In the aftermath of massive acts of violence there are a variety of responses that people and institutions can take. Given my own feelings of deep ambivalence, I often find that few people have voices that are similar to my own, and that my response to the cowardice of so many leaders of Western nations whose behavior towards the Muslims among us is so craven that it makes me cringe in horror tends to mask more complex feelings about the nature of reporting and the unpleasant matter that how others view us is greatly important if only because it helps determine how they will treat us, regardless of whether we consider there to be any validity in the identities that others foist upon us against our will. As someone who has spent a lifetime wrestling with the complexities of violence and hostility within my own life and within my world, I tend to find that the responses I have to these matters are not simple, but if they are complex they are not for that reason any less worth sharing than more straightforward opinions are, not least because the relevance of these reactions goes far beyond any particular event that may prompt it. Let us therefore untangle some layers, in this case prompted by the continued attention that has been paid to an act of violence at a New Zealand mosque.
To what extent do we pay attention to violence? Not all violent acts are created equal. When radical Islamists in the Middle East commit outrages against Coptic Christians in Egypt or Yazdis in Iraq, or when we hear of outrages done in Nigeria against Christians there, do we see the same amount of attention being given that hear about acts of violence committed in Western societies against Muslims? Do we see Muslims willing to wear the garb of Yazdis or Copts or Nigerian Christians as a way of expressing their solidarity with the victims of violence committed by their co-religionists? Is violence only important to comment upon to the extent that it allows us an opportunity to further some kind of political agenda, or is it something that we lament because it shows a lack of humanity regardless of who is committing the violence and who is suffering from it? There is a cliche in broadcasting that if it bleeds it leads, but that is not necessarily the case; there is clearly some violence that is more highly focused on than others. There are some people whose feelings and wishes are more highly gratified than others are, and this injustice is easy to notice when we are on the receiving end of it. Privilege is invisible to those who have it, but galling and bitter to those who are denied what they view quite reasonably as equity.
As someone who has traveled fairly extensively around the world, I am often bemused by the way that I am seen by the people I encounter. To those who have an ax to grind against the United States or who want to express their distaste for those candidates whom we elect, it is not deemed to be rude by these people (my own feelings are apparently not considered at all in this arithmetic) to accost and harass a foreigner about their own local political systems. I politely explain to these people that Americans elect leaders based on their own interests and do not take the interests of the rest of the world into account in their decisions. This may be a bit harsh to say, especially for those people in other countries who want their own well-being and interests to be considered by the American voter, but it is true. An American traveling abroad often wants to be seen as an individual, but we cannot help being judged for the identities we have. As a white American male, my travels to Ghana, for example, were quite different than those who have some sort of ancestral tie to the slave trade and who are trying to find out about a long-unknown part of their own heritage. However much I would be considered to be a heretic or cultist by Christians in my own society, when I have visited the Middle East I have been viewed as a Christian in those countries.
There are consequences to this. Some of them are good. I have been more safe in my travels as an American than I would be traveling as an Israeli abroad, for example. Being a Christian is viewed more favorably than being a Jew in many cases, even if my own personal religious practices concerning Sabbath and Holy Day observance and clean and unclean meats would indicate a high degree of closeness to Messianic Judaism of certain varieties, and has prompted comments of puzzlement on the part of some Jews I have known who have been puzzled to find me more observant than themselves. And on it goes. Yet if Islamists in Syria or Iraq or Nigeria or governments like China or Iran would view me in the same way that they would view others they see as Christians, that matters a great deal. (It would matter equally much if they saw me as Jewish and responded accordingly.) It is not only our own chosen identities that matter in our lives but the identities others view us as having. As an American citizen I have certain rights and freedoms that others do not have, but it also means that people will respond to me in large part based on what they think about where I come from. The same is true of my obviously Euro-American ethnicity (and I will not be judged from those parts of my ethnicity that are not visible on a surface level), as well as my religious identity, or my political identity as someone who both is deeply concerned with matters of justice but who is generally and correctly seen as being considerably right of center overall. Some of this is for the best, and some of it is not.
Given all of this, let us now return to the point at hand. Those who committed violence against Muslims in New Zealand believed that those Muslims were enemies among them. To be sure, there are some Muslims whose proclivities towards violence makes them enemies, because they would wish to commit violence against me or people like me, should they happen to come across us at an inopportune moment. Yet to those who want to dwell at peace with others as much as it is within our power and to the extent that it can be done while preserving our dignity and integrity, those who would inflame hostility with others are enemies among us. Those who would behave rudely to me because of my political positions, or religious beliefs, or ethnic identity would also be enemies among us. I would hope that no one would see my generally peaceable if curious and sometimes eccentric ways as marking me as an enemy of themselves, but I am not sanguine on that point. In such times as we are in, we must realize that our enemies are not only those whom we may hate to death but also those who would hate us to death. Because how other people treat us depends on how others see us, we cannot afford to be ignorant of the way that others identify us, irrespective of our own peaceable intents or the way that we identify ourselves. Obviously, the implications of that are quite massive indeed. Identity politics flow both ways, after all, no matter how vociferous we are about defining ourselves as we would wish.