I spent the past two weeks traveling around Western Europe with my wife. It was my first time in Europe since the beginning of the refugee crisis, the series of terrorist attacks and the intense media scrutiny of Muslim migration. While we waited in Saint-Charles, the Marseille train station, we saw police officers escort a small group of men who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent into a police station inside Saint-Charles. A few minutes later, another group of officers walked two women wearing hijabs into the station. The cops did not touch the civilians and the civilians did not appear resistant.
Nevertheless, it was easy for us to assume profiling. I thought it appeared to be a sort of Stop-and-Frisk of Muslims in a transportation hub.
We left Saint-Charles station to walk around the city before our next train to Italy. We soon discovered that Saint-Charles is located near a predominantly Muslim neighborhood packed with soccer shops selling jerseys and boots. We visited a few of the shops and I saw a Palestine national team jersey on sale for the first time. It was disarming to encounter an item that contrasts the default narrative I am accustomed to living within the United States (Palestine as a nation).
As we walked up a steep hill back to Saint-Charles, we passed an expansive intersection where about forty Muslim men drank coffee and chatted.
I felt acutely aware of my unease. I didn't feel threatened or nervous, but I realized that I had absorbed the narrative that depicts predominantly Islamic communities as terrorism incubators. I immediately considered the group of men as outsiders even though I was the outsider passing through their city and country with luggage. I longed for homogeneity or, at least, the type of diversity I am familiar with.
I realized that I have been conditioned to associate a group of men of Middle Eastern descent with terrorism. I saw the men and my mind filled in the blanks, connecting that moment to a million news stories, images and right-wing commentary.
We walked back to Saint-Charles, got on our train and I spent a long time thinking about what I had just felt.
The experience enabled me to better understand why an individual might be attracted to Marine Le Pen or Donald Trump. The opportunists champion a close-minded worldview that labels non-Christian, non-white people as "outsiders," associate all of these "outsiders" with antisocial behavior committed by a tiny few who share the same race/ethnicity/religious background, stoke fear and make it socially acceptable for people to express prejudice.
An individual never has to examine their unease or consider narrative. They don't have to be rational. They're allowed to follow their lizard brain impulses without considering them. ALERT ALERT ALERT. BAN 'EM ALL. Every suicide bomber serves to confirm their fear and reassure them that they were right to be scared.
The key to overcoming our own prejudice is our ability to examine our initial reactions, our unease and our fear and to examine what contributes to these impulses. I specifically considered the following four questions
1. What narrative did I access unconsciously?
The notion that Muslim men who live in predominantly Muslim communities within Western European cities are either terrorists or aiding terrorists
2. Where do these notions come from?
15 years of the "War on Terror"; unceasing references to the September 11 attacks; persistent media coverage of suicide bombings and other attacks committed by a few Muslim individuals in European cities; a media portrayal of the Middle East that lacks nuance, focuses exclusively on terrorism and depicts a monolithic "Islamic culture"; pervasive stereotyping and hate speech that enables stereotyping, suspicion and fear; growing up in a Conservative community where anti-Islamic comments were accepted and common after September 11; feeling uneasy in a new setting in which I was the outsider
3. Why are these notions so powerful?
Fear is powerful. Media reinforces that fear. It is far easier to access a default narrative than to examine the origins and faults of that narrative and to change it. Self-examination is hard and uncomfortable.
4. How do I counter these notions?
First, I identify my prejudice without judging myself and shutting myself down. I have to move past the guilt and shame in order to be honest with myself and to actually examine my feelings. This will enable me to create new mental pathways. I also have to consider my own insecurities and the self consciousness that made me feel on-edge and, perhaps, inadequate in an unfamiliar setting.