Today’s blog will continue our recent discussion of American church history, but it will concern some recent tragic events. As most of you are undoubtedly aware, there was a horrific terrorist attack in Paris on Friday, which killed 129 people. What has followed the attacks, in the USA at least, has been a war of words regarding whether or not we as a country should allow over 10,000 Syrian refugees into the country. In fact, 31 states’ governors have voted against allowing any refugees into their respective states. Those who have been arguing such a position point to the fact that one of the terrorists in the Paris attacks came to France as a Syrian refugee. Recently there has also been renewed debate over Islam as a religion in and of itself, with many people claiming that mosques with any ties to terrorists should be shut down. While we can and should debate all of these points, today I want to look at a selection from a poem written in 2001 entitled, “First Writing Since.”
The poem is in response to 9/11 and how Muslims in the country had to deal with the fear/ suspicion they encountered everywhere. The old cliche is “history is bound to repeat itself.” Unfortunately, people are still having to deal with suspicion and fear directed at them because of the actions of a few. The author is a Palestinian-American Muslim woman named Suheir Hammad (text in Harvey and Goff, 531-533). I think this poem gets at many of the frustrations that people are feeling right now in the wake of the Paris attacks.
Hammad writes, “first, please god, let it be a mistake, the pilot’s heart failed, the plane’s engine died. then please god, let it be a nightmare, wake me now. please god, after the second plane, please don’t let it be anyone who looks like my brothers” (Harvey and Goff, 531).
The author here shows that she understands what is to come, specifically the blaming and the suspicion that will be leveled against those who “look like” the attackers. She notes that her first thought was “please let it just have been a horrible accident.” Unfortunately, it was not and that led to a time of great trouble for Muslims in America.
Hammad later writes, “most Americans do not know the difference between Indians, Afghanis, Syrians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus. More than ever, there is no difference… one more person ask me if I knew the hijackers… one more person assume no Arabs or Muslims were killed… we did not vilify all white men when McVeigh bombed Oklahoma” (Harvey and Goff, 532).
These are some of the most poignant lines from the poem. Hammad notes how Indians, Afghanis, and Syrians were all lumped together in the aftermath of 9/11 as well as Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh. Hammad touches on how each were persecuted as though they “knew the hijackers.” Clearly, she herself has been asked that question. The notion that someone would ask that of a Palestinian Muslim shows just how the suspicion of Muslims hit a fever pitch in the wake of 9/11. She makes the powerful statement that just because one white man (McVeigh) killed over 160 people when he bombed the Oklahoma Federal Building doesn’t mean that we should blame all white men. The very idea that white men in the USA would all be blamed equally for the actions of one seems far-fetched to say the least. But, it’s not far off from what Muslims went through after 9/11 and what Syrians are going to have to go through in the coming weeks. One seems preposterous, the other seems like a foregone conclusion. Anyone else see what’s wrong with that picture?
The final selection I want to include offers hope. Hammad writes, “thank you to the woman who saw me brinking my cool and blinking back tears. she opened her arms before she asked, ‘Do you want a hug?’ A big white woman, and her embrace was the kind only people with the warmth of flesh can offer… There is death here, and there are promises of more. there is life here. anyone reading this is breathing, maybe hurting, but breathing for sure. and if there is any light to come, it will shine from the eyes of those who look for peace and justice after the rubble and rhetoric are cleared and the phoenix has arisen. affirm life. affirm life” (Harvey and Goff, 532-533).
These are powerful statements. In the first part of the selection, a white woman shows how comforting and welcoming people can be, despite widespread suspicion and hatred. Sometimes people just need a little kindness. The second half of the quote shows that even though we as a nation were hurting, and Muslims in particular were feeling ostracized, we were (and currently are) all still breathing. That means that we are alive. We must “look for peace and justice” and “affirm life.”
Now, how can we do that? Does that mean we have to let anyone come into our country without being careful? I don’t know. I think it means that we need to start seeing this number of 10,000 refugees as more than just a huge number, and as more than a potential for terrorism. There are living, breathing people that are fleeing a war-torn world. I don’t know the logistics that are involved with “vetting” these refugees nor do I know how they will acclimate to life in the United States. What I do know is that we need to be careful not to repeat the mistakes of our past. Just 15 years ago, we turned our backs on many Muslims in this country because they “looked like the terrorists.” We ought to be so ashamed of this past that we are vigilant to not repeat the process. Not all refugees are potential terrorists. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we will be able to “affirm life.”