Who is made unsafe so you can feel safe?
Like most people I suppose, I thought of Muslims as newcomers to the Americas. I thought of Muslims as people who came recently, the result of wars and conflict in the Middle East. Like most people, I suppose, I was wrong. And in Praying to the West Omar Mouallem writes about this history of Muslim presence in the so called Americas that goes all the way back to slavery. Islam was present in Africa, which means it was present within enslaved Africans and he notes that by some estimates about 1/3 of those who came across the Middle Passage were Muslim. Like everyone who isn’t Indigenous to this place, Muslim presence here is a mix of both deep roots and recent migration.
I haven’t read any books about early Jewish presence, but consulting Google I learned about the Mikvé Israel congregation in Curaçao whose history dates from the 1650s. Ninety years later the Mikveh Israel community would be founded in Philadelphia. The Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island dates from 1759. Clearly Jewish presence also has deep roots in this world.
I want to think my way through two books of history, two books about about people and belief and the nationalisms that consume and distort us. In Praying to the West Mouallem writes about mosques throughout North America and what their communities and histories can tell us about Muslim presence and relationship. Aurora Levins Morales, a Puerto Rican Jewish woman whose writing I have mentioned before, also writes about presence and relationship in her book Remedios: Stories of Earth and Iron from the History of Puertorriquenas. Her history is a little more ambitious. She begins by travelling backwards 200,000 years to ancient women who did indeed live in a garden, but it was a Saharan garden in what is now a desert, not that garden bounded by the Tigris and Euphrates.
She writes: European history is built on the bones of old ways, old gods and old goddesses. It absorbed and consumed with it could have learned, grew by conquest instead of relationship. And later: Imperial Europe is the child of the Crusades, the great and violent incursions into the Holy land, a promise of freedom that came with bloody and gruesom death for Jews and Muslims. The subsequent violence of the New World would not be something new.
Those great and violent incursions into a land they called Holy, into a place they called Africa, into a world they called New. Expulsions and incursions are how Jews and Muslims arrived here and they are also how their historical presence was erased just as Indigenous people have been expelled from their lands and experienced incursions that further displaced. It is our historical presence that is welcomed, the dead Indians that Thomas King writes about, so beloved of Americans everywhere while our contemporary presence is so very inconvenient.
Jews and Muslims warn us not to mistake contemporary recognition for welcome, Morales writes elsewhere that anti semitism is that deep rooted weed that lurks beneath the surface, ready to burst forth in well manicured lawns to provide somebody for those suffering beneath oppression to blame. Like the bogeyman of Muslim extremism, they are diversions for our attention so that we don’t notice the white Christian hegemony maintaining it’s power and control. The welcome of these colonial worlds is filled with questions and conditions.
Traditions or beliefs do not create extremism, writes Mouallem, but it is the responsibility of members to examine the texts that are used to justify it and to speak out against it at every opportunity.
He is writing here about Muslim extremism, that persistent distinction that Muslims are required to make that Christians are somehow immune from despite 500 years of colonization and imperialism. He’s right of course, and it’s something I have been arguing for some time, it is not enough for Christians (or anyone really but they’re the ones with the power to really put legs to these things) to just disavow or dismiss their own extremists. They need to look at the texts themselves, their own histories and commentaries, the things their heroes have said that are used to justify it. And then speak out against it.
And now we find ourselves on the edge of another global catastrophe, initiated by a country that has rebranded itself as a protector of Christianity and is going to “denazify” Ukraine. Because Christians have such a great track record of supporting Jewish people. Like Christians in the Americas, they love Israel, but not the Jews.
So what’s the point of this essay. Nationalisms are destructive. Attaching race or religion to the state is harmful. Religion is supposed to be a structure that mediates our relationship with God and each other, it exists for those of us within the same religious group. It evolves and shifts to meet the needs of the people in each time. But nationalisms tell everyone how to live. If you are going to live within these boundaries then you will live in this way. And attaching those rules to a religion becomes volatile and we see this in Saudi Arabia. We see this in Israel. And we see this in the Americas.
We see the way that whiteness and Christianity have always been attached to the western states, and how that has resulted in not only individual acts of racism and harm, but also in laws and policies that impact large groups of people. That make others unsafe so that mostly white Christians can feel safe.
Safety is a relation. It is something that exists between us and which means it is in constant motion and will look differently depending on who I am with and the context of what is happening. It is a relation, which means I need to think about power structures and hierarchies and how those impact our relationship. It is a relation which means I have to understand my history and the things I believe and how those things impact others. I have to know what has been erased or retold. I have to, in the words of Kelly Hayes, investigate the stories we were not told because those stories were witheld for a reason.
Nationalisms inevitably make people unsafe, they create borders and structures that not only result in us and not us, but they have a power to impose the consequences of their beliefs on others.
Who is made unsafe so you can feel safe?