All too many Muslims fail to grasp Islam, which teaches one to be lenient towards others and to understand their value systems, knowing that these are tolerated by Islam as a religion. —Abdurrahman Wahid
intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries.
America, we have a problem. The name of that problem is xenophobia. We can no longer ignore our problem. We can no longer tolerate the blatant and distasteful exhibition of our problem. We need to address this matter head on and put it to an end. Muslims are not inherently bad. Immigrants are not inherently bad. Believing that they are is not American and is not acceptable in an intelligent and progressive society.
I realize that these are tough words to start on a Monday morning, but we need the focus and determination that Mondays provide. Xenophobia has gotten out of control and needs to be stopped.
A prime example of xenophobia was made public in court documents last Friday when it was revealed that a North Carolina man (why is it always the Carolinas?) on a Southwest Airlines flight decided he needed to rip the hijab off a Muslim woman and scream, “Take it off! This is America!” The man was convicted of a misdemeanor hate crime, but this is just one small symptom of a wider disease.
After reading of this account, I began to wonder: What would have happened if native tribespeople had been xenophobic toward the Puritan separatists that landed at Plymouth in 1620? We know the Powhatan tribe that initially encountered these strangely dressed white people were suspicious, and they had good cause to be. European-based diseases left behind by Columbus and his crew had already made their way up the East coast from Florida and were wiping out millions of native peoples. In fact, some have wondered that, had the tribes not been decimated by disease, they might not have been willing to tolerate the newcomers at all.
When we think about it a bit, one can see similarities between how the Powhatan might have viewed the Puritans compared to how many people today view Muslims.
- The Puritan separatists who followed William Bradford were refugees. They were considered traitors in England and unwelcome rabble rousers most everywhere else in Europe. Only the very liberal Holland offered to take them in, and Bradford found the social structure there too “ungodly” for his brand of religious extremism. They had nowhere else to go. Many Muslims know exactly how that feels.
- Puritan women dressed funny, at least in the eyes of the Powhatan. Puritans were very concerned about modesty and a woman could be imprisoned, whipped, and even killed for dressing immodestly. Puritan women wore no fewer than ten different pieces of clothing and having too few petticoats or not covering her head in public was considered scandalous. For native peoples looking on wearing little more than deer skin, such costuming certainly seemed ridiculous. Similarly, few Americans today understand why Muslim women dress so modestly.
- Puritan women had no rights; they were considered the property of their husbands. They could not own property or speak in church, and they dare not challenge their husbands. Native peoples who respected and elevated women found this treatment quite strange, just as modern Americans find the different relationships of some (not all) Muslims to be unusual.
- Puritans had a strange religion that native peoples did not understand. Native tribes were spiritual to be sure, but they saw their deities as benevolent whereas the god these Puritans worshiped was fearful and angry. Likewise, large numbers of Americans view Islam and any other non-Christian religion as “strange” and some would even deny Muslims the right to worship openly.
- Puritans didn’t speak the native language. Communication was difficult and challenging. Muslims and other immigrants struggle with English now. Is there really any difference?
The similarities between the Puritan separatists we know as Pilgrims and modern Muslims immigrating to these same shores is striking. Both chased from the lands of their birth, neither understood, both disadvantaged, and both trying to hold true to their spiritual beliefs while surrounded by a people and culture that did not and does not understand them.
What if the response of the Powhatan had been to turn Bradford and his followers away? Certainly, there were more than a few opportunities to completely wipe out these pale settlers and be rid of them. What if the tribes had decided to build walls, fencing the pilgrims off and limiting their access to food and water? Perhaps the Powhatan might have forced the immigrants to learn their language. If so, we might all be speaking Algonquian languages now.
Had the Powhatan been as xenophobic as we’ve become, we would not be the country we are now. While speculating on how we might have developed is futile, the willingness of the tribes to tolerate those early religious refugees in the strange clothes, to the point of the tribes’ own doom, was critical in shaping what we have become.
In his commencement address at Rutgers University this past weekend, President Obama addressed the problem of xenophobia in our country.
Isolating or disparaging Muslims, suggesting that they should be treated differently when it comes to entering this country. That is not just a betrayal of our values. That’s not just a betrayal of who were are — it would alienate the communities at home and abroad who are our most important partners in the fight against violent extremism. Suggesting that we can build an endless a wall along our borders and blame our challenges on immigrants — that doesn’t just run counter to our history as the world’s melting pot. It contradicts the evidence that our growth and our innovation and our dynamism has always been driven by our ability to attract strivers from other parts of the globe. That’s how we became America — why would we want to stop it now?
If we are going to continue to be the America we think we are, if we are going to continue to be the land of the free and the home of the brave, if we are going to continue to be the world’s leaders in economics and innovation and science and discovery, then we cannot tolerate xenophobia within our ranks. We must challenge those who speak disparagingly against immigrants, against those who do not speak English, against those who think we must all be Christian, and against those who would turn people away and erect walls along our borders. We must embrace those who are fleeing from political and religious persecution. We must welcome those who come in search of hope. We must put our arms around those looking for the success we have already found.
We cannot live in fear, any fear, whether it is fear of Muslims or Jews or Hindu or Southern Baptists. We cannot live fearing people who arrive on our shores from Syria, Honduras, Mexico, or Guatemala. We cannot live in fear of change, of different cultures, languages, and styles of dress.
We are Americans, damnit. Fear has no place here. Stand up and welcome them to their new home, just like the Powhatan did for a bunch of sea-weary religious extremists in 1620.