By Najlaa Abdus-Samad|
Allegiance – a word that evokes so much – responsibility, loyalty, even destiny, perhaps. Legendary actor and activist George Takei has crowned his life’s work with a Broadway play of this name. I watched it with my son, a chance to enjoy theater together and continue our life-long conversation about what it means to be, just be, in this world. History is a great teacher, if we let her. Through Mr. Takei’s interpretation of his Japanese American community’s trauma during World War II, the audience is invited to see a fuller picture of us as Americans. Not to mock, blame, revile, but simply to witness us, as we were, and in some cases, as we are. Looking back on our stance as Americans towards Americans of Japanese descent was uncannily and sadly very much like watching current events. There are too many parallels, too much danger lurking in our midst, then and now, too much at stake. And so, what’s the connection to us, you ask, as Muslims, as Black people? Everything.
Islam is filled with universes to explore, whether your journey takes you down the pathways of iman, or ihsan, or sufism, or fiqh. Lived Islam is full of examples of mercy and compassion. From childhood, we are taught as Muslims of our overriding responsibilities to others – our families, neighbors, communities. And yet, we waited until we were labeled the third M and the borders threatened to close on those like us, until we saw the urgency of the situation.
Last year, as the race for the White House was heating up we listened to leading candidates disparage and disdain immigrants, and many of us were silent. And then the Mexicans (read: the Global South) became the punching bag and reason for all of America’s ills, and many of us were mute. And then Muslims and Islam were put on the chopping block as a portion of the population that is seen as expendable, and the blood ran cold in our veins. We started to find our voices. We began to unearth our morals and convictions to engage our consciousness and that of our neighbors, to fight for our lives, literally. So what now in this election year?
“In a republic where the people are sovereign, the ability of the citizenry to make informed choices among candidates for office is essential, for the identities of those who are elected will inevitably shape the course that we follow as a nation.” Justice William j. Brennan Jr., 1976
Who knows what 2016 will bring in the news, the U.S. and other countries’ elections, our nation’s new leadership. But in our homes we know the conversation, sometimes jokingly is about escaping the next …. I shudder to write the words. As a human being, I believe that humans are at essence, good. So how do we explain the repeated global mass atrocities our forefathers have witnessed? That we witness today? An explanation is the power of ideas. The need to explain the unfathomable, to find a solution can overpower reason and good will. The result can be and has been over and over again in history, the annihilation of a people. In the 1940’s more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were relocated and incarcerated in 10 internment camps in the United States. They were stripped of their belongings, their sense of dignity. Some lost their health, others their lives. It was said they looked like the enemy, shared a culture, a language, a faith. Over, and over, and over again, history teaches that such ideas unleashed give birth to mass annihilation – former and current human trafficking, ethnic wars, and on a “lesser” level a dehumanization, other-ization, minimization of the “others’” humanity. As a result, time and time again, the targeted group losses everything – their belongings, their livelihoods, their families, their very own selves. Can we afford to wait and see what the current national mood towards Muslims (and Migrants and Mexicans) will bring?
I need to believe that we, the American people, like all people, are also good, at the core. I need to believe that in spite of the largest and longest documented history of mass human trafficking upon which this nation was founded from the 1600s to the 1800s, that we are redeemable. That it would never happen again, that we have learned the lessons of our sins.
But, watching the news, I have wondered if my family and all of the Muslim, (Im)Migrant, and Mexican families around the country will be able to continue our lives, without molestation, without fear, without further trauma. In many cases this is the only country we and our forefathers have ever known, for centuries. I wondered if a nation could seriously forget its own humanity, once again.
And so, I found myself at a play called Allegiance, with my son, looking for diversion, looking for history, looking for answers. Mr. Takei is clearly a compassionate patriot. He has served his country and all of us well by telling his American story, our story, and making it accessible through the arts. Now, it’s up to us to listen and take action.
♦♦ Internment was the fear-driven result of an executive order signed by President Roosevelt in 1942 that led to the internment of over 120,000 persons into 10 overcrowded “concentration camps”. Two thirds of these persons were American-born and yet, the incarcerating of American citizens and taking away their civil liberties was deemed a “wartime necessity”. For more information on America’s dark history with internment visit: http://www.pbs.org/childofcamp/index.html
Najlaa Abdus-Samad is the granddaughter of a “revert” to Islam. She walks in her grandfather’s footsteps, working towards compassionate action on behalf of the most vulnerable. Currently, she is executive director of the U.S. Afghan Women’s Council at Georgetown University.