It was ironic that last month’s news told of U. S. troops patrolling and planes bombing Iraq in the name of democracy for resistant natives, while someone in Mobile, Alabama was being denied the right to speak to his representatives at a meeting of his city council. The irony sharpens when you were the one squelched.
And it deepens when you were attempting to speak on behalf of a local group, Citizens for Peace, which opposed this war even before it began. We considered the chatter about bestowing democracy on Iraq as a cover for less savory impulses to attack and as an imaginary outcome of the war.
But whatever the results might be over there, visions of spreading that American ideal were a handy sales pitch for promoters of the war here. So were any demeaning depictions that help to justify the fate of those who would be gutted and filleted when the war machinery trampled into their country.
Evil and Wicked Islam
That’s what propelled us to the city council with a resolution about a visitor coming to town soon, the Rev. Franklin Graham. After the attacks of 9/11/2001 many people said things in haste or anger which they later retracted or moderated.
Not Graham. He attributed 9/11 to the chief faith of the region where the plotters were born and declared that Islam is "a very evil and wicked religion."
Not that some version of Islam adopted by some of the attackers contributed to the motives for their fiery suicide raid, but that the religion itself is inherently evil and wicked. That’s his story and he’s sticking to it, which aids those avid to wage and expand wars against Muslim nations. Most of those killed will be adherents of this vile religion, and their departure seems to cleanse the world of a grave mistake.
Graham has spurned opportunities to remove the barbs from his statement and salve the wounds it continues to cause. He reaffirmed it most recently in a front page story of the March 8 USA Today, granting that he’d said this about Islam and adding that "I haven’t backed down."
That article, with a picture of him in resolute pose before a gleaming cross, amounted to his investiture as his father’s successor. Franklin had long been the heir apparent of ailing Billy Graham’s worldwide evangelical organization. He has already taken Billy’s place as spiritual guide to presidents. He was God’s representative at the ceremonies re-inaugurating president Bush in January, 2005. The USA Today article announced his official rise to his father’s role at the ministry’s headquarters in North Carolina.
Franklin Graham is the Protestant pope-or the nearest thing the splayed-out Protestants have to that eminence. And he’s rented the civic center in downtown Mobile for three days of preaching and soul saving late this month.
So our proposed resolution asked the members of the city council to consider the implications of this. They not only have some legal authority over use of municipal facilities like the civic center; they are also custodians of the city’s values and character.
The most potent preacher in the country is bringing a doctrine of holy hatred to Mobile, which includes Muslims among its citizens. This isn’t a prominent part of his routine message, but neither will he repudiate it. Would Graham’s type of pious bias be acceptable here from anybody equally lofty who had said anything similar about Jews or any brand of Christians? Certainly not.
Our resolution didn’t ask the council to cancel Graham’s rental of the civic center. Instead it affirmed his right to use the building and to preach whatever he believes. It merely said that city officials should not welcome him to Mobile in any manner "until and unless the Rev. Graham publicly retracts and apologizes for his slander of Islam."
Regardless of these officials’ opinions about wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the looming one in Iran, surely they would welcome an occasion to defend their Muslim constituents against Graham’s consigning them en masse to hell. Or if the council members didn’t give a damn about that, surely they would want to orate and then to formally affirm by this resolution their city’s dedication to respect and civility among all its varied parts.
Hush or Go Directly to Jail
Surely not. We were fortunate to get away from the council meeting without being arrested.
We had not followed all the rules for addressing the council, or so we were told. But we had meticulously done that and brought copious documentation to prove it.
Anyhow, our resolution was not pertinent, or so we were told. But we knew of many matters brought before the council that have little or no direct bearing on municipal functions. These included a resolution adopted last fall upon Rosa Parks’ death. It commended her refusal to move to the back of a bus in another city half a century ago. But a resolution about the use of a Mobile city facility now by a major public figure for public meetings attracting thousands is not pertinent? No, it’s not. Instead it’s "preposterous," the council president said.
Anyhow, you’re not Christians. What else could the councilman have meant who called himself a Christian while calling our resolution "trash"?
He must be one of those who believe there was a secret eighth day of creation when God founded the Republican party, and Moses brought Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America and George Bush’s DNA down from Mt. Sinai.
Among the dozen or so who attended to support Citizens for Peace’s resolution, I’ve never heard any proclaim their faith like that councilman did. But I’ve seen them all live it.
Anyhow, if you don’t shut up, you’ll be arrested. That was the implication of the repeated warnings by the council president that our resolution was not to be discussed, that any attempt to do so was out of order, that this had already been decided, and that the whole council agreed about it.
Rather than go to jail the Citizens for Peace contingent retreated to the atrium of Government Plaza and held an impromptu press conference, which is still allowed.
Suspicious that my memory was playing tricks, I asked the other exiles: Did the council president really invite me to speak about topics other than our resolution, any other topics? Yes, they said, he did.
I didn’t need to ask what had happened to one council member who’d pledged to prevent a muzzling. I’d seen him shrivel silently in his seat as his colleagues assailed us. A couple weeks earlier I asked him to intervene, if necessary, for our right to speak and he readily agreed. But he behaved during the public meeting like a voodoo spell of mute paralysis had been cast upon him.
Something similar had apparently happened to local Muslims. Among the mostly foreign-born ones clustered around the University of South Alabama, none displayed any desire to uphold their faith before the city council. Members of an innercity mosque had at least met with us, declared their support, and indicated they would attend to bolster the resolution. But if they were present, their brand of Islam has the magical property of rendering them invisible.
A couple candidates for local office had also signaled their support and their intention to attend. But when the moment arrived, they too became transparent.
One councilman acknowledged in a later email to a Citizens for Peace member that "based on past practices of the Council" we should not have been choked. And the daily newspaper’s account of our gagging noted, accurately, that the council president "generally gives generous leeway to people who wish to speak."
An exception was enforced against us not because we’d botched some procedure, and not because our resolution wasn’t germane, but because we are heretics. We refused to genuflect before the almighty Rev. Graham. We dared to propose a resolution asserting that he was capable of error, in need of repentance, and should be shunned until he had done so. We insisted that the city’s elected leaders vindicate their Muslim fellow citizens against Graham’s assault. And we declined the offer to prattle about anything else instead.
The council could easily have allowed us the typical five minutes to present our odious resolution. Then they could just have said nothing and done nothing-ignore us. And continue the meeting as if we’d never come.
But doing this would concede not only that the infidels had breached the walls and entered the inner sanctum but also that they had some right to be there. They had to be attacked-not ignored-because they’d challenged the sanctity and infallibility of the anointed one, Rev. Graham.
Not all seven of the council members joined the chorus. But silence signaled assent. I wondered especially what had occurred out of our sight to paralyze the one who’d assured us of access to the agenda. And what accounted for the missing Muslims? Or the vanished local candidates?
For answers you needn’t have the power to sign executive orders instructing spy agencies to skirt the law and snoop on emails and phone calls.
You merely need to have absorbed from experience and folklore the lessons about what befalls the sheep that stray from orthodoxy.
The word spreads: Stay away from those folks who say they’re going downtown with that fool resolution about Rev. Graham. He will come, and he will go, but his followers will still be here. And you will too. Do you want to fit in with this community? Do you want to keep your connections and your reputation? Do you care about that promotion you’ve been working toward all these years? Do you want to do business? Stay away from those folks.
And if you are one of those folks, friends-genuine ones-will ask if you’re sure you want to pursue this. And when they see that you really intend to, they will ask if you have a paid up life insurance policy. And they are not joking.
A democracy isn’t simply a place that has elections now and then. Among other things, it must also have unfettered, unafraid exchanges of information and opinions between officials, civic groups, and citizens.
Nor is a theocracy simply a place with an official religion. It could be a place without any formal merger of church and state-but some religion and some of its leaders are so weighty and sacrosanct that nobody is supposed to question or discomfit them. And if anybody does get uppity, their own elected representatives will rear up in unison to smite and silence them on behalf of the religious potentates.
So Citizens for Peace’s recent experience at the Mobile city council is in keeping with the era and the presiding political forces of America. Over there they impose regime change by invasions while trumpeting democracy, but they actually install systems closer to theocracy. And here they retain some of the outward forms of democracy, while edging toward the methods of theocracy.
You might call these converging trends globalization.
DAVID UNDERHILL is a member of Citizens for Peace in Mobile, Alabama. He can be reached at email@example.com.