On April 23, 1912, a religious leader from the Middle East addressed a multiracial audience at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. He praised the promise embodied in that multicolored assemblage, an American dream not measured in money. He spent most of his lecture waxing eloquently about the heavenly gift of scientific investigation and research and then urged his listeners to use that gift for a particular mission:
“How shall we utilize these gifts and expend these bounties? By directing our efforts toward the unification of the human race. We must use these powers in establishing the oneness of the world of humanity, appreciate these virtues by accomplishing the unity of whites and blacks, devote this divine intelligence to the perfecting of amity and accord among all branches of the human family so that under the protection and providence of God the East and West may hold each other’s hands and become as lovers.”
These remarks were made by ‘Abdu’l-Baha (1844-1921), son of the Founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah (1817-1892) during his epic journeys throughout Europe and North America. The fact that even though the setting would suggest a need to focus on domestic racial issues, ‘Abdu’l-Baha mentioned uniting not only black and white but East and West, is noteworthy. It suggests an analysis of racism that recognizes its relevance to understanding and hopefully improving relations between the “Occident” and the “Orient,” as they were referred to in those days. Today we might speak in terms of the Arab World, the Muslim World, or Asia more generally. ‘Abdu’l-Baha seems to have understood that the color line has never been a purely American problem but an international one.
As I mentioned in a previous piece, scholars like Nadine Naber emphasize the racial discourse and logic employed when talking about the War on Terror. It’s never been about just religion or clashing civilizations. Joel Beinin, in his essay “Knowing the ‘Other’: Arabs, Islam, and the West” reminds us that such discourse was going on long before 9/11. “Orientalism” has provided ethnocentric rationalizations for colonial/imperial agendas in the Middle, Far, and South East, just as white-supremacist, “scientific” racism did for such agendas in Africa and the Americas.
Gordon H. Chang’s essay, “Eternally Foreign: Asian Americans, History and Race” also makes the point that the Western gaze has often been harsh towards Asians. “Model Minority” status not withstanding, Asians in the United States remain in a precarious position, particularly in moments of economic or military competition between America and their countries of origin. This vulnerability remains no matter how long Asians have lived here. It is no stretch to draw parallels between the beating death of Vincent Chin in 1982 and the domestic racial terrorism suffered by Sikhs recently. Nor is the way some people talk about Arabs or Muslims today so dissimilar from the “Yellow Peril” hysteria that gripped former generations.
Racism is the beating heart of any number of contemporary conflicts of nation, culture, and religion. The apocalpytic images in the news media warn of just how urgent the message of ‘Abdu’l-Baha remains today. The essence of how dominant groups in the West have seen the majority of the Earth’s inhabitants is as problematic as people’s needing to be “managed” so the wheels of commerce keep turning.
Whether such managing has involved enslavement, invasion, genocide, exploitation of natural, cultural, or spiritual resources, or simply incarcerating people in unprecedented numbers, the ends have been assumed justify the means. If we do not appreciate this, we experience periodic world eruptions as if they dropped out of nowhere, like planes crashing into towers on a sunny morning. This perilous world that so many of us – black, white, East, and West – yearn to change is the inevitable consequence of the color line. Understanding this provides the clarity of vision necessary to exorcise the spectre of racism from the global body politic. I pray, as ‘Abdu’l-Baha did, that God will hasten the day when this is finally achieved:
O Thou Provider! The dearest wish of this servant of Thy Threshold is to behold the friends of east and west in close embrace; to see all the members of human society gathered with love in a single great assemblage, even as individual drops of water collected in one mighty sea; to behold them all as birds in one garden of roses, as pearls of one ocean, as leaves of one tree, as rays of one sun.Thou art the Mighty, the Powerful, and Thou art the God of strength, the Omnipotent, the All-Seeing.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia.org