Coffee Clash — Islamophobia in California?

A troubling cell phone video clip is making the rounds on Twitter and other social media. Recorded at a California coffee shop last Friday afternoon, it was posted Saturday mid-morning, and shows an encounter between an unpleasant American man and a burqa-clad American woman. They are both standing in line waiting to order, and the clip starts after he has apparently made a snide remark about her attire, asking rhetorically if it is Halloween. She asks why he would say that, inquires if he knows she is a Muslim, and things heat up from there. There is no question that the behavior of the man in question is deplorable, and in the end he is denied service by the coffee shop manager on duty for two stated reasons:

  1. disrupting a public place
  2. being very racist.

If you wish to watch the video, here it is [brace yourself for some foul language]:

When I first watched this video, I felt disgust and dismay that a person could display such open disdain for another human being simply on the basis of negative assumptions concerning the religion of Islam. The whole encounter was marked by incivility displayed not only by the man and the Muslim woman toward each other, but also by a seated customer who roars out a profanity-laced tirade against the man in question about halfway through the clip. The interaction portrays a clearcut case of Islamophobia, marked by bigotry and loathing, and should be roundly condemned by all.

However, the manager’s decision was not very balanced. If the “bigot” was rightly tossed for disrupting a public place, then the same judgment should have applied to the male customer whose loud tirade certainly disturbed the peaceful atmosphere of the cafe. Likewise, an impartial judge would have ordered the Muslim woman to leave. Why? If you watch the conversation carefully, you will note how the woman raises her voice, escalating the argument. She becomes the aggressor, and continues to argue after the “bigot” holds up his hand twice and tells her to “back off.” She asks him if he’s a Christian and proceeds to launch a standard Muslim polemic against Jesus in the New Testament, claiming he endorsed the killing of his enemies. When the man tells her one last time he doesn’t want to talk with her because he doesn’t have conversations “with idiots,” she plays the victim card, declaring loudly, “You are committing hate speech; you are committing hate speech against me!”, at which point the aforementioned, unfilmed customer begins yelling, as if on cue, “Get out of here! Get out of here! F***ing racist!” The “bigot” and the loudmouth continue to exchange colorful epithets until the video cuts to the final scene where the “bigot” is standing before the manager as she explains why she will not serve him. In my opinion, if one of them was rightly denied service for “disrupting a public place,” the other two should have been as well. One might object that the Muslim woman was not the instigator but the victim, and yet she was the one who loudly pressed the matter after the “bigot” was seemingly ready to move on.

The second reason given by the manager was that the “bigot” was “being very racist.” This is a common charge against those labeled “anti-Muslim”, and it is one of the most pejorative labels in our culture, inviting universal condemnation of the accused. However, since Islam is not a race but a religion, one practiced by members of perhaps every racial group on the earth, the criticism of Islam and those who practice it faithfully has nothing to do with race. In the case of this video, the man and woman involved in dispute are both Caucasian, so obviously this is not about race. She is Muslim; he is not. That is the source of their dispute. You might argue that his behavior was boorish and hateful, and that hers was aggressive and opportunistic, and that they could be shown the door for those behaviors, but not for the stated reason of racism.

In any case, the incivility revealed in this encounter trumpets a warning about how we as a society have lost the capacity to treat each other with respect and to engage in conversations profitably rather than as a means to demean  the other or disparage his/her beliefs.

Unless it was staged.

I don’t say that lightly. But something troubled me about the overall feel of the video, and I am left with nagging questions.

First, who was filming this, and how did they deploy their smart phone quickly enough to capture the encounter almost from the start?

Second, how did “journalist C. J. Werleman” get ahold of this clip so quickly as to be able to post it on his Twitter account by 10:15 the next morning? If I read the watch correctly of the man in the video (you can see it in the first two seconds of the clip), this took place at 3 pm, California time. Werleman, on a self-confessed crusade to “…expose the Islamophobia industry and end anti-Muslim discrimination…,” boasted that he was “happy to have helped break this story.” I wonder how carefully he vetted the source from whom he received the clip, since it obviously fits so well the narrative he continues to push.

Third, why does the Muslim lady escalate the disagreement, raising her voice and challenging his beliefs, bringing up the Bible even after he seeks to wave her off, only at that point loudly accusing him of “hate speech” against her?

Fourth, why does an off-screen customer suddenly start bellowing a verbal attack against the “bigot” precisely at this point? Do these things typically happen in cafes? Perhaps it’s just my nature, but I would never consider yelling out in a coffee shop. I would either quietly mind my own business, or would get up and engage the parties, attempting to de-escalate the argument and restore some kind of peace.

Fifth, what happened during the period that has been cut from the clip? Maybe nothing, maybe more hurled epithets that the editor decided didn’t need to be heard by the public. But suddenly we are introduced to the conversation between the manager and the “bigot,” who then leaves quickly. Given the huge disruption of this event, one might expect that there would be cheers or clapping from the patrons, but surprisingly it’s back to business as usual.

Lastly, the Muslim woman’s question to the manager at the end seems highly contrived to me, as if she wanted to make sure to have on video record the manager’s assessment. “Why are you not serving him?” she asks, as the phone is pointed at the employee. Who would have the presence of mind to ask this “summary question,” if you’ve just been in an emotional dispute?

As you can tell, I’m skeptical. There have been far too many “fake Islamophobia” claims made by Muslims and later debunked by authorities for me to simply take things on face value. Why would Muslims fake hateful encounters, when there certainly are some real attacks against Muslims in America?Image result for fake islamophobia The answer to this is that by playing up victimhood status, Muslim groups hope to garner sympathy from the wider non-Muslim public and so win a kind of cultural “protected status” where Islam is increasingly sheltered from the appropriate study and critique to which every other worldview is subjected.

And from the popularity of this video clip, it seems to be working. So far, in just two days’ time, the original tweet has been viewed some 1.12 million times.

Once again, for those ready to tar and feather me for expressing my skepticism, let me reiterate my view that if this encounter really happened without being staged, it is indeed reprehensible on many levels, not least of which is the disdain and debasement directed toward an innocent Muslim woman, simply because she is Muslim. Such behavior must not be tolerated among Americans, who claim to believe in the “self-evident truths” that all human beings are created in the image of God and entitled to seek life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Even less is it to be tolerated among those who confess themselves to be Christians, and who claim to follow a Master who commands His followers to love their neighbors as themselves, even to the point of sacrificing themselves for the benefit of those rise up as enemies.

Image result for sandcastles erodingIn a societal context where basic civility is visibly eroding like sandcastles before relentless incoming waves, Christians especially need to stand against hatred and its offspring, whether we find it in our hearts or in the public sphere of which we find ourselves a part.

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