Savagery and Gentleness
February 19, 2017
I hope you receive this letter with the best of health and Iman.
C-Span just published its list of the greatest presidents in our history. President Obama is 12th. Andrew Jackson — the apparent inspiration for our current Executive Ordering president — is lower. Most fascinating is that FDR is third.
It is most fascinating because today is Remembrance Day in Japanese American communities. It is the 75th Anniversary of the passing of Order 9066, signed by…FDR. It is this Executive Order that paved the way for the incarceration of Japanese Americans. Such language like “internment” and “evacuation” were used, but it was nothing less than a sudden, indefinite imprisonment. To put things into perspective, many of those imprisoned were your age.
I had the privilege last week of sitting with a few grandchildren of incarcerated Japanese Americans. This piece of American history was ignored. Growing up in Chicago, we were taught extensively about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. We were taught about the atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though as a response to Pearl Harbor. But, we glossed over the incarceration. They were drawing attention to the incarceration to mark its place in history, but to also draw attention to our plight as Muslims.
There is a frankness, almost a pained gentleness in the way these grandchildren -- who are my age -- speak. It recalls Holocaust survivors, who have that same pained gentleness when they share their experiences, perhaps the result of decades of processing. I saw the same pained gentleness a decade ago in the Middle East talking to Palestinians living under Occupation. I saw the same pained gentleness in Bosnians who escaped “ethnic cleansing.” I saw the same pained gentleness in survivors of the civil war in Afghanistan. I saw the same pained gentleness in survivors of the genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia. I saw the same pained gentleness in recent refugees from Syria and Myanmar. And, I still see the same pained, gentleness in elder Black American men and women, who are still unable to tell me the stories of the hate they experienced.
I am unable to explain the pained gentleness, except perhaps to say that they are people who have seen the worst both in humanity and the unknowns of the world, and are happy to be alive, perhaps escaping trauma, though the trauma might not have escaped them. The grandchildren did not witness it, but the experiences of their parents and ancestors have become part of their own DNA.
That same day, I was in conversation with some elder Jews, sharing our experiences. These elders kept insisting that what they see in the news about so-called Muslim fanaticism is definitely politics rather than theology. They were familiar with the politics of religion, race and ethnicity, and not just from the Holocaust. In Chicago, there were numerous suburbs that had “loan covenant” laws prohibiting Jews from buying property. Kenilworth, Deerfield, and Evanston were among these towns.
In Kenilworth, there are two churches, across the street from each other. Having spoken at nearly every type of religious community, nearly every type of house of worship, I can comment that it was in Kenilworth that I faced the most hostile crowd at a house of worship. Media would lead you to think that such would be the expected behavior from a Christian community somewhere in the Rust Belt or near some local Trailer Park community. No, those people -- in Church and in their homes -- tend to be modest and polite. To be fair, I have faced far more hostilities outside of houses of worship (getting hit, spit on, and of course cursed at). And to be fair, 90% of the people at the church were polite. But, the 10% seemed free to ask numerous questions that had the sentiment of “prove to me you are not a savage," while the others remained silent. Advanced degrees and upper class wealth are no deterrent for ignorance.
And, that is also fascinating about the human experience. Right now, you and I are facing what may be the plight of many communities mentioned above. We get portrayed as a threat to our society, by dishonest communities. The statistics about Muslims foreign and domestic, as well as the statistics about refugees give no support to the Executive Orders directed at us, and we find ourselves having to prove that we are not savages. Yet, those dishonest communities -- politicians and war profiteers -- continues to benefit from vilifying us.
Further, our conversation on war remains dishonest. We obliterated the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (literally) after Pearl Harbor, and we incarcerated over a hundred thousand indigenous Japanese Americans, refusing even to use honest terminology. And, though we rightfully speak of the destruction on 12/7/1941, we give less attention to what we did. Likewise, today, we still portray 9/11 and ISIS as theological movements, ignoring the effects of our foreign policy endeavors. Theology is part of the story, but if theology was the primary motivation for 9/11 or ISIS, they would have happened decades ago and would recur on a daily basis. And, if our foreign policy was different, there would be no 9/11 or ISIS. Fifteen years after 9/11, that is still an impossible conversation in America. But, centuries after the arrival of the first enslaved Africans, Race is still an impossible conversation, so we should not be surprised. It is hard to admit to savagery, especially in a people who display pride about their civility.
In other words, the savagery of a people gets exposed not by their own tongues, as much as it gets exposed by the pained gentleness of those accused of being savages, thus savaged, by savages. This is not to say that our neighbors are savages. No. But there are plenty of savages on stages, on camera, speaking in microphones around us. And, you and I will respond to the savagery with gentleness. Gentleness is not weakness; at times it will be firm and unwavering, and sometimes it will be pained.
And Allah knows best.