Weekend of Twinnings

I was recently asked to address the Sutton Place Synagogue as part of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding‘s Weekend of Twinnings. Below are my comments, as prepared, that I delivered on Nov. 22, 2008. I will post some questions and reflections in the next few days.


Comments Offered on the Weekend of Twinnings at the Sutton Place Synagoge
(as prepared, not as delivered)

Shabbot Shalom
Salaam Alaykum
Ya Ali Madad

In the Name of God the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful

Thank you for opening your doors to me today and inviting me into your worship space. I hope to repay this act of trust in my short talk to you today.

In 1966 the New York Times Magazine ran a feature piece on Japanese immigrants to the United States. That article introduced the phrase “model minority” into our vocabulary. During a period of Civil Rights, the idea was to treat Asian immigrants as a wedge into American racial politics.

If Asians could succeed in this country, after coming here with almost nothing, why couldn’t African-Americans? The rhetoric was that there was something inherently inferior about African-Americans that meant they could never truly be part of American society. Asian, on the other hand, could be fully welcome and become “white” because they had what it took to be real Americans.

However, Asians will never belong in the sense that this rhetoric would imply. Navroze Mody was beaten into a coma by a group known as the “Dotbusters” in 1987. Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American, was beaten to death in 1982 because he was considered “Japanese.” Fourth-generation Olympic skater Kristi Yamaguchi was labelled “Japanese” throughout her appearances as an American skater. Judge Lance Ito, was mocked as being “too foreign” as he presided of the OJ Simpson trial. There are always ways to make someone culturally an “Other” even if the language of racism is not used.

What if Asian-Americans had played along with the wedge politics? African-Americans would be pitted against them, and both groups would suffer. However, thanks to some courageous thinking in the Asian-American community, the politics of division were recognized for what they are. True change can only come when people who are orchestrated into division, understand the how they are being used.

What does this have to do with religion? With anti-Semitism and Islamophobia? The processes that are at play with Asian-Americans and African-Americans, the need to create an “Other” by which another group can be denigrated, is the same type of politics we see in amongst our faith communities.

Medieval anti-Semitism was predicated on Christian belief that they were the new “chosen people.” It is the reason the Tanakh is called the “Old Testament,” a phrase no Jew or Muslim would use to describe that scripture. Jews were only useful to prove the supremacy of the Christian faith. In this scenario, there was no need for a middleman. The Jews were theologically the “Other.” With the Enlightenment, medieval concerns regarding the Jews no longer seemed relevant.

Modern anti-Semitism is very much the product of the Enlightenment and seems to have its roots in 19th century Germany. It was a way to define who belonged to the state and who was really a person. In this scenario, there had to be another group who could be contrasted to the Jews to show that Jews could never belong to the state. Protestants would not say nice things about Catholics, nor Catholics about Protestants, so the middleman group turned out to be Muslims. As individual Muslims were fêted throughout Europe for being possessors of a grand culture and civilization, Muslim nations were being colonized as being ignorant, backwards, uncultured; Muslims were described overseas as Jews were described in Europe.

The Muslim culture that Europeans lauded was compared to the lack of civilization of the Jews. This vision of history simultaneously denigrated the Ashkenaz and wrote the Mizrahi out of history. This narrative of showing how backwards Jews are by comparing them to Muslim persists until the mid-20th century. One of the most compelling narratives of this type of identity politics is that of Kurban Said né Lev Nussimbaum, who adopted a Muslim identity to avoid persecution as a Jew.

Now, the descriptive tables are turned. Muslims are called backwards, ignorant, lacking any positive cultural contribution. They are compared to Jews who have a millennia-long cultural contribution to the greatness of “Western” civilization. The language used against Muslims now is the same language used against Jews in the 19th century.

I was recently at the Center for Jewish History and was shown a German children’s book that showed how depraved Jews were. The image of the Jew was a short, swarthy, hook-nosed man in ill-fitting, but supposedly fine clothes. I was struck by how close that image is to modern depictions of Muslims are in political comics.

This language of dehumanization will never disappear until we address the underlying causes of needing an “Other.” As a long as an “Other” exists, it is more convenient to have two subordinate groups battling over who really belongs.

Make no mistake, as long as one group can be dehumanized, any group can. Islamophobia is a new way to mainstream anti-Semitism. The language that is used now, is that language that was used then and is the language that will be used in the future.

As a Muslim I believe it is an act of faith to battle anti-Semitism wherever I may find it. In the Qur’an, God says Jews are people of the book, our Divinely-recognized brothers in faith. I must battle Islamophobia not only for the sake of the Muslim community, but for the sake of the Jewish community as well, and for the sake of those who hate, before that hatred marks their souls forever.

Please join me in a prayer.

Oh, our Lord, God most high. God of our prophets and our ancestors. Open our hearts to Your glory. Let us understand Your wonders humility and intellect. Give us the strength to repair the world. Let us be in awe of Your Majesty and of the universe You have created.