Tree Burnings and Islamaphobia
South Coast Plaza’s 96-foot tall Christmas tree went up in a blaze early Monday outside the Westin Hotel in Costa Mesa. A stately old pine from Mt. Shasta valued at $120,000.00 burst into a 10-ton fiery torch that lit up the early morning sky. Light bulbs, 20,000 of them, popped like Molotov cocktails, adding sound to the fury. Thick black plumes of smoke rose above Town Center Park, the grassy strip across Bristol Street from the mall at the south entry of the 15-story hotel. Ash fell like snow, dusting shocked passersby below. The scene rolled out like a miniature twin tower incident right here in The OC. But there were no terrorists involved. Just a tree gone bad.
Even so, recent statistics suggest 80 percent of those who witness or hear about that darn tree burning will pin the incident on a Muslim terrorist group. Islamaphobia is the highest since 9/11. A backlash of anti-immigrant sentiment directed at Syrians after the Paris shootings continues to be fueled by politicians and media. It is an angry, fear-based rhetoric about building walls and denying visas.
My doctoral dissertation with USC’s social psychology department chair Dr. Norman Miller was based on social categorization theory, which predicts that when an in-group vilifies an out-group through labeling and stereotyping it leads to discrimination and violent hate crimes. When fear focuses unjustly on one group of fellow human beings xenophobia reigns and we’ll be talking about more than walls. Will California return to the Japanese internment camps built near Highway 395 for Muslim citizens?
My dissertation results were used by California state policy makers in determining our public school desegregation interventions. Here is what we learned: when individuals from divided groups gain more knowledge about each other through face-to-face interaction, bias naturally decreases. Knowing this truth and having taught cross-cultural counseling for UC Davis and Pepperdine, the unfortunate truth is that this Anglo professor living in a town awash in white knows not one local who is Muslim. Throughout my years of practice as a psychologist in Newport, I have had the privilege of working with Muslim clients, but not here in Laguna.
Inspired by ethnic isolation fostered in a town that lacks racial diversity, I set out to change that and met an empowered young woman sporting a soft pink chiffon hajib (veil). Tasneem and I connected at a local restaurant on Forest Avenue where she was celebrating her birthday with a group of stylishly dressed, highly articulate, professional 30-somethings, all Muslim women born and educated in southern California. Tasneem said, “Yes, sometimes I fear for my children. Walking down the street I don’t want them to hear name-calling. So sometimes I wear a cap instead of a hajib.” This comment is more powerful when considering Tasneem’s successful business in the fashion industry selling hip hajibs to “the modern, Muslim woman.” When I asked her what we might do to have an impact on growing anti-Muslim sentiment she said, “Go to an interfaith gathering and get to know a Muslim.”
Others are indeed reaching out to befriend their Muslim neighbors. Last week, pastors Mark Davis of St. Mark Presbyterian in Newport Beach, Paul Tellstrom of Irvine United Congregational Church, and Sarah Halverson of Costa Mesa’s Fairview Community Church, led a mostly white Protestant group to the steps of The Islamic Center of Irvine to show their solidarity and support. Felicity Figueroa, an immigrant rights activist and co-chair of Orange County Equality Coalition, said “we stood quietly on the steps with our signs. Then the imam came out and invited us into the mosque to worship with them. We shared in prayer for over an hour. His message was very ecumenical.”
Figueroa continued, “following the San Bernardino shootings last week, they said they were feeling so sad, heavy; one woman shared with me that with our visit they were feeling lighter, more hope.”
So, here’s what I’m thinking now about that burning tree opposite South Coast Plaza. The authorities have assured us that it was not a terrorist group, so maybe it was the wrath of the Judeo-Christian God. That’s it. Yahweh shows up at Christmas and Hanukkah as a pillar of fire to prophetically warn all north Americans that mass consumption is nothing but folly… that our malls are merely secular temples built to worship materialism. With soaring arches, domed ceilings, fancy fountains anchored by mega-stores on every corner, malls here rival the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Yep, maybe Yahweh put on a Grinch cloak and just rained down some hell fire and brimstone to usher in this season of lights.
Couldn’t we use some light at this dark moment in our country’s history? Both Hanukkah and Christmas are all about the promise of light breaking into darkness. Peace, love and generosity of spirit are central themes. Regardless of one’s religious or ideological leanings, in our common humanity we each long for that moment at the winter solstice when the light penetrates the longest night of the year and hopefully our hearts as well.
Michele is a psychologist and Laguna resident. She swims in the ocean, leads an open mic and writes about Laguna life with a psychological twist and a dose of inspiration. She can be reached at [email protected]