Since the Republican presidential front-runner announced after San Bernardino that he would close America’s borders to Muslims, a debate has ensued about what “radicalization” means and how far we as a nation are willing to go to protect ourselves from it. So-called liberals (and even some in the Republican party’s mainstream) have said, “Not all Muslims have been radicalized.” To this Donald Trump retorts, “Until we know which ones have been, let’s keep them all out.” The unquestioned consensus in America’s public square is that we can only be safe by figuring out who the un-American terrorists are and getting rid of them.
But where we’re from in North Carolina, we should not be so naive. We have a disproportionate share of homegrown terrorists.
Before he moved to Colorado to carry out his attack on the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Robert Dear was apparently radicalized in the mountains of western North Carolina.
After assassinating Reverend Clementa Pinckney and eight other members of Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, Dylann Roof fled to Shelby, North Carolina, a hotbed of Klan activity, where he was apprehended by authorities.
We must assume that Craig Hicks was radicalized in liberal Chapel Hill before shooting three of his Muslim neighbors.
But we do not call any of these men radical Christians. Why, then, do we so easily accept the language of “radical Islam”?
When we look closely at the acts of terror that rend our communities and make everyone feel less safe, the common denominator is not a particular religion or culture. It is, instead, a violence that is perpetuated by those who use fear to gain political power. We cannot combat this violence by naming an enemy to eliminate. Instead, we must illuminate the sort of friendships that make fusion politics possible.
When we met nearly 20 years ago, we were the most unlikely of partners. Reverend Barber, an African-American pastor with deep roots in the civil-rights community, was serving as chair of the Human Relations Commission for Democratic Governor Jim Hunt. Jonathan, a Southern Baptist from Stokes County, had just finished an internship with Republican Senator Strom Thurmond, one-time Dixiecrat candidate for president. Ideology and established enemy lines all but guaranteed we’d never work together. But we got to know each other’s love for people and for this state. We learned that we share a common faith and, with it, a concern for the common good.
A “Southern strategy” was developed in the late 1960s to pit us against each other, creating a “solid South” for the Republican Party by dividing poor and working people according to their worst fears about their neighbors. Black and white have a long history in this place, but political strategists worked carefully to “color” immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, and religious minorities, casting them as un-American rather than non-white. The rise of ISIS as a real and credible threat means that this racist form of political manipulation can take the form of calling Muslims un-American.
But we must not allow the candidates of either party to condemn the murders in San Bernadino without acknowledging their own role in this nation’s violence. The politics of fear is a politics that demands violence. What is more, it is used to exercise political violence by those who wield power. After her husband was gunned down in 1968 for challenging our violent culture, Coretta Scott King boldly said:
In this society violence against poor people and minority groups is routine. I remind you that starving a child is violence; suppressing a culture is violence; neglecting schoolchildren is violence; discrimination against a working man is violence; ghetto house is violence; ignoring medical needs is violence; contempt for equality is violence; even a lack of will power to help humanity is a sick and sinister form of violence.
Our friendship had helped us to see through the divide-and-conquer tactics of this violent politics. Friendships like this played an essential role in North Carolina’s political history. When Samuel Ashley and J.W. Hood—a white minister and a black minister—came together after the Civil War to help rewrite our state’s constitution, they noted that “beneficent provision for the poor is the first duty” of state government. Like those two men, black Republicans and poor white Populists throughout this state saw their common cause in the 1890s and joined together to form a Fusion Party that won every statewide election in 1896. The white-supremacy campaign of 1898, which led to a coup in Wilmington and ushered in the Jim Crow era, was a violent reaction against the power of fusion friendships.
Once again in the mid-20th century, black and white came together in North Carolina, giving rise to the modern civil-rights movement. After the legal victories of desegregation, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act, the Southern strategy of intentional division was implemented as a calculated reaction against the power of fusion friendship in the public square.
We have witnessed the power of friendships like ours in the Moral Movement that arose in North Carolina in 2005, bringing together a broad coalition of more than 200 organizations that recognize we have more in common than those who would divide us want us to believe. Our coalition partners demonstrated their power in the 2008 presidential election when North Carolina’s Electoral College votes went to a Democrat, breaking the solid South. This victory led to yet another violent backlash of mystery money, gerrymandering, and the extreme makeover of our state government in the 2013 legislative session. “Moral Mondays” became the largest state-based civil-disobedience campaign in US history because fusion friendships like ours refused to give into extremists’ assault.
What, then, can we do to make our community safe again and prevent the “radicalization” of extreme elements in our society. The rhetoric of fear, we know, cannot save us. To say “radical Islam” is to play the race card again in the 21st century. As in our past, fusion friendships offer a way forward. As we say in the Moral Movement, “Forward together, not one step back.”