A May 2010 poll conducted by VCIOM asked 1,600 people in 42 regions of Russia the following question: "Are there any particular ethnic groups you feel negatively about?" While 56% of the respondents said "no", 29% acknowledged having negative feelings toward "kavkaztsy", a collective term describing people of the Caucasian decent: Azeris, Armenians, Chechens, Dagestanis, Ingushis, and Georgians. (Some other popular definitions of "kavkaztsy" include the politically correct "people of the Caucasian ethnicity" and "blacks," the term commonly used by Russian rednecks.)
(I witnessed firsthand an expression of these "negative feelings" last summer in Saint Petersburg, on The Paratroopers' Day (August 2), when on a subway station, two guys in the paratrooper fatigues cornered a slim fellow looking unmistakably "Caucasian." Having established, after a short interrogation, that the poor fellow was "from Dagestan", the "paratroopers" began punching him in the face. Two sleepy police officers quietly observed the happening from the other side of the subway hall.)
Naturally, every time that "us" start disliking "them", violence follows. The SOVA Center, a non-profit organization that monitors cases of nationalism and racism in Russia, reported that in the first half of 2010, 19 people have been killed as a result of hate crimes. At least half of them were people of the Central Asia and Caucasus origin. Yet the report pointed at a recent decline in ethnic violence, which was attributed to the pro-active position of the Russian Supreme Court and the increasing willingness by the law enforcement authorities to investigate and prosecute hate crime cases.
In contrast to Russia, America always took pride in being a country of immigrants, a "land of opportunities" where everyone is born equal and religious tolerance is a given. So regardless of whether you prefer to be melted in a pot or to contribute a piece in a salad bowl, for as long as you work hard, pay taxes, and stay away from trouble, you're one of "us."
A number of recent developments have shattered this bucolic picture.
Just last week, a Terry Jones (calling this jerk a "pastor" would be a disservice to tens of thousands of real spiritual leaders all across this great country) attempted to publicly burn 200 copies of Koran, commemorating in such an imaginative way the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. A score of top government officials, including President Obama, pleaded with Jones not to, to which Jones eventually conceded, claiming that his "message" has been already heard.
The treatment of the "pastor" in the media has followed two major tracks. The first kept reminding that Jones' church in Florida consisted of only 50 members and that he therefore didn't have too many followers. (A brief note: the Russian skinheads do not represent the majority, or even a numerically significant faction, of the Russian society, either.) The second track kept blaming the media itself for propelling Jones to the rank of a world celebrity. For example, Michael Gerson of the Washington Post argued that Jones "should be ignored." (A similar approach is usually taken by the state-controlled Russian media: ignore the event and then pretend that it never occurred.)
The Koran burning affair came on the heels of another controversy, the one over the "Ground-Zero mosque." In the core of this story is the opposition to a plan to build an Islamic community center — with a 500-seat auditorium, theater, swimming pool, basketball court, childcare services, bookstore, culinary school, and a restaurant – and mosque (and not just a mosque as the critics of the idea claim) two blocks away from the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan. The opponents of the plan insists that building a mosque so close to the site of the September 11, 2001 attacks would be offensive to the victims of the tragedy and their relatives. (My personal impression from visiting NYC is that in this crazy world of running people and unmoving cars that Lower Manhattan is, being separated by two blocks is about the same as living in different cities or countries. Or on different planets, for that matter.)
I'm not a Muslim and have no relatives who perished on the 9/11, so it's difficult for me to judge whose feelings will be hurt more should the mosque be built or not built at this particular location. But I can't miss the thick anti-Islamic overtones the whole discussion has acquired. Nor can I miss rapidly increasing anti-Islamic sentiments in the country. 49% of Americans say that they have "generally unfavorable opinions of Islam", according to a recent Washington Post-ABC poll. And here we have an Internet portal already exploring "legal" ways to ban Islam in the United States. An on-line petition "Ban Islam Now" is already in operation (signed for now by a refreshingly small number of "petitioners", though).
I suspect that at this point, a disciple of the "values gap" between the United States and Russia would politely raise a hand and say: "Well, those are only words, a speech that, even being hateful, is still protected by the First Amendment."
Good point. Unfortunately, in the U.S., as in Russia, as soon as you begin pointing to differences between "us" and "them", deeds follow words.
Here are the deeds. At a Denver, Col. meatpacking plant, Muslim Somali workers were denied drinking water after they fasted all day during the holy month of Ramadan. A Seattle man assaulted a store clerk wearing a turban, having accused him of being a member of al-Qaeda. A 21-year-old arts (!) student in New York stabbed a cab driver after the driver admitted he was Muslim.
No question, the level of anti-Muslim violence in the U.S. is still no match to the levels of ethnic violence in Russia. (I won't touch the hate crimes committed against "traditional" ethnic minorities in the U.S., though) So the numbers gap is still there, but can anyone point to a "widening" values gap?
One of the bizarre "by-products" of the strengthening Islamophobia in the U.S. is a growing number of Americans (18% as compared with 12% in March 2009) believing that President Obama is a Muslim. (President Obama is a Christian who attends the Evergreen Chapel, the nondenominational church at Camp David.) I leave aside the question of why the religious beliefs of the President of the United States, a country with a constitutional separation between the state and the church, should become the subject of a public poll. Much more troubling is the fact that the percentage of those who believe that the president is a Muslim is especially high, according to the same poll, among people who disapprove of his performance. In other words, calling someone a Muslim is becoming a conventional way of showing that you don't like this person. That this person is not "us", so to speak.
When asked why they don't like kavkaztsy, the respondents to the above-mentioned VCIOM poll referred to the "threat of terrorism." After two Chechen wars and multiple atrocities in Moscow and other Russian cities committed by the Chechen terrorists, I can see their point. And it's hardly surprising that the Americans — still bleeding from the wounds of the 9/11, going through two wars in Muslim countries, and facing the emerging threat of homegrown Muslim terrorism — begin considering trading their "values" for a sense of "security."
What will happen next? Just ask the "people of the Caucasian ethnicity" in Russia.