Richard Hoover: Ignore T-shirt dictums – no group is entirely imperfect

Richard Hoover

Guys walk past my gun show tables wearing black T-shirts that provocatively proclaim, “All I need to know about Islam I learned on 9/11.” The single word “Infidel” forms another shirt message, as if to say: ‘Make my Day; just try and do something!’

I dislike the evil-branding of whole racial/ethnic/religious groups because no group is entirely imperfect. Anti-Semitism and today’s trumpeting of “white privilege” are more unrealistic blanket condemnations and, as such, raise the question: just where do the T-shirt wearers plan to take the United States?

Complicated as it could be, my experience with Islam belies T-shirt simplification and blanket condemnation. 

“p2″>On the downside, my “unclean” presence led to noisy ejections from several mosques in North Africa, even had me stoned (more symbolically than seriously) by troublesome kids while hiking through a village outside Tunis. And the lethal violence!  A team from Saddam’s Baghdad paid an office call upon my dear friend Nouri, the London-educated counselor at the Iraqi Embassy in Rabat. He was drawn and quartered upon his own desk and his remains dumped on a Mediterranean beach. And I won’t forget, in midnight Nicosia, the bombing of a close-by Fatah safe house. The big boom seemed to lift sleeping Catalina and me about a foot in the air. Most Foreign Service families have a store of such tales and agree that there are some really bad characters out there!

Oh, but there’s the other side to the Islamic coin! In Istanbul’s Blue Mosque  I was accosted by five or six forbidding holy types in religious garb. The leader, an old man with the Ancient Mariner’s drop-dead glittering eye, pointed to the minbar, the pulpit from which sermons are delivered. “Young man,” he said, “answer me this: if the imam can ascend to the first step, Mohammed to the second and Allah to the third, who is permitted to rise to the fourth step?” I had no idea and began worrying what might happen next. “The janitor!” he said. With that we all burst into laughter, arms all around. Never, by the way, did I have mosque-entry problems in Turkey or Cyprus.

And in Rabat, daughter Andrea and I were invited to break the Ramadan fast, to stuff ourselves in the ancient compound of a 20-something sheik who had called on me periodically to discuss international relations. We walked there, navigating around smoking mounds of sheeps’ and goats’ heads. We found our host surrounded by  scores of festive devotees. Men were slitting creatures’ throats while the women butchered, placed choice tidbits to grill on braziers while wetting down streams  of viscera so that they might better stick to the walls when arranged there in gay patterns. Inviting us to “meet the family,” our host led us into a stone baptistery type of  building. The coffins of his ancestors mounted right up to the ceiling while his live parents, taking a morning nap, lay in niches at the bottom. It was a splendid, traditional day marked by Moroccan hospitality.

A book might not suffice to contain the accounts of my contacts  with Muslims; with the Saudi diplomat who, with deep emotion, grasped my hand to announce that he was returning to Riyadh to help organize the Haj; the journalists, lawyers and ministry officials who gave insights into mysteries and events to come, and enabled me, for example, to cover the nailed-down-tight ’89 Casablanca Arab League Conference and the Jerusalem Committee meeting of foreign ministers that preceded it (my boss and I were the only Western diplomats to bring it off).  Any energetic diplomat, whether American, Argentinian or Mongolian, has such books of experience.

My point: the foregoing examples of purpose, utility, happiness and color are normally beyond the reach of individuals who subscribe to T-shirt dictums labeling religious and ethnic groups all-evil or, for that matter, all-good.  In fact, such retreating  from the hard-to-face realities of ambiguity and complexity is a form of cowardice – of the same stripe that characterizes those students who seek “safe spaces” and hide from “micro-aggressions.” Both are faint-hearted types who well deserve the epithet “snowflake!”

Richard Hoover, a retired Foreign Service officer, resides in southern Warren County.