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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Fears, the Stranger and the Muslim Travel Ban

A Lesson from a Poet 

Fear is the handy weapon wielded by the people in power when they know their ideas would never be accepted by a thinking public, by informed voters. I always think that when politicians have to resort to scare tactics they are admitting a failure of imagination.  Their weakness becomes power only when they make everyone else afraid.

The uses of fear to marginalize, subjugate, militarize, and exploit have a long history even in our democracy.  From the Europeans’ demonizing of the Native Peoples as savage to justify usurping their lands, to white Southern men’s claims that Black men were a danger to “their” white women (thus maintaining dominance over both), to hysteria that asylum seekers at our border with Mexico (many of them mothers and very young children) are gangsters, the people of the “home of the brave” can be embarrassingly quick to give in to manufactured fears.

The travel ban the US Supreme Court just last week affirmed is an especially clever case in point:  Koreans and Venezuelans were conveniently made honorary Muslims to slip the travel ban past the Constitutional barriers against overt religious discrimination.  If the babies coming in from Central America are all proto-MS-13 gang members, the Muslims from designated countries (Korea but not Saudi Arabia!) are all likely terrorists: Keep them out!

If we have a justifiable fear, it is of those who would rule by fear, who belittle and dismiss our better instincts (“soft on Communists/terrorists/gangs”), and who silence our most generous instincts.

A friend reminds me that sometimes a poet can break into that silence, be our voice not just for rejecting fear, but for overcoming it. She sent me this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye. Naomi Shihab Nye is a Texas treasure, Palestinian and American; a wise and graceful writer. I share “Red Brocade” with you as our meditation for strength beyond fear:

Red Brocade

The Arabs used to say,


When a stranger appears at your door,

feed him for three days

before asking who he is,
where he’s come from,
where he’s headed.
That way, he’ll have strength
enough to answer.
Or, by then you’ll be
such good friends
you don’t care.

Let’s go back to that.
Rice? Pine nuts?
Here, take the red brocade pillow.
My child will serve water
to your horse.

No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armor everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.

I refuse to be claimed.
Your plate is waiting.
We will snip fresh mint
into your tea.
-Naomi Shihab Nye
19 Varieties of Gazelle, 2002


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