“If you’re lucky enough to be Irish, you’re lucky enough.”
That’s just one of the uncountable adages, proverbs and witticisms that come frothing to the top of the deep pool of ethnic memory as St. Patrick’s Day approaches. The poetry and music, the long-winded blessings concluding with “May the good Lord hold you in the palm of his hand until we meet again.” So much of the recited tribal memory is sad, a poignant chronicle of farewell and separation of people fated to leave their homeland, a race of immigrants.
One strong thread in the remembering is anger. The Irish were thrown off their land, starved and murdered over centuries of subjugation by harsh conquerors. They were persecuted because of their Catholic faith. They were driven to flee to faraway lands, never to return home.
And when they survived their flight to America, the land of promise and hope, they found jobs, housing and education denied: “No Irish need apply.”
So there I was, musing on anecdotes about the anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-immigrant mindset of 19th Century United States. I wasn’t in the company of an Irish horde.
It was at a seminar on “Religious Scapegoating” presented Feb. 23 by The Interfaith Alliance Hawaii.
The featured speaker was a Muslim professor, backed up with a panel of a Jewish rabbi, a Catholic priest and a Buddhist bishop. The context, I need not remind anyone, was this century’s chapter of people fleeing despotic rulers and political unrest, borders closed to them, facing hostility and bigotry because of their ethnicity and religion. All distilled into a toxic brew by religious fanatics whose anger and hatred are backed with 21st century weapons, and religious bigots who can’t, or choose not to, distinguish the millions of Muslim believers in the world from the small percentage among them who are Islamic terrorists.
As we listened to Abdul-Karim Khan, a Leeward Community College history professor, give the audience of about 40 people his perspective as a Muslim American, I wondered whether any Irish Catholic American in the late 20th century had felt obliged to explain and disavow the Irish Republican Army when its fanatical members were setting off car bombs amid innocent crowds as their political statement against British rule.
American Irish, and expatriate Irish in other countries, tended to romanticize the IRA guerrillas — many’s the song, and many the collections for monetary support for that terrorist organization, back in that day.
“The common American I know is not into the anti-Jew, anti-Muslim mindset, unless they are worked up, and that can happen,” said Khan, who moved to the United States 30 years ago and has lived in Hawaii for 28 years. “I come from Peshawar, between Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are millions of Pashtuns like me who never owned a gun, deliberately.
“The current anti-Islam, anti-Muslim issues … some of it is out of ignorance. But there is a hateful industry, some from institutionalized think-tanks, whose rhetoric leads to attacks on mosques. This attitude by ignorant nationalists is beneficial to the extremists. Rhetoric such as that from Donald Trump (who would ban all Muslims from entering the U.S.) is music to the ears of al-Qaeda and ISIS.
“I remind Muslims to stay cool and calm,” said the professor, one of the leaders of the Muslim Association of Hawaii, whose 4,000 members gather at a Manoa mosque. “It is not a new experience in world history. Look at the persecution of Jews in Europe and the United States, and at the worst things that have been happening to non-Muslims in Muslim countries. I tell Muslims, this time will pass. This country is a country of laws. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t, especially if your children grew up here. In the end, no matter how long I lecture, they will say ‘It’s not fair.’”
Khan said, “What is important is what we do, as opposed to what someone does to us. The Quran says that killing one innocent person is like killing the entire humanity, and saving one innocent person is like saving the entire humanity.”
Bigotry does rear its ugly head here where we are proud of our family heritage of mixed ethnicity and traditional tolerance and curiosity toward people different from us. A news headline recently told of a woman wearing hijab, the head covering that proclaims her Muslim religion, being followed and harassed by a man in downtown Honolulu. A woman in Khan’s audience told him that her church membership signed a statement of support for local Muslims after that incident, but they were stymied in their effort to deliver it because no one at the mosque returned their phone calls.
The Muslim Association of Hawaii has a webpage which includes information about the group and an invitation to the public to visit the Manoa mosque and prayer centers on other islands.
Khan described another local incident which did not make the news. “I talked with the local FBI, they came to my office. It was about a troubled boy who came here from New York. I told the FBI, if you knew he was troubled, why didn’t you just arrest him? Why give him time to talk to our young people? I told them frankly, it was clear you wanted to frame somebody.”
A man in the audience questioned whether reports of violence and upheaval in the Middle East more likely reflect Arab culture and politics than the religion of Islam.
“The overlap is a very big problem, we don’t know where the religion stops and the culture begins,” Khan replied. “Arabs are less than 20 percent of Islam worldwide. It started in Saudi Arabia and it became the religion of Persians, of Turks, of some Greeks. The vast majority of Muslims are in Asia and Southeast Asia — Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India.”
He said that although the prayer Muslims worldwide recite together, passages from the Quran, are in the Arabic language, “only one percent know Arabic. The vast majority doesn’t know what we are talking about.”
He pointed to his own heritage as Pashtun, a distinct ethnic group in northern Afghanistan and Pakistan with a history, language and tradition different from Arab culture. “When the Taliban became gangsters, they were all Pashtun nationalists, they did not really know much about Islam. Some nationalists believed the country was great, then Islam came in and ruined the culture.”
He displayed his own ethnic pride in an anecdote about the youngest of his two daughters. “If I go by my Pashtun culture, if a man asked for her hand in marriage, whatever nationality he is, even if I could say he is a good religious boy, I would say, what’s wrong with you is you are not Pashtun.”
“There is a saying: to be Pashtun is a curse, not to be Pashtun is a shame.”
Wow, that’s ironic enough, bittersweet enough to be an Irish adage, I thought.
The hordes of ‘others’
The earliest American settlers from England and western Europe felt their culture threatened to its core when they saw hordes of “others” getting off the boats and building their non-Anglican, non-Protestant churches. The threat was still real for some bigots in the 1960s when John F. Kennedy was elected president despite his predicted hotline from the Vatican.
If you’re Catholic with some Mainland mileage, you may remember the days when you went to Mass at St. Patrick’s if you were Irish, but rarely set foot in St. Sebastian’s where the Italians went or, God forbid, St. Adolphonsus Parish where everything was new and shiny thanks to its prosperous German congregation. And if one of those “others” came courting, didn’t the Catholic dad have myopia similar to Khan’s? It was a matter of family commentary that my Irish mom married a good Polish man, and my Polish uncle married a Russian. And in Hawaii, don’t we still point out that St. Somebody’s is a mostly Filipino parish?
Father Jack Ryan, one of the panelists responding to Khan, said “When you think someone is less human than you are, you go down a very destructive path. It says more about you than it does about them.
“Some Christians haven’t really embraced Christianity,” said the pastor of Newman Center at University of Hawaii Manoa. “Franklin Graham did not seem to realize that Muslims worship the same God as we do.” Graham spoke last month at a rally sponsored by local fundamentalist Christian groups. The son of famous televangelist Billy Graham has been vocal against Muslims. I’m not about to go there; Google him if you wish.
Ryan, a master of anecdotes, recalled being drawn into conversation by a man at the Maui airport who wanted the priest to share his outrage at a newspaper story pointing out that the majority of people in the United States will be non-Caucasian in a few years. Ryan responded in Spanish. End of conversation.
“It’s important that we see the goodness of God in everyone,” Ryan said.
The moderator of the panel discussion on “Religious Scapegoating” was the Rev. Thomas Lynch, a Protestant minister and recent arrival to Hawaii, who pointed to violence against Muslims in various Mainland incidents. Lynch said Hawaii cannot consider itself immune to the prejudice. He recalled that the earliest Catholics in Hawaii were targets of persecution in the 1830s. The first Catholic priests came here from France and were driven out of the islands by the monarchy under the influence of Protestant missionaries. Catholic converts were targets of discrimination for about 10 years until the matter was settled politically under pressure from the French government.
Lynch invited a young Muslim woman to end the seminar with the traditional Muslim greeting in Arabic: “As salaam alaikum.” The response is: “Wa alaikum salaam.”
The translation: “Peace be upon you. And upon you, the peace.”
That does sound familiar, doesn’t it?