Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth
J’ai peur. Parfois, j’ai beaucoup de peur.
Perhaps it has something to do with having been an Army Reservist and reading Hemingway in my youth, but one of my definitions of true friendship includes the emotional space to frankly express fear, in whatever language.
I first met Noem thirty-five years ago and Marie-Jeanne a couple of years later, not long after they began to date. They were delighted that I remembered their recent 30th wedding anniversary. But that was not the occasion of their visit two weeks ago. They (and I) hadn’t planned to take a major trip this summer because of the costs and the general insanity in transit hubs. But they decided to come because in late June their son, who graduated from university two years ago, moved here for his job. Marie-Jeanne, ever the mom, wanted to be sure that he was safe and well—which, of course, he is.
This was not their first time in New York, so I wanted them to have an experience I assumed (correctly) they hadn’t had: a tour of the graffiti murals in the industrial areas of central and eastern Brooklyn. And, because I knew they wanted to eat something they probably wouldn’t have at home, and I wanted them to experience something authentic and unpretentious, I took them to Christina’s, a place that seems like a cross between a working-class café in Kraców and a New Jersey roadside diner. We were the only non-Polish patrons in that eatery—on Manhattan Avenue, in the heart of the Polish enclave of Greenpoint, Brooklyn—where the soundtrack consisted of a combination of songs from the home country, Frank Sinatra and ‘70’s pop tunes. They loved it.
Over pierogies, I expressed my fears of what is happening in this country. While there are nationalists and flat-out racists in their country’s public life, and some express anxiety that Muslims will take over their country (though, contrary to such fears, followers of Mohammedism comprise only about a tenth of the population), France’s public discourse hasn’t been as infected with religion as it has in the United States. Moreover, while some invoke myths—which they take as historic facts—about their country’s Christian heritage, there is little, if any, equivalent to the Christian Nationalism—or, for that matter, any sort of religious nationalism–that some American politicians publicly espouse.
I was reminded of the fears I expressed to them when I heard about the attack on Salman Rushdie. His alleged assailant, Hadi Matar, wasn’t born until nearly a decade after Ayatollah Khomeini deemed Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses blasphemous and issued a fatwa calling for the novelist’s assassination. According to Matar’s mother, he became radicalized after a 2018 trip to visit his father in Lebanon. I am guessing that Matar has never read Rushdie’s novel and heard about the fatwa third-hand. But as young men with no hope or direction—the “target audience” of hard-line religious leaders and nationalists (and military recruiters)—are wont to do, he imbibed the inflammatory rhetoric and metabolized the anger it expressed into fibers of resentment that bound up his mental energies.
The attack reminded me of this: once a trusted authority figure expounds a narrative that posits someone who simply thinks differently as an “enemy” or “infidel,” someone else—often, a young man like Matar, who had nothing to lose and nothing to look forward to—will take it to heart, never mind how much it’s been discredited. Although Khomeini is long dead and Rushdie emerged from hiding, the Iranian state has reiterated the fatwa. Even if it hadn’t, people like Matar would, in essence, keep it alive, just as Adolf Hitler—the biggest failure in the history of humanity—continues to inspire violence and hatred against Jews and people who aren’t white, heterosexual, and cisgender. They don’t even need the memory of the Fuhrer: Their interpretations of the Bible—which, as often as not, are little more than summaries of their pastors’ sermons—will give them all of the rationales they need to fabricate narratives of people such as I “grooming” children and call for our persecution or even death. It’s not such a leap from that to declaring that an opponent has “stolen” the election and anyone who says otherwise is aiding and abetting a conspiracy and therefore needs to be destroyed.
In other words, hate is never destroyed nor conquered. In fact, it is too often given new life by people who claim to follow a “gospel of love” (as many Christians like to call their holy text) or a “religion of peace” (the literal meaning of the word “Islam”). And such hate can sweep up any country, no matter how educated or enlightened it fancies itself to be. (Germany was the most technologically advanced country of its time when Hitler came into power and was, in the eyes of the world, “the land of Mozart.”) I think Noem, Jewish by heritage, and Marie-Jeanne, of Catholic lineage—both raised in secular homes and now living as atheists—understand as much. That is why, after hearing about the attack on Salman Rushdie, they sent me this text message: “Are you OK?”
For now, I am. But I am still afraid. I’ai beaucoup de peur.
Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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