Stop Calling U.S. Christian Lawmakers the ‘Taliban’

The answer to countering right-wing attacks on Americans with uteri isn't to create a turban-wearing bogeyman looming half a world away, but to look at what's happening right here in our own country, in our own statehouses, at our own national capitol.

The answer to countering right-wing attacks on Americans with uteri isn't to create a turban-wearing bogeyman looming half a world away, but to look at what's happening right here in our own country, in our own statehouses, at our own national capitol. Religious freedom via Shutterstock

I saw it on posters last summer at the Texas capitol, during protests against the state’s omnibus anti-abortion law: “TEXAS TALIBAN.” I’ve heard pundits and preachers on cable news, decrying the “American Taliban” that wants to take away birth control and abortion access.

These phrases aren’t clever, and they aren’t insightful. They’re racist, and they’re Islamophobic, and people—especially white people—who work in social justice movements and who do advocacy for women’s rights need to stop using them yesterday.

Because there is indeed a powerful, well-funded and rigidly patriarchal religious movement behind America’s most misogynist laws, and it isn’t any iteration of Islam.

It’s Christianity.

There’s no need to try and incite fear that right-wing lawmakers are going to turn America into an extremist Islamic theocracy when they’re doing just fine turning it into an extremist Christian theocracy. The answer to countering right-wing attacks on Americans with uteri isn’t to create a turban-wearing bogeyman looming half a world away, but to look at what’s happening right here in our own country, in our own statehouses, at our own national capitol.

I seem to remember someone once saying something about removing the plank from your own eye before trying to pluck a splinter out of someone else’s.

I’ve followed the “Holly Hobby Lobby” meme with eyes rolling hard, as lefty Americans work themselves into a froth about a young white American woman holding a rifle and a bible. But what’s scary about that photo isn’t that the woman pictured is echoing the posture of an Islamic extremist, it’s that she’s using a rifle and a bible to advocate for government-sanctioned misogyny. American government-sanctioned misogyny.

The five judges who joined the majority opinion on Hobby Lobby aren’t Muslim. They’re Catholic. So are Rick Santorum and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). Rep. Louie “Terror Babies” Gohmert (R-TX) is a Southern Baptist, and so is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) attends an evangelical megachurch, and Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R) is also an evangelical Christian. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) is a member of the Church of God. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is a Presbyterian.

The call is coming from inside the house, y’all.

We need to ask ourselves: What’s wrong with our own American Christianity that we are unable to face the very real fact that we are perfectly capable of using our own Christian traditions to oppress the most vulnerable among us?

There have been a grand total of two Muslim Americans elected to the United States Congress—the first in 2007. Islam, and its many variants, are not a threat to the U.S. legislative system. American lawmakers didn’t learn misogyny from Muslim extremists in Afghanistan—we grew it ourselves, right here on American soil. We’ve baked it into every slice of the American pie.

To fixate on an “American Taliban” is to derail an important and necessary conversation about the ways Christianity has been used, and continues to be used, as an excuse and a means to oppress and marginalize American citizens, right here on our own turf.

A Texas protester holds "Stop Texas Taliban" sign at a Planned Parenthood rally in Austin, Texas, in March 2012. [via Jessica Luther]
A Texas protester holds “Stop Texas Taliban” sign at a Planned Parenthood rally in Austin, Texas, in March 2012. [via Jessica Luther]
The reality is that words mean things—if that sounds pedantic and obvious, consider the fact that people who don’t agree with me are going to claim I’m getting all riled up about something that’s no big deal, while they fight tooth and nail to say these things without being criticized.

Words express shared cultural ideas, and to pretend that “American Taliban” or “Texas Taliban” are just cute accidents of speech, or innocent verbal shorthand, is to ignore the very real history of organized, politically endorsed, and perpetuated systemic racism expressly meant to oppress and silence a particular group of non-white folks, both inside and outside the United States.

It’s no accident that, in the vast and varied religio-cultural landscape of planet Earth, which offers no shortage of examples of misogynist ideologies, Americans choose “Taliban” when they want to try and insult right-wing lawmakers, and try to incite their fellow citizens to action against those lawmakers. Because 9/11. Because the war in Iraq. Because racism. Because brown people from the Middle East are, more than any other people, the “baddies” right now in American culture.

The result? Widespread American Islamophobia, a fear of the millions of Muslims who call this country home. Anti-Muslim violence in America is a very real problem, as the Los Angeles Times reported way back in 2010:

Law enforcement authorities in California classified the vandalism at the Madera Islamic Center in the Central Valley that nearly smashed a window as a hate crime when they discovered signs that read “Wake up America the enemy is here” and “No temple for the god of terrorism.” In New York, an intoxicated man forced his way into a mosque in Queens and urinated on several prayer rugs. Michael Enright, a 21-year-old New York film student, is being charged with attempted murder in connection with the stabbing of a Muslim cab driver. The act has been classified as a hate crime.

Maybe you’re not the kind of American who’s going to plant a pipe bomb at a mosque, but when you try and foment fear by hollering “AMERICAN TALIBAN!” at the top of your lungs, you give those who might an awful lot of culturally sanctioned leeway to try.

Muslim Americans, and people who are perceived to be Muslim Americans, are singled out at airport checkpoints and targeted in domestic spying operations. Women who wear hijab in public are ridiculed and harassed. And every cry of “Texas Taliban!” or “American Taliban!” makes it worse, because we do not have, and have never had, a nuanced, thoughtful national conversation about Islam—in part because we usually stop with “Taliban!” and a pat on the back.

Last year, right here in supposedly hyper-liberal Austin, Texas, a Muslim woman named Beeta Baghoolizadeh joined the thousands of Texans who descended upon our state capitol to show support for abortion rights. On her first trip, she accidentally wore blue:

Lest anyone assumed that I was another anti-choice activist—and a Muslim one no less—I quickly created a sign reading “PRETEND I’M WEARING ORANGE.” I wanted to make sure people didn’t conflate my blue outfit with Christian-centric religious arguments. I didn’t need any #creepingsharia tweets with my picture on them.

Later, Baghoolizadeh wrote of another trip to the capitol, wearing an orange scarf, and seeing protesters holding signs “about the Sharia and Taliban taking over Texas.” Afterward, she saw a disturbing image:

It was a picture of woman dressed in a black burqa with a “Miss Texas” sash around her inside the Capitol. It felt like a slap across the face. I had gone to the Capitol wearing an orange scarf–not a black burqa–and was forced to deal with a more intense fast than usual because of my decision to stand for women’s rights, health and engage in the democratic process. In return, I was met with a caricature of a “Muslim woman” to protest the GOP’s [non-Muslim] oppression.

No matter how orange my scarf was that night, people had managed to conflate the politics of the swaying, praying Christian right with “oppressed” Muslim women swathed in black. Suffice to say, this shallow, knee-jerk polemic both disappointed and infuriated me. Indeed, this atrocious bill has given birth to (no pun intended) a number of facile and unfortunate proclamations about the Muslim world.

A pro-choice protester at the Texas state capitol dresses in a burka on July 12, 2013, the day lawmakers voted to pass HB 2. [via Students4LifeHQ on Twitter]
A pro-choice protester at the Texas state capitol dresses in a burka on July 12, 2013, the day lawmakers voted to pass HB 2. [via Students4LifeHQ on Twitter]
We—liberals, progressives, Democrats, social justice activists—cannot believe in systemic oppression only when it suits us, and only when it is perpetuated against the “right” kind of people. We cannot say we are invested in a “big tent,” and then put up a velvet rope, woven of ignorance and fear, at the door.

I mean, we can technically do those things—but only if we’re unwilling to confront the fact that in doing so we are charging admission for our allyship, telling people that they need to be the right color, the right religion, the right sex, the right gender in order to receive our support.

I also see another side to the “American Taliban” rhetoric, one that’s not just racist and Islamophobic but misogynist, one that is about a certain kind of fetishization of the oppression of women of color, about the kind of subconscious work a phrase like “American Taliban” or “Texas Taliban” does for white people: it titillates us, allowing us to imagine ourselves as beneficent saviors of brown-skinned damsels in distress. In the popular American cultural conscience, women of color are particularly situated as sexual objects according to particular racist stereotypes about what it means to be not-white and also a woman—seductive or submissive, aggressive or unrapeable. On the surface, “American Taliban!” centers an imagined male figure, but the reason why the “Taliban!” as a linguistic trope is supposed to incite such fear in the first place is because that imagined male figure is abusing, oppressing, silencing a woman—not just any woman, but a woman of color. A woman who, by virtue of the way she is embodied in the world, we expect to be oppressed, abused, silenced.

We can imagine that woman being oppressed in the way we expect her to be oppressed, and imagine ourselves—Americans wielding lipstick and high heels—as liberators. As if beauty products and fashionable shoes were unknown to Muslim women, and as if wearing lipstick got us government-mandated parental leave, and high heels have earned American women equal pay for equal work.

When a white person cries “Texas Taliban!” or “American Taliban!” what they’re saying is “I thought only brown people deserved to be oppressed.” They’re saying, “My whiteness was supposed to insulate me from things like this.” They’re saying, “I’m afraid—for my privilege.”

But patriarchy and misogyny pay no heed to national borders, and are not uniquely suited to certain geographical climes. They thrive everywhere—including in America, and including in our churches.

And yes, I know, not all Christians. Are there compassionate, loving Christians out there who are deeply invested in committing radical acts of social justice? Absolutely—for reference, see North Carolina’s Moral Monday protests. Are there reasonable Christians out there who believe in science and medicine? Definitely. Are there Christians out there who just like to go to church and do the Jesus thing and have a nice time in fellowship? Indeed; I just described about 99 percent of my relatives.

You might be one or all of these kinds of Christians. If you are, I’m not talking about you. Keep doing that good work you’re doing.

People know what they’re doing when they say “Texas Taliban” or “American Taliban.” Everybody else does, too. That’s why they say it in the first place: They want to make clear that when American lawmakers are bad, they’re imitating brown men on the other side of the world, where the “real” oppression happens. The word “Taliban” conjures up images of brown men wearing turbans, and brown women wearing burkas. Nevermind the fact that white, male Americans are doing just fine at oppressing women with bibles at their right hand. Using “Taliban” rhetoric to describe American politics is a salve that serves only to soothe Americans into dangerous complacency.

If you get to the end of this piece and you’re raring for a fight so that you can continue to holler “Taliban!” every time a white Christian man rails against birth control, I want you to ask yourself: Why am I so invested in being able to continue using this word? Like, really sit with that. If you could never say “American Taliban” or “Texas Taliban” ever again, how would you be unable to do good social justice activism? How would never saying those phrases again impede your ability to help Americans access legal abortion care? Will equal pay, or mandated family leave, become a reality only on the condition that you get to keep saying “Taliban”?

Or will you be able to drop an ignorant, racist dogwhistle that helps no one, hurts many, and does nothing to stop or silence the American Christians behind our country’s worst laws?