Like today’s other hot-button issues including gay marriage and illegal immigration, at the heart of the uproar over Cordoba House, the proposed Muslim community center located in lower Manhattan, is generally a struggle to define what makes an American truly, authentically American. And specifically underlying the Cordoba controversy, the fear of the radicalization of Muslim-American youth, and the growing Islamophobia spreading through the US (a Florida church is hosting “International Burn a Koran Day” on Sept. 11) is a suspicion that a Muslim cannot be a real American.
Not everyone thinking through these issues is hateful. There are also many others including even Muslim Americans who worry that perhaps these are unique times that justify such boundary-setting; that Islam as a religion presents a unique challenge to American ideals; or that maybe American pluralism has its limits.
Such views are aided by a simplistic teaching of American history that presents immigration as an easy blending of different peoples that only today is being challenged by people who are simply too different.
All of us instead should take a closer look at our past and take heart. As a country, we’ve been here before.
The US is no stranger to immigrants from foreign lands with ways perceived as utterly strange and incompatible.
We’ve seen a “foreign” religion – Catholicism – demonized in a way that did not demur to then non-existent political correctness. (Consider the famous Thomas Nast cartoon that portrayed Catholic bishops in their full attire crawling onto the shores of America, their mitres re-interpreted as the mouths of crocodiles.)
We’ve seen geopolitical crisis – like World War I – bring to the surface the competing nationalisms and identities housed in this country, sometimes even within individuals. And we’ve seen the demonization of American co-ethnics – Germans and Japanese – of our enemies abroad.
Then, like today, nativist voices billowed loudly from the media to the halls of Congress, positing the existence of some mythical, homogenous, authentic America that excluded a whole list of Americans, from Native Americans to blacks to any immigrant not of the Founding Fathers’ “racial stock” – the composition of which conveniently shifted, depending on how favorably regarded Scandinavians, Dutch, Germans, or French were at the moment.
Today, these exclusionary voices are shouting again. And while their list of who fits in their authentic America has expanded, it still remains much easier for them to identify those, like Muslims, who don’t make the cut.
We must hear the transnational voice
But it’s the voices of the transnationalists that need to be revived, and kudos to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for being one of them. They are remarkably relevant in offering us an alternate vision, a pep talk even. The most eloquent articulation of these beliefs is the 1916 essay “Trans-national America” by Randolph Bourne.
He recognized that what in fact is quintessentially American – and what gave the country a considerable advantage in the world – are its multiple cultures of ethnic and personal identifications all living side by side. For him, more ideas and more exchange yielded a better and more robust society and democracy.
Having traveled through Europe on the eve of the First World War, Bourne was horrified by how competing European nationalisms were set to ravage the continent. Bourne saw the US instead as a beacon, the “first international nation,” with an opportunity to achieve a “higher ideal” than either tribalism or any kind of imposed, growth-stunting assimilation contained in the era’s Americanization campaigns.
Dangers of an 'Anglo-Saxon' ideal
These campaigns, whose sentiments are echoed in today’s versions, fetishized an “Anglo-Saxon” ideal – an idea that has also crept back into today’s discussions, including the most polite ones.
Even then, Bourne – Anglo-Saxon himself – saw such notions as facile. He wrote, “Let the Anglo Saxon be proud enough of the heroic toil and heroic sacrifices which moulded the nation. But let him ask himself, if he had had to depend on the English descendants, where he would have been living today...where he would have been if these races had not come?”
Bourne pointed out that the states whose demographics were most like when they were founded as colonies were also the most stagnant. He instead offered as examples states where “strong foreign cultures” had fueled new thoughts, cities, and wealth that the whole nation had benefited from.
Integration, not assimilation
For Bourne, integration – not assimilation – was the goal, and it was a two-way process, where all Americans engaged in dialogue, exchange, and even dissent in creating their shared, cross-pollinated, evolving society.
Then as now, these good ideas – such as freedom of religion and peaceful coexistence – can find their way to other countries when America proves it can work. Those who fail to recognize this should heed Bourne: “It bespeaks poverty of imagination not to be thrilled at the incalculable potentialities of so novel a union of men.”
That Bourne’s essay reads nearly 100 years later as if it were penned today is not random or coincidence. Rather, it is evidence that he got America right. This is and has always been the great American experiment: dynamic society-making with the participation of varied peoples. It is, no doubt, a messy process continuously wrought with growing pains and many injustices, but it is our process, one that we also have the opportunity today to improve.
Nativists in Bourne’s day were adamant that the uncivilized hordes of Catholics, Italians, Greeks, Syrians, Slavs, Chinese, Japanese, and so forth, could never be American. History and time have proven them astonishingly wrong.
Yet modern-day nativists ignore these lessons. With each generation, they offer the same prescription: excommunicate from the American body politic the incompatible people du jour.
Well, we’ve tried that endlessly, with sedition acts, internment camps, witch hunts, segregation, scapegoating, lynchings, dubious prosecutions, and other forms of discrimination. And yet, despite these efforts, the intended targets today are part of us, and the country is better for it. But their integration did not happen without inflicting a few wounds whose still-visible scars remind us of our nation’s greatest shames.
We can take heart from our history – knowing that American democracy and society has been there, done that, and survived all this before. And we can best honor that history by making our recurrent trials by fire of feared groups a thing of the past.
Alia Malek is the author of “A Country Called Amreeka: US History Retold Through Arab American Lives,” and the editor of a forthcoming book of post-9/11 oral histories in the “Voice of Witness” series published by McSweeney’s Books.