different experiences, indeed. Things shifted pretty dramatically for her if I left here alone anywhere for even five seconds.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at December 13, 2004 12:26 AM

Well, Michael, the article you linked contains no indication that the Muslims in question are anything other than Italian citizens. You clearly referred to those exact people as "guests":

Let's not forget there's such a thing as a rude guest. Those brats and their parents in Italy are perfect examples.

Now, it may have been carelessness, but you plainly wrote a post that did refer to Italian Muslims as second class citizens.

Calling you on that is not "hair splitting PC". It's an issue that goes to the heart of the entire question of immigration and the rights of minorities.

Either they have exactly the same rights as members of the dominant culture (including, for example, to complain if they think they have been offended) or they do not.

Your post clearly implied the latter.

Now, I happen to think that these people are being oversensitive, but they are entitled to make their complaint.

However, so, too, are the majority entitled to express their own culture, and in most circumstances I'd end up at a pretty similar result to you on the basis that any group of people, are entitled to express their religion or culture, no matter who gets offended in the process.

But what I think you miss is that some different considerations apply in a sphere like public education, where the element of voluntariness is missing: we are talking about what the state communicates to children in a place they are compelled by law to attend and from which their parents are absent. Given that, it's somewhat understandable that parents may be concerned that their kids are being forced to accept a religious tradition to which they don't subscribe themselves.

I think this is the reason why the American establishment clause has always quite rightly been interpreted as prohibiting religious education in state schools.

So there's a line there somewhere, and it's not easy to see exactly where it is ... in this case, you know, if it's done sensitively, it doesn't seem like a big deal to me that Muslim kids get taught what Christians celebrate at Christmas. But I think the interests here are very understandable and far from clear cut ... which is why it's proper to debate them sensibly and why its silly to try to whitewash the argument with a glib dismissal that all the immigrants should just shut up stop complaining.

It's also worth noting that one of the natural consequences of not providing a secular education system is that inevitably minorities will, in order to preserve their own traditions, withdraw from the mainstream system and educate their kids in schools that reflect their own culture, leading to a ghetto-ization that I would suggest to you is far, far worse for all concerned than accepting some compromises to create a genuniely secular public system.

Unless, of course, you'd prefer to ban immigration from other cultures altogether.

Posted by: Mork at December 13, 2004 12:49 AM

Mork,

My comment was a general one, inspired by cited events. I compared the behavior of certain people to the way I personally would behave if I were a guest in somebody else's country. If these people are non-temporary immigrants, unlike the status I considered for myself in other countries, fine. The behavioral expectation is exactly the same either way.

All citizens should have equal rights regardless of religion and you goddamn well know that I don't need to clarify that.

This post wasn't about who has the right to do what or second-class citizenship.

I think it's okay to hold others to the same standard I hold myself to. Don't agree? Fine. But don't change the subject.

it's proper to debate them sensibly and why its silly to try to whitewash the argument with a glib dismissal that all the immigrants should just shut up stop complaining.

I think they should shut up and stop complaining about a Christmas play at Christmas. Would you bitch about a Ramadan play in Istanbul? Or are you a grownup who knows the world does not revolve around you?

Don't patronize Muslims. Treat them as the equals they are. Expect no less from them than you expect from yourself.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at December 13, 2004 01:03 AM

All citizens should have equal rights regardless of religion and you goddamn well know that I don't need to clarify that.

Well, I should hope so, but that's not what you said. But obviously, you're not in a mood to simply acknowledge that you said something that, upon reflection, you don't believe, so let's just leave it there.

Would you bitch about a Ramadan play in Istanbul?

Of course I wouldn't, but that's not the analogy: the article you linked was about the activities of government schools.

The real analogy is how I would feel if I happened to live in, say, a Jewish majority school district, and it was proposed that all the kids would be required to participate in Yom Kippur-related activities. Now, I think I would probably be fine with that - I'd take it upon myself to explain to my kids that what they were taught is just what one particular group of people believe, but they don't have to believe it and their Mom and Dad don't.

But I could understand how someone else - perhpas someone who had strong Christian beliefs - might think differently.

Posted by: Mork at December 13, 2004 01:20 AM

I have to agree with Mork on this one. The starting premise of the post is confusing. You compare the behavior of groups of multi-generational immigrants with your hypothetical behavior should you move somewhere for a while.

Also, you end by saying this has something to do with hospitality, which Muslim countries are tops at, which further confused me, since Muslim countries aren't particularly hospitable to other religions. Also the article doesn't mention any Muslims having "fits", acting like "brats", or saying they are "offended". We don't know how the school decisions were arrived at.

My first reaction when reading this was that it's another case of American PC "silliness" (banning nativities, Xmas trees, saying "happy holidays") making its way to Europe, a sign Europe is becoming more modern and less homogenous. And so quaint traditions get lost. Slightly sad, but inevitable.

Now, Victoria and David Beckham as Mary and Joseph... that's just the end of civilization.

Posted by: Kai Carver at December 13, 2004 01:51 AM

A number of years ago I was a scout leader. I attended a leaders' course and one of the topics was religion/cultural diversity, etc. The instructors told us it was scout policy to be "culturally neutral" (my paraphrase; I forget how they put it). So that meant things like church parades, explicit Christian prayers, and Christmas activities were frowned on. Ironically, earlier I had described how I had organized celebrations of Hanukkah and Chinese New Year for our Beavers (ages 5-7) even though we had no Jewish boys and only one Chinese. I was complimented for that!

I found this all quite odd given Baden-Powell's strong religious beliefs. At the same time he was a strong proponent of cultural diversity before his time.

To me, the answer is not to reduce everyone to a lowest common denominator but to allow and accept expressions of all beliefs. Christmas pageant, for all students? Great, let's have it! Hanukkah celebration too (separate, not rolled into Christmas)? Why not! A Muslim festival so kids can learn about that culture and religion too? Absolutely.

I think people with strong religious convictions can accept this more easily than people with none. If religion is important to someone, they can accept how a different religion is important to others. People who look on religion as just another "lifestyle choice" simply feel uncomfortable with the whole topic.

(Yes, I know - history has many counter-examples.)

Posted by: A.Canuck at December 13, 2004 04:41 AM

Thank you people for a really interesting and civilized debate...I have nothing to add but my appreciation of the fact that you can discuss this and other issues without yelling at each other..

Posted by: BillBC at December 13, 2004 07:16 AM

"Some places are more hospitable than others, and the Muslim countries are at the absolute top of the list." I wonder, Michael, does that hospitality extend to Jewish visitors? (Can Jews even visit Saudi Arabia?) At the top of the blog today you mentioned in "Sick and Twisted" how a soldier was killed in Iraq for looking Jewish and elsewhere you (or others) have mentioned that an Iraqi word for our soliders is "Jews", so I ask: Would Jews be welcome in Muslim countries?

Many years ago, I visited a friend of mine who was living in South Carolina, right near Georgia. Southern hospitality was extended to me and it was wonderful. But then we walked to local convenience store (this was a very rural part of SC) and as we approached the store, a black family in front of us stopped and let us go first. I asked about it and my friend (who was not a local) said, "if they don't they will be killed eventually". I couldn't wait to leave. Hospitality in the midst of such wanton and evil hatred is meaningless.

You, Michael, might get the king's treatment in a Muslim country, but I would probably get killed. Let's cancel that joint trip, ok?

Posted by: Seymour Paine at December 13, 2004 08:13 AM

I am so touched by all these Western liberals falling all over each other to erase their own cultures in order not to "offend Muslims". 'Cause we all know how self-effacing Muslims are in order to avoid the few Christians and practically no Jews who live in "sacred Muslim lands". Can you spell dhimmi?

Posted by: EssEm at December 13, 2004 10:04 AM

Why are Muslims so offended by Christmas and since they are so offended, why do Muslims choose to remain in such an offensive environment? And, why are Muslims migrating towards that which they find so offensive?

If one were invited to a home of one found offensive, you'd think one would decline the invitation.

There are a multitude of Muslim theocracies from which to choose that will accomodate all Muslims who need a pure Islamic environment free from all offensive Christian things.

Same stuff is happening here in America but under na different Religion.

When did the Constitution change from Freedom of Religion to Freedom from Religion?

Why is the ACLU defending the platform that citizens have the Right to be free from Religion, when the Constitution clearly states that we the people have the Right to Freedom OF Religion?

Posted by: syn at December 13, 2004 10:55 AM

Syn

"When did the Constitution change from Freedom of Religion to Freedom from Religion?"

Being free to choose your faith does not mean you have to have a faith. You can go without and still have your rights.

Posted by: Stephen at December 13, 2004 11:55 AM

What EssEmm and Syn said.

I'll believe all that twaddle about "truly" hospitable Muslims are when I see Mass being celebrated in the Hagia Sophia again. I won't hold my breath for it, though.

The Italians are erasing their heritage to be politically correct. Sort of like the use of B.C.E. and C.E. instead of B.C. or A.D.

Call it what it is.

Posted by: Eric Blair at December 13, 2004 01:06 PM

Seymour,

I have no idea what the actual situation was when you visited that convenience store long ago, but may I ask you a question:

Were those black patrons just ahead of you as you reached the door to the store? Had they swung the door open, but not yet entered?

Common etiquette down here (for blacks, whites, greens, whatever) calls for a person about to go through a door to hold it for someone behind them to go through first. Especially, but not only, for a female. And that certainly includes strangers. The rule is: If the person behind you would walk into a swinging door if you went through first, you hold the door.

As for your friend's comments about whites killing uppity blacks, please remember this 2004, not 1954. The only people killing blacks down here are other blacks.

A South Carolinian near the Georgia border

Posted by: Matt Ward at December 13, 2004 02:06 PM

"Are we losing our minds?," said Reforms Minister Roberto Calderoli, an outspoken member of the populist Northern League. "Do we want to erase our identity for the love of Allah?"

It's this quote that I take some issue with, regarding the phrase "our identity." Is Minister Calderoli implying that Italians are fundamentally Roman Catholic? Alright, let's say that most are, but how about Italians who adhere to non-Catholic Christianity or a completely different religion? How about non-religious citizens of Italy? Are they expected to just stand by while the "true" Italians commemorate?

Posted by: Stephen at December 13, 2004 02:12 PM

"Are we losing our minds?," said Reforms Minister Roberto Calderoli, an outspoken member of the populist Northern League. "Do we want to erase our identity for the love of Allah?"

It's this quote that I take some issue with, regarding the phrase "our identity." Is Minister Calderoli implying that Italians are fundamentally Roman Catholic? Alright, let's say that most are, but how about Italians who adhere to non-Catholic Christianity or a completely different religion? How about non-religious citizens of Italy? Are they expected to just stand by while the "true" Italians commemorate?

Posted by: Stephen at December 13, 2004 02:12 PM

Oh, and sorry for double posting.

Posted by: Stephen at December 13, 2004 02:14 PM

Michael,

Perhaps Istanbul isn't the best example. They aren't secular for nothing. Food options are just as plentiful in Istanbul during Ramadan as they are not during Ramadan. Its the benefit of a secular society: no one was imposing their religious beliefs on the general public. If you want to eat, you're welcome to.

(The Turkish bus system is another story. I WAS stuck on a bus going cross country for 19 hours without food because the driver thought everyone was fasting for Ramadan with him and therefore didn't stop anywhere where there was food. Oops. But we learned and planned ahead to bring food the next time we got on a bus for a 19 hour ride.)

Posted by: Kris at December 13, 2004 05:28 PM

"Do we want to erase our identity for the love of Allah?"

It's this quote that I take some issue with, regarding the phrase "our identity." Is Minister Calderoli implying that Italians are fundamentally Roman Catholic?

Let's bear in mind that he most probably said it in Italian, and it probably lost some nuance in translation. The next most likely alternative is that he said it in English, which he speaks as a second language, so there would be some issues there, as well. What I'm getting at is that by "identity" he means something like "national identity, including cultural heritage". That cultural heritage is, in fact, mostly Catholic; in fact, it is overwhelmingly Catholic over the past 1500 years or so. Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Vivaldi were all Catholic; Vivaldi was nicknamed "Il Preto Rosso", which means "the red priest", because he was in fact a priest with red hair. Dante was Catholic.

Any immigrant group to a country presents the issue of how far the immigrant group assimilates to the new country versus how much the new country changes in response to the immigrant group. In my experience, Asians, with some exceptions, are content to assimilate very thoroughly into the United States. Here in Northern California, there are Chinese New Year celebrations, and there are some organizations for Chinese, Koreans, etc., but that's about it. There are no demands that children of Asian immigrants be taught in Mandarin, Korean, etc. It seems to be different with Mexicans.

There were differences among the European immigrants who came to this country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well. The descendants of Irish and Italian immigrants seem to identify far more with their ancestry than do the descendants of, say, German or Polish immigrants. I have some personal experience of this, since my father's parents were born in Poland, while most of my mother's great-grandparents were born in Ireland.

It's not an all-or-nothing thing (I was going to say black-and-white, but that somehow seemed inappropriate when talking about immigration). It does seem, however, that immigrant groups that make more of an effort to adopt the language and customs of their new country are much better liked by the existing residents of their new country, regardless of whether they are of the same race. It also helps if their religious beliefs are tolerant. Non-theistic religions, e.g., Buddhism, and polytheistic religions, e.g., Hinduism, are intrinsically tolerant. Monotheistic religions are not.

I know that this is a touchy subject. I also know that I don't have all the answers, and that I may have used a phrase or two that offends some folks. Please understand that causing offense is about the furthest thing from my mind.

Posted by: Silicon Valley Jim at December 13, 2004 07:39 PM

I'm sure the Saudi government makes sure that Christians in the Kingdom are given their freedom of worship and not exposed to any Muslim religious programs.

Posted by: Aaron at December 13, 2004 11:39 PM

Speaking of imposing religious beliefs on the general public and Ramadan in Istanbul...

In Indiana, I can't buy alcohol on Sunday. Not even late-Sunday-night, which is technically Monday morning, because the Sabbath isn't broken until the sun comes up. I can't even buy alcohol-free Margarita or Pina Colada mix! Is it like this everywhere else in the United States? Laws like this make moving to Istanbul sound like a good idea.

Posted by: Grant McEntire at December 13, 2004 11:53 PM

In Indiana, I can't buy alcohol on Sunday. Not even late-Sunday-night, which is technically Monday morning, because the Sabbath isn't broken until the sun comes up. I can't even buy alcohol-free Margarita or Pina Colada mix! Is it like this everywhere else in the United States?

No, although there are some odd blue laws. In Cobb county, across the river from Georgia, you can buy a drink in a bar or restaurant on Sunday, but you can't buy beer in a liquor store or supermarket. At least, that's how it was in 1999, when I left. I think that that's how it is in Fulton county (Atlanta), as well, so maybe it's like that throughout Georgia. Twenty years ago, when I lived in London, no stores were open on Sunday, although the pubs were. Many of the villages in DuPage county, west of Chicago, were dry when I was growing up there, and perhaps still are.

I wouldn't consider these to be exclusively religious restrictions; perhaps the folks who pushed for their enactment were religiously-motivated, but there is certainly enough sentiment today against drinking alcohol that isn't.

Posted by: Silicon Valley Jim at December 14, 2004 07:13 AM

Would you bitch about a Ramadan play in Istanbul? Or are you a grownup who knows the world does not revolve around you?

Thank you for some common sense. An old Christian saying is that growing up is the process of learning that the world does not revolve around you. A lot of PC smitten people need to grow up! Tolerance does not mean that I hole heartedly agree and celebrate everything I see. It means I do not persecute or prosecute things I don't celebrate.

Merry Christmas

Posted by: JBP at December 14, 2004 11:41 AM
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