I was visiting Washington DC this past week/end to attend a 3 -day orientation for Fulbright scholars and teachers going abroad to different countries around the globe to pursue our research interests in “other” societies and cultures, possibly to impart some skills we’ve learned in our corner of the world here in the USA, and to generally serve as cultural ambassadors, using a “soft” approach to convey American goodwill. Importantly, the almost 70-year old Fulbright international educational exchange program, sponsored by the U.S. government , is meant to aid in shattering stereotypes others may hold of us, as well as those we hold of other cultures and peoples who are “different” from us, whom we don’t know and hence are ideologically trained to fear and often to hold in contempt as “inferior.”
But what of the deep ideological divides within the USA? What programs are funded by our department of State to help tear down the walls that separate Black from White, walls that teach hate borne of fear of the “Other”—that Black “other” which “threatens” to usher in an era of justice , an era of equality of Black (and Brown) lives with those of White Americans; ofcourse, this is a “threat” only to those who don’t wish to share their power and privilege, because an era of racial and economic justice challenges the very bedrock of white supremacy on which this admittedly great nation has been built.
The day after the racist assassinations of Black spiritual and political leaders in Charleston, S.C. (the Reverend Pinkney, pastor of the Emanuel African Methodist Church, was also a Democratic state senator in South Carolina)—where 9 worshippers who had gathered for Bible study on a Wednesday evening lost their lives to a white gunman whom they had welcomed into their fold—I happened to walk past the Washington DC branch of this historic Black church. The Metropolitan A.M.E Church at the corner of M and 16th streets, has its own venerable history, where inaugural prayers for Bill Clinton were held, where President Obama and his family have also worshipped, and where several other American Presidents including William Howard Taft and Jimmy Carter have either worshipped or spoken. Naturally, I stepped inside the Church to pay my respects, and it was clear that the young man at the door felt bad telling me that because of the shootings in Charleston the day before, the Church was not open to visitors at that time but that I was welcome to return the following day or for weekend services.
I walked on to my next engagement which was an invitation to attend a lecture by India’s Finance Minister at a session organized by the Enterprise Institute, a Washington think-tank. Ordinarily, I eschew such affairs, but a friend thought it might be interesting to hear from the lion’s mouth as it were, from a representative of the “new” Modi government, as to where India was headed in terms of its economic policies and agenda…so off I went. And indeed, whilst I could not stomach sitting there for longer than a half hour, I heard enough in that time period to understand that when hatred for the “other” within (whether this “other” is a minority religious group like the Muslims in India, or simply the poor–One third of the world’s 1.2 billion poorest people live in India, according to a report by the United Nations), when “othering” becomes a naturalized and hence acceptable modus operandi, the result can only be a recipe for more injustice and oppression of the underclass and underprivileged sectors of society, who are also the majority of our world. Thus, for eg, what was “new” about Mr Arun Jaitley’s vision for India, was a complete and utter disregard for the socialist economic policies and vision of India’s early post-Independence leaders, as well as those of his more immediate predecessors. Critiquing what went wrong is one thing—but throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Mr Jaitley’s “new” vision was nothing short of glorifying all of the ills of an extreme neo-liberal trade policy, praising the WTO to a degree that veritably begged for a Yes Men intervention (Andy Bichlbaum, where art thou??); his aim for “double digit” growth in India could only become a reality, Mr. Jaitley smilingly told his audience of mostly conservative policy-wonks, by reducing taxes on big corporations by at least 25%, approving fewer permissions for foreign direct investors , and holding natural resource “auctions”??! His chutzpah in stating boldly to us, that such ideas show how there is no contradiction between being “pro-business” and being “pro-poor” –was pretty impressive, I must admit! Clearly, memories of the Bhopal disaster, of peoples’ movements such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan which show us the truth behind such euphemisms as “natural resource auctions”—essentially the selling off of poor citizens’ resources to the highest bidders without adequate planning, consultation or rehabilitation and recompense to those deprived of their livelihoods by such “auctions” of their land-based livelihoods—are conveniently forgotten in this “forward” march of economic “growth.” Dalits, Muslims, women, environmental and social justice activists who stand in the way of such “progress” be damned and shoved aside, their wisdom mocked as retrogade, out of touch with the times.
When I couldn’t stomach this vision for “shiny India” anymore, I got up and started walking back to my hotel, past the A.M.E Church I’d stepped into on my way to the talk. The block, however, was sealed off, with a police car stationed on the road in front of the church, and I and other passersby were told there had been a bomb threat against the church, shortly after I’d actually stopped in that afternoon. Luckily, it turned out to be false—“simply” a scare tactic.
The following day, I and some of my journalist friends from Pakistan who now live and work in the DC area, stopped by the Church to express our solidarity. There was a wedding in progress in the chapel, so again we couldn’t go in–but the kind guard stood and chatted with us about the cruel stupidity of racism. He wanted to know where we were from, and we told him that as Muslim Americans, we could understand to some small degree, what African Americans have had to endure and challenge for centuries. He invited us back for service the following morning, and though my friends couldn’t make it, I was happy to accept.
Whilst standing in the pews at Sunday morning service, listening to and singing along with the choir, moving to the rhythm of the beat, I felt and thought about the interconnectedness of many things, of both the terror and the beauty of life itself, the full and deepest range of humanity’s experience of joy and sorrow, of carrying on inspite of the horror, embodied so movingly by representatives of the historical Black church around me. Here I was, a race and cultural stranger, a woman brought up in the Muslim faith tradition, being welcomed by name into the congregation’s liturgy of the day. Their defiant rejoicing, their loving embrace of friend and foe, their insistence to stand, not run in remembrance of those killed in Charleston, embodied the congregation’s historic mission: The Doors of the Church are Open, our Faith will not be stolen by violence.
And yet, whilst I applaud the spirit of love, openness and forgiveness exhibited today and in the past by members of the A.M.E in particular and more generally by generations of African Americans who have endured and overcome the hateful legacy of slavery; whilst I recognize how much we can learn from even this one example of generosity and acceptance of all exhibited by the parishioners of the Emanuel Church of Charleston that led so sadly and unfairly to the massacre of 9 innocent lives; yet, it is equally important to draw attention to the bigots in our midst and to their hateful beliefs and behaviors which should never be tolerated as “quaint” or ”not that serious.” Nor should we tolerate the inequitable economic policies that are a handmaiden to bigotry and violence.
By way of example, let me circle back to some of the connecting thoughts and emotions that kept coursing through my mind and body as I immersed myself in the beautiful service at the Metropolitan A.M.E church in DC. I remembered how terrible it felt to be told by a colleague (a white man, recently retired to Charleston) on a public listserv at the university where I teach, that I should “crawl back to the caves where you’ve come from!”—in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. This was the same man who was then serving as the Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy—and who, in that position of authority, chose to fly a very large replica of the Confederate flag on his office wall right behind his desk—facing all and sundry visitors who walked in to that office. Can you imagine what African American students must have felt when they went to see him for help during his office hours? Whilst several of us faculty complained to each other about this professor’s choice of wall hanging, no one ever confronted him about it, including myself. Once, when I brought up his insulting remarks to me on the listserv, to a white woman who at that time was serving as Director of the Women’s Studies program and was herself an expert on Pakistan and Muslim culture, she laughed and said, oh, he’s just a funny man….you shouldn’t take him seriously!
But the truth of the matter is—we should take all such manifestations of bigotry seriously—as this latest horrific case of murder in Charleston has brought home to us. To dismiss hate speech, to see in the choice of flying the Dixie flag merely a “quirky” character trait, to brush off Islamophobes like Pamela Geller and her cohorts (including my ex-colleague) as “silly” or otherwise not really important in the larger scheme of things—is to court danger, and to confuse those who should be feared with those who are targets of that fear-turned-hatred. We need, as Tamura Lomax of the Feminist Wire reminds us, to call a spade a spade! And, connecting the dots between the evils of our times, she writes, “Neoliberalism and prosperity gospel will not save us.” Amen to that! That is why we must resist the easy lure of voodoo economics such as that espoused by the mouthpiece of the Hindu-extremist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Mr Jaitley. When the killer of the nine people in Emanuel A/M.E Church repeated, as he went on his shooting spree, “…you are taking over…you have to go”—that was perhaps a truer indication of his motivations than the racialized fear of black men raping white women—a very old trope that the killer Dylan Roof mobilized as explanation for why he “had” to kill the 9 black people, mostly women—in Church that day. It is the rape of our environment, the rape of our livelihoods, the rape directed at our dreams of being able to live with a modicum of human dignity with a roof over our heads, that the Roof-killer was directing his misplaced rage against I think. The fear and rage of white supremacists is and always has been kin to, the fear that unleashes violence of the rich against the poor, the haves against the have-nots, the powerful against the powerless, so that the balance of power remains as is for those used to enjoying the priveilege of power. The tragedy in the case of Mr. Roof is—he couldn’t see how his class position trumped any claims to race privilege; or to connect the dots that might have liberated him into the self-and other-love gospel of the historic Black church’s founder, Denmark Vesey: a liberative, redemptive theology that demands freedom for ALL people, everywhere.
Fawzia Afzal-Khan is a Professor of English, University Distinguished Scholar, Director of Women and Gender Studies at Montclair State University. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org