December 30, 2012 by Tariq Khan
In America’s Gilded Age, mainstream anti-immigrant voices railed against immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, warning that these foreign “savages” would corrupt American “civilization.” Students of history look back at that time period and laugh at the ridiculousness and ignorance of the anti-immigrant hysteria. A few months ago, the American Freedom Defense Initiative – a bigoted right-wing anti-Muslim organization headed by an Ayn Rand fanatic named Pamela Geller – created ads which were placed in subway systems in major U.S. cities such as New York and Washington D.C. These ads are like a trip back to the Gilded Age, only instead of Eastern and Southern Europeans, now the savage foreigners are Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians. The ads read, “IN ANY WAR BETWEEN THE CIVILIZED MAN AND THE SAVAGE, SUPPORT THE CIVILIZED MAN.” This bit of sage advice is followed by the command, “SUPPORT ISRAEL, DEFEAT JIHAD.” Thanks, subway ad, I’ll get right on that.
Civil rights organizations such as CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) and the ADC (American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee) warned officials in cities where the ads were placed that the ads were a form of hate speech, and that hate speech inevitably leads to hateful action. It is not that anyone who sees such an ad will suddenly turn into a racist bigot, but this type of rhetoric contributes to an already existing climate of bigotry and it emboldens, validates, and encourages those who are already on the extreme end of the hate spectrum. In other words, it contributes to a climate that is conducive to violence.
This past Thursday, Dec. 27, at a subway station in Queens, New York, a 31-year-old woman murdered Sunando Sen, a 47-year-old man who emigrated to the U.S. from India twenty years ago. The woman purposely shoved Sen off of the subway platform into an oncoming train. Then she took off running. After she was captured, she admitted to the crime, explaining it by saying, “I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims. Ever since 2001 when they put down the Twin Towers, I’ve been beating them up.” It did not occur to her that the man she murdered was not Muslim and had nothing to do with the Twin Towers.
Mormons ought to be well aware of the close relationship between hateful rhetoric and hateful acts. The early Mormons knew all too well that once the newspapers in their area started printing bigoted anti-Mormon articles, anti-Mormon violence was soon to follow. Now we are in a moment in American history when Mormons are widely accepted by mainstream American society, but Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians, or those who are perceived to be Arab or Muslim are viewed by many Americans as savage “others” who we must be suspicious of. The right thing to do for Mormons is to remember our own history and to be allies to our Muslim, Arab, and South Asian brothers and sisters. They are not our enemies. When we are in our own circles, we cannot tolerate prejudiced comments or attitudes about these targeted groups, and we ought to be courageous, bold, and informed enough to speak up to counter this kind of religious and ethnic bigotry and ignorance.
One side of my family is from Pakistan and India, the other side is from Utah, going back to the early Mormon pioneers. I cringe when I hear the occasional Mormon say something stupid about Arabs, Muslims, or South Asians. Such comments are usually more out of ignorance than they are out of maliciousness, but whatever the reason, such comments are unacceptable. Xenophobes have no reason to examine their own prejudice until they are confronted about it. Such confrontation need not always be angry or mean – sometimes there are tactful ways of going about it – but silence equals acceptance. Oppression feeds off of “niceness.”
A great American labor organizer and anarchist named August Spies was an immigrant from Germany, and in 1887, popular rhetoric against immigrants like Spies was very similar to the rhetoric we see today against Arab and South Asian immigrants. Spies, who was both smarter and braver than the anti-immigration zealots who hated him, showed no fear even as he faced execution for a crime he did not commit. He used humor to point out the idiocy of the anti-immigrant crowd, saying, “I ought not to have made the mistake, ought not to have been born a foreigner, but little children, particularly unborn children, will make mistakes!” When jingoes used the language of “savagism versus civilization” against Spies, he simply smiled and said, “Barbarians, savages, illiterate Anarchists from Central Europe, men who cannot comprehend the spirit of our free American institutions, – of these I am one.”
To people like Pamela Geller and the American Freedom Defense Initiative, I echo the attitude of August Spies to tell you, if you represent civilization, then I am proud to be a savage.