Maine’s nefarious history of bigotry is long, shameful and notorious, but not without hope of a metamorphosis into modern-day enlightenment.
In 1862, 68 years after Congress outlawed the foreign trade of human beings, the first American ever to be convicted and hanged for the crime of engaging in the slave trade was executed — with the approval of President Abraham Lincoln — in New York City. Nathaniel Gordon of Portland, Maine, was found guilty of carrying 897 slaves — more than half were children — aboard his ship, Erie, with the intention of trading them to further enhance his already sizable ill-gained wealth.
We can trace a direct and odious line from the slave trade that flourished in Maine in the mid-19th century to the recent abhorrent statements made by Lewiston’s mayor, Republican Robert Macdonald, telling immigrants to “accept our culture, and you leave your culture at the door” and those made most recently by our own governor, Republican Paul LePage, claiming that President Barack Obama “hates white people.” Earlier in his term as governor, LePage told the NAACP to “kiss my butt.”
What we Mainers might consider “leaving at the door” is our insouciance and apathy toward the ever-growing bigotry that proliferates in our state and, in fact, the nation.
Part and parcel of bigotry toward African-Americans is hatred of the religion that many who were kidnapped from their homeland brought with them to the American shores. Most of the slaves abducted from Africa glorified God — the same god glorified by their Christian abductors — through the theologies of Islam. Not only was the color of their skin abhorrent to the American slaveholders, but also the color of their religion. The majority of American slaveholders severely punished slaves who had the audacity to worship God in their own way. Those 19th-century slave masters might have expressed it thus: “Adopt our culture and leave your culture at the door.”
Deepa Kumar, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University and author of the enlightened and enlightening book “Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire,” tells us that ruling elites throughout history — from the Christian Crusades of the 11th century to the Bush regime — have used the specter of a “Muslim enemy” to justify and advance their greedy and immoral empire building.
Alas, we know well the success of the Bush administration’s “Muslim as enemy” campaign, as we witnessed with terror as Congress bought a bill of goods, (e.g., weapons of mass destruction) and voted our country into yet another bloody massacre. While our modern Middle Eastern wars are horror enough, the sociological, psychological, and spiritual damage that continues to insinuate its way into the American psyche through the proliferation of anti-Muslim bigotry is terror far beyond that rendered by bullet or bomb.
Islamophobia (i.e., prejudice against and hatred toward Muslims, and, according to Erik Bleich in American Behavioral Scientist, “indiscriminate negative attitudes or emotions directed at Islam or Muslims”) is insinuating its ugly and ignorant presence across social, political and religious lines throughout every state in America, and our beloved Maine is no exception.
While many no longer openly display attitudes of bigotry toward other historic victims, they feel no compunction to do so against Muslims. Islamophobia has become the new socially “acceptable” bigotry. Each of us must examine our personal vulnerability to the ubiquitous, omnipresent and pervasive “Muslim as enemy” campaign insidiously influencing us through media, political ranting and the pulpit. We must confront such Islamophobia for the social terrorism it is and courageously deliver our condemnation.
Were we to find ourselves in eras past when American Indians were sent on “long walks,” African-Americans became “low-hanging fruit,” women were denied the vote, Jews were turned away from our borders, and LGBT Americans were locked in the closet, would we express our outrage? We must not allow our country to relive the horrors of these past “acceptable” victims of bigotry. We are too great a state not to learn from our own shameful history.
The best way to defeat the cant and power of Islamophobia is by becoming familiar with the perceived enemy. Both Koranic and Biblical verse provide guidance in the precept that we are our brother’s and sister’s keepers.
Let Maine lead the nation in metamorphosing from the ignorance of Islamophobia to the enlightenment of compassion for all our brothers and sisters.
Maureen Jones-Ryan is president of the International Sexual Abuse Memorial and may be reached at MJonesRyan@gmail.com. She and her husband divide their time among Carefree, Ariz., Cutler, Maine, and Campobello Island, New Brunswick.