By Norah Sarsour
The late comedian, George Carlin, once jokingly remarked that, By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth.? While Carlin was a comedian by profession, he challenged the common functions of language and its authority over people”s lives. Sticks, stones and colonialism can break bones, but people heal and countries grow. Words, however, can cause imprisonment, discrimination, and centuries of conflict. While Carlin only had a high school education, philosopher Michel Foucault also expounded on the dynamics of discourse and language, remarking how powerful institutions establish what proper and improper terminology is. In doing so, institutions of power only allow for impartial truth or biases. In rethinking terminology commonly used, one will notice the impact historical events have had on words found in the dictionary. One can even find political and economic ambitions reshaping certain words and their use. What if that word was your faith, and what if your definition was being erased by people who want to emit your defining actions from common language and international affairs? The world”s three greatest religions, its leaders, scriptures, and history are derived from an area popularly known in the West as the Orient? since the advent of Islam. It is the Orient that blocked Christian conquests during the Crusades, and it is the Orient that is hidden behind perfumed veils, genies, and promiscuity. Of course, these lands fell into such definitions and supposed chaos according to Christians once Christianity declined there. The birthplace of the monotheistic religions became a place of heathenism once Islam became a dominant force. The West wanted to return it back to what they thought was its original Christian state. In fact, the world is still witnessing this attempt. And while political, economic, and social conflicts continue to occur in predominately Muslim lands, the terminology and language of these conflicts have long remained consistent throughout the history of America. The question is, how?
With the various colonies in the Americas and Africa, the enslavement of Muslims on American plantations, and mounting battles between Muslims and Christians in the Old World from Vienna to Jerusalem, attributes were pasted by Orientalists onto what was deemed the Mahometan, or a follower of the Prophet Mohammad. The highly esteemed The Nature of Imposture Displayed in the Life of Mahomet, by Humphry Prideaux and published in 1697, became a leading authority for American colonialists on the Prophet Muhammad. In fact, the prophet”s name became synonymous with the word imposter.?
In 1702 the Magnalia Christi Americani, written by Minister Cotton Mather of Boston, refers to Muslims as fierce monsters of Africa.? Of course colonial encroachments on North Africa by the West are not described by Mather, but he goes on to say that Mahometan Turks, and Moors, and devils, are at this day oppressing many of our sons with a slavery, wherein they “wish for death, and cannot find it.? The conflict would last for decades. The encounters of the First Barbary War, taking place from 1801 to
1805, sent American troops commissioned by Thomas Jefferson to confront the North African maritime. The first time when an American flag would wave in a foreign land, the war soon became popular for a hymn by Francis Scott in 1805, that urged for victory Till their foes fled dismayed from the war”s desolation; And pale beamed the crescent, its splendor obscured.? The tune of the song is actually that of the United States” national anthem.
The strain between both societies is obvious. Mather”s writings were viewed as an authority over Muslims and their characteristics. Terrorism has been linked to Muslims for centuries now. One can read a classroom copy of the Canterbury Tales and witness Chaucer”s references to heathens? in the Holy Land. Mainstream literature is a basic means of establishing the definition of a word. But what gives it more strength is the figure that scripts it, in this case Chaucer who was a diplomat and courtier. Four centuries later, and the leading minister of a growing colony in America, Mather, is also associating violence and debauchery with Muslims. While war is one means of defeating the supposed threat Muslims pose to Western society, converting them is even better. In 1757 The Conversion of a Mehomatan was a celebrated account of a Muslim apostate who claimed Christianity as the guiding light to redemption and truth. The light of Christianity has for centuries been synonymous with terms like civilizing,? redeeming,? and saving? and more recently modernizing,? westernizing,? and democratization.? James Barton, of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions wrote in 1918 his Christian Approach to Islam that a certain technique must be asserted in order to understand the Muslims. In other words, the West needs to comprehend the Oriental,? a growing area of study for Westerners that would lead to stereotypes, misconception, and a fictionalization of Muslims and their cul- tures.
Bibles written in Arabic became the new fad, especially after the parable of Claudius Buchanan was delivered in 1805. From the verse in Mathew, For we have seen His star in the east, and we are come to worship Him,? he titled his sermon Star in the East.? The East and conquests there were again a hot obsession. They needed to reclaim what was theirs. Missionaries, explorers, and Oriental schools of thought began to soar, but by the 1930s the United States realized that it had not successfully penetrated Muslim lands.
Keeping this brief history in mind, current tension between these supposed two worlds comes as no surprise. The flow of Muslim immigrants into the US in the 1900s, and a flood of Muslims after a new law in immigration in 1965 kept Muslims in a considerable position in American life.From domestic affairs dealing with Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam, a growing number of converts, and even the first Muslim Senator Keith Elison, the US has not had a chance to forget the issue of Islam. A resurgence of literature on Islamic fanatics in the 1970s became popular. After all, this was after the Arabs warred against the newly established Israel. The Evangelical Lester Sumrall published The Holy War Jihad: The Destiny of Iran and the Moslem World which predicted Muslims as allying with the Russians to invade Israel, according to citations he made in Ezekiel. With Israel now in the mainstream of American foreign policy, the Gulf Wars, aspirations for oil, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, the United States is yet again coping with the definition of Muslims and their religion.
For Evangelical Christians” the top priority is the State of Israel according to
60 Minutes. Correspondent Bob Simon reported Rev. Jerry Falwell, the now deceased leader of the Christian Right, as stating that it is his belief that the Bible
Belt in America is Israel”s only safety belt right now.? Falwell has also labeled the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as a terrorist? and a failing example for humanity. Ironically he is the same figure who stated the Antichrist would be Jewish. In today”s election, Senator Obama not only faces accusations for associating with troubling figures, but his Muslim middle name of Hussein, set off email propaganda and rumors associating him to sympathizing and being a part of Muslim lifestyle. The cover of July”s New Yorker paints Obama as a thobe-wearing, turban sporting man with his bellicose looking wife. Obama”s rejection of association to Islam is definitive of America”s perception of the religion. In short, it is a negative to be Muslim, and if not that, a Muslim should be treated with hesitancy and care. Two Muslim women were banned from sitting behind the Senator during a speech because of media focus on his association to Islam. While Obama was not responsible for the decision, his supporters and volunteers were. Although the women received an apology from the Senator, obstructing them from being a part of the visible audience is not surprising. More words are developing to describe Muslims. On his website, Daniel Pipes attacks Obama for possibly being Muslim and finds the possibility threatening and anti-American. After all, Pipes is one of a few who mapped the bogus term Islamofascism and endorsed awareness weeks that painted Muslims as fanatics and their religion as violent. Now we witness Islamofascism? as another term describing anything Muslim. While Obama fights off accusations, he recognizes the terminology and their relevancy. In other words, the term or similar descriptions are now established. And Obama”s fear of the terminology and association echos nothing new.
McCain on the other hand has taken on the historical US stance with Islam more conservatively. Campaigning with whom he hailed his spiritual adviser? in February, Reverend Rod Parsley of the World Harvest Church of Columbus, McCain has taken some obvious steps towards how he views Islam. In Parsley”s book Silent No More, Parsley warns of an immediate war between Christians and Muslims in a chapter titled Islam: The Deception of Allah.? He states that he does not believe our country can truly fulfill its divine purpose until we understand our historical conflict with Islam. I know that this statement sounds extreme, but I do not shrink from its implications. The fact is that America was founded, in part, with the intention of seeing this false religion destroyed.?
While changing political climates and economic endeavors ensue, the historical definition American history has attributed to Islam remains constant in its affairs. Fear, violence, and backwards lifestyles are not new phrases in the discussion of Islam in the United States. Just as Muslims are enforcing their faith through actions and daily lifestyles, they defining points of their deeds is switched. As George Carlin would say, Just when I discovered the meaning of life, they changed it.?