“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – “The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.”
Christopher Columbus wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella, “Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians and Princes who love the holy Christian faith, and the propagation of it, and who are enemies to the sect of Mahoma [Islam] and to all idolatries and heresies, resolved to send me, Cristóbal Colon, to the said parts of India to see the said princes … with a view that they might be converted to our holy faith …. Thus, after having turned out all the Jews from all your kingdoms and lordships … your Highnesses gave orders to me … so that the service is performed.”
Later, not content with cleansing Spain of Jews and Muslims, Spain’s conquistadors imposed the “Requirement,” on its subjects: accept “the Church as the Ruler and Superior of the whole world” or, “We shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do all the harm and damage that we can.”
This weekend Americans are invited to celebrate Columbus Day. While many Americans are conflicted over the appropriateness of celebrating the man who began the process of colonizing the hemisphere’s indigenous peoples — and the transfer of their wealth to the privileged descendents of the colonizers; the stolen land being developed by slave labor upon which this nation thrived and grew to global power — we would do well to recognize that Cristóbal Colon’s arrival heralded the first of many struggles America has witnessed over the centuries.
America in many ways has been built on the backs of the “Other.” Jews, the Irish, Asians, Catholics, African-Americans, for example, all were “Otherized” and excluded from our public square at one time or another. Some found acceptance sooner than others, but Japanese were interred during World War II, anti-Semitism still exists and African-Americans are still marginalized in many communities and work places- witness the recent tensions in Ferguson, Mo.
Sadly, while some Americans struggle to confront the painful inequities under which many citizens struggle, a new exclusionary movement is raising its ugly voice — a movement aimed at delegitimizing a long-resident minority — Muslims.
“Plus ça change.”
Since 9/11, when Americans recognized Muslims had been living in our midst for hundreds of years without being on anyone’s radar screen, there have been recurring attempts to disenfranchise them.
Today, more than 500 years since Columbus set foot in the Bahamas and more than 300 years since African slave labor was introduced to this land, many Americans are turning out of ignorance, fear and prejudice against Islam — the most recent round being a reaction against the criminal depredations of ISIS. With no consideration of the circumstances from which ISIS and its antecedents emerged, with no consideration of the role we may have had in fragmenting, destroying, impoverishing and dispossessing entire communities, an intellectually impaired consortium of Islamophobes, from Bill Maher on the left, to Mike Huckabee and Pat Robertson on the right, has emerged. They exhibit a particular commonality: they reflect a hunger for a confirmational bias that reaffirms already closely-held and seemingly unshakable prejudices, and in their arrogance use language about Islam that Americans would never tolerate about another faith.
Implicit in such hyper-partisan racist attacks is the assumption that Islam is homogeneous. Muslims, like others, are quite catholic, varied in religious observance and traditions, and range from devout to the disenchanted.
It’s racist to hold a whole people responsible for the actions, criminal or not, of any group. As an American I have no obligation to express an opinion on ISIL, or on Boko Haram, or on the Tea Party or Bill Maher, to the same degree, no more, no less, than it is on others. To the extent that I as a columnist reflect on such matters is personal and my readers know full well where I stand. However, I am writing today to categorically state the oft-repeated charge in many fora that Muslims remain silent in the face of Muslim atrocities is uninformed, offensive and, as shown below, demonstrably false.
Dr. Iyad Madani of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which represents 1.4 billion Muslims in 57 countries, said ISIS has “Nothing to do with Islam” and has committed crimes “That cannot be tolerated,” Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, said ISIS is the “Number one enemy of Islam,” and in America the Council of American-Islamic Affairs condemned ISIS as “Un-Islamic and morally repugnant.”
“Plus ça change”
One of the most laughable of anti-Islam memes is that Muslim-hatred is justified by retelling the intemperate rants of a young 25-year-old Harrow and Sandhurst-educated, Winston Churchill. Churchill, rightly celebrated for his courage and defense of democracy and opposition to dictatorships during World War II, was for years an unreconstructed racist defender of an imperial power. When Iraqis rebelled against British rule, he wrote, “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes…[It] would spread a lively terror.” He wrote that he participated in “…a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples,” and he believed “Aryan stock is bound to triumph.”
When Gandhi began his peaceful resistance campaign against British imperialism, Churchill suggested Gandhi, “ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back.” As resistance spread, Churchill roared, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” To quote Churchill on how the West should regard Islam is to promote a racist meme that civilized peoples should reject.
Today, there is no more delicious a repudiation of the colonial racist legacy of now diminished imperial powers than the triumphant truth that a descendent of one of those barbarous peoples that Churchill raged against today resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Yes, of course we should condemn barbarity and cruelty – the physical, the political, the economic and the personal. To listen, to understand, to reveal historical parallels and connections, even to listen to grievances, is not the same as justifying the deeds that may or may not have been inspired by them. To confront, solve or defeat any problem we first must understand. Let’s challenge the paradigm of, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
Americans have often, in generous and well-intentioned ways, found ways to confront injustices and embrace the downtrodden. While we know there will always be those who, as the Qur’an reveals, “Deceive none but themselves, and perceive it not,” most Americans, with wisdom, understanding and love of humanity, resist racism in all its iterations. The promise of America will be realized only when all its citizens are fully welcome into its public square.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.