Since I've been quiet on the blog lately, let me give you all a quick heads-up about what's happening: I currently live in Germany, and I'm doing domestic abuse victim/survivor advocacy, outreach, and education for the U.S. Army. Go figure.
Our theme for the month being religion, I thought it'd be worthwhile to raise religions other than Islam. Not that there aren't a lot of fascinating and troubling things going on with power dynamics, oppression, and sex and gender within Islam and within the non-Muslim American media and public eye- but I think we tend to forget that our quest to fix all Others (religious and otherwise) usually eclipses some of the glaring problems within the systems and structures that are considered Us.
Some of you may know that the US military permits service members to specify a wide variety of religious preferences on their dog tags and paperwork, so they can get the service they'd prefer in the event of an untimely death. Everyone from Wiccans to Atheists to Catholics to Buddhists can, in theory, receive this treatment. But what about during life?
At work, we were cleaning out our storage warehouse last week. My program is part of Army Community Services (ACS), which offers everything from volunteer opportunities to community programming. In the piles of broken and wasted stuff that people had bothered to store, we found a whole pile of Christmas supplies- fake trees, ornaments, Santa decorations, etc. My colleagues were excited, especially since the Christmas supplies were right next to the Mardi Gras beads and noisemakers, and a few boxes over we found some cheap Easter bunnies and a bag of Halloween masks. It was a full year's worth of holidays! All that was missing were the turkeys for Thanksgiving, which someone explained had been thrown away the year before, and the 4th of July decorations, which were still in our offices. We had even thrown away an old box of Valentine's Day hearts. Great! Right?
Where, I wanted to know, were the Hannukah supplies? The Kwaanza candles? Why, in this supply warehouse of junk, didn't we find a single item to represent a non-Christian winter holiday?
I understand that there's a backlash to what's been dubbed the "Holiday PC Police" and that many people, the vast majority of whom are either Christian or celebrate Christmas, are annoyed that Hannukah and Kwaanza are gaining visibility in the Christmas shuffle. The flip side is that there are plenty of people who celebrate these holidays who want them left a-bloody-lone by the corporate sharks looking to exploit holidays for a quick buck. I understand all this.
But what shocked me is how completely blind ACS was to the diversity in its own community. ACS is ostensibly proud to serve every member of the garrison, not just the ones who have wounded family members or who need emergency financial relief or who are about to relocate. These are events that are supposed to draw the community together. I'm not sure that I'm suggesting that ACS start offering events for all religious holidays; rather, I'm highlighting my concern that non-Christian holidays weren't even a blip on my colleagues' radars. It's not as though the Army refuses enlistment to anyone with a religious preference outside of Christianity. So where's the support for the Jewish military family during Rosh Hashanah, for example, or Yom Kippur? What kinds of community events are set up to support Muslim military families as they fast during Ramadan?
It's not just ACS, I've been noticing, but it's the military culture in general. Bases have chapels- non-denominational religious spaces that are intended to be used for a variety of religious services. What they usually offer, however, is three or four different Christian services per week. Sometimes, there will be a chapel that's structured to be appropriate for a temple service. But I have yet to hear about services being offered for Muslim service members or their families, for polytheistic belief systems, or for the Wiccan service members who had to argue even to have their beliefs recognized by the military. In short, Christianity- and Christian-based lifestyles- are the unspoken metric of what's "normal" in a military community, and everyone else is asking for exceptional treatment.
The military is a culture unto itself, and that's important to recognize. Living this close to, or in, the military is most assuredly not the same as living in any other community in the States. But in many ways it's a useful litmus test for how the government views the culture(s) of the governed, and how it ranks them. Overseas, the government is concerned with providing service members and their families with as many of the amenities of home as possible- but how successful is it if many of those service members have to go off-base to find one of the most basic amenities, a religious community?