When ISIS started killing all the religious group, one of the favorite questions people ask is, “Why don’t the Muslims here and abroad say something?” I can’t answer for all of them, but I’ve seen some Muslims answering here and abroad. For me, most people who ask that question are Christians. So, I wish to devote this blog to such a question because after all, people of the Christian faith needs to understand exactly what they’re asking when they say stuff like this and the implications of such a question in broader global politics and Christian faith.
To start with, the deeper part of that question is that somehow someone is obligated to speak up. Says who? I’m going to discuss in this blog that silence does not necessarily equal to complicity. In fact, sometimes, there’re many legitimate reasons for silence. We do need to examine this question, “Why don’t YOU speak up?” and we need to put the questioner to critical inquisition because the issues run very deep within such a question that many of my fellow Americans are simply not aware of.
When asking such questions, questioners do not realize that many immigrants have their own unimaginably and unspeakable tragic narratives. Many are victims of political circumstances. After all, we can’t choose where we’re born. For some reason, people don’t tell a rape victim that it is an obligation to say something about rape, but they force political victims to do what rape victims aren’t obligated to do. So, why do people somehow expect Middle Eastern immigrants to the West to say something? I think I know the reason. Most Americans have no idea what it means to escape to another country only with their lives and not much else. Most Americans have never experienced having their families raped and slaughtered and their properties razed. And most of all, America has never been occupied by a hostile force. Sure, some of us who are more progressive have READ, watched the nightly news or a movie about it, but reading or the big screen doesn’t make it part of our realistic experience. Our lack of experience allows us to sit on our high horses and our soapboxes to address the rest who have the misfortunate of having the above experiences. As one of my buddies observed, most Arab-American just want to carry on with their lives without having to think about what happened to their homeland or their families. They don’t want to see the rerun of their trauma, whether on big screen or in public announcement. Perhaps, that’s why they don’t want to say anything. Perhaps, we can learn empathy to overcome our warped judgment.
This brings us to a deeper problem. Who says the time for “YOU” to speak is NOW? Who gets to dictate to the “YOU” when the right time is? Let’s face it, bad timing has plagued not just recent political history, but also a lot of missionary history. When one group decides that it’s the RIGHT TIME, it does not automatically mean that it is the right time. Even if the group is the majority, historical timing is not democratic. I wonder if it ever occurred to those questioners that being so ignorant of the culture they’re criticizing (for the most part) that somehow they think that they’ve got the timing down, thus giving them the right to tell American Muslims WHEN to say something. The very same can apply to any activism. Silence is not necessarily non-participation. Sometimes, people just need to take the time to think. In most cases I’ve seen, those who are most ignorant of the things they criticize tend to speak the quickest and loudest. Ignorance creates simplistic interpretation. Reality is NEVER simple.
This brings us to a deeper problem. Who says “YOU” represents the entire group? I will talk more about the “YOU” as a group later, but I’m speaking of the individual “YOU” here. People often assume that an individual within a group has this obligation to speak just because that individual is part of the group. This is funny because as a society of rugged individualism, we often push that aside in favor of group think when we think about OTHERS who are different from us. “Oh the Chinese all think like … You know them Japanese, they think like … Oh, the darn Muslims, they are all like … Why don’t YOU speak up?” Who says an individual represents a whole group? This is the burden of every foreigner who immigrated here. S/he is somehow obligated to speak for the whole group for some strange reason. This obligation never lands on REAL Americans because you know, we REAL Americans are so ruggedly individualistic. This is stupid! When someone says to me, “YOU are Asian (or Muslim or Hindu or Martian). Say something.” Says who? My opinion does NOT represent all Asians or Asian Americans, even though I might occupy a certain position in the public sphere. No Asian American would automatically assume that my opinion is representative of the group, no matter how many books I write. It is precisely at this stage when things go badly wrong. Due to our silence on whatever issue at the moment, the questioner would choose to speak for us by saying with authoritative pronouncement, “Oh, the X group is silent.” Sorry, no one gets to speak for me or for us or for another group. This god-like complex has to go.
This brings us to another deeper problem. Who says “YOU” aren’t speaking? A lot of times, many such questioners are not in on the right conversations. The assumption that no one is speaking just because mainstream media selectively report opinions and voices is completely misinformed. The real issue is, why are people who dominate the voices not hearing the conversation? The reason is simple. Many such people don’t bother to understand the group they’re questioning. I often ask people this same question, “How many Muslims do you know?” A lot of times, I get blank stares. So, how many? Let me get this straight then. We can draw conclusion from never having to make personal contact with a group we’re criticizing. If I criticize any group like that without even making contact with numerous members, I’d be called a bigot. The questioner is often a bigot.
This brings us to another deeper problem. The “YOU” in such a question often means “YOU the foreigner” versus “we the TRUE Americans.” The very fact “YOU” have to speak up says that YOU really are part of THEM (i.e. the Muslims or Chinese or Koreans or whatever group) and not part of “US”. This line of logic is very deeply ingrained in both our society and our faith communities. In a more subtle Christian form, it goes something like this, “Hey, look! There’re some Chinese visiting our (primarily white) church. Why don’t YOU talk to them?” The YOU can take on so many different meanings with so much rhetorical force. Most of us who immigrated would certainly wish to be JUST American. We’re also reminded by our well-meaning (but much misguided friends) that we should not be the “hyphenated American,” but how can we not be when the collective YOU (or the racist “YOU PEOPLE”) is so often used to put us together as a group? YOUR PEOPLE should sort this out! So, we’re only allowed to be the hyphenated American not of our choice but out of the prejudicial convenience of our racist inquisitors? Where’s the freedom that people speak so fondly of? Next time someone put that guilty “Look, there’re some Chinese visiting our church. Why don’t you talk to them?” question to me again, I’m going to ask a different (but probably MORE Christian and definitely MORE missional) question, “Why don’t YOU talk to them? You don’t care about visitors to our church?” I would say more times than not, generally Americans and specifically Christians should make friends with someone who speaks a different language and come from a different culture instead of hanging about our uniform holy huddle. It’d be a growing experience.
So, before you ask that question, “Why didn’t YOU say something?” next time, think of the reason and impact of that question. Most of us are unaware of the harmful impact from our silly and careless questions. In the complex world of questions, there’re many answers. The above is just a list for some of those answers. Freedom of choice also includes silence.