2017 Spiegel Scholarship Honoree: Gabe Gervais, Erskine Academy
By Gabe Gervais, 2017 Lawrence Alan Spiegel Honoree
“I move to postpone the bill indefinitely,” were the words that escaped from my mouth when I heard the absurd proposition made by the legislative document. The topics of immigration, national security, and terrorism had been discussed frequently over the last few days at Dirigo Boys State, but when someone suggested the deportation of all Muslims from the state, I was enraged. My first question to him was, “Why would you suggest such a thing?” His answer infuriated me more than the original proposition: “Because they’re all terrorists.”
Comments such as these cause me to wonder if people are in fact still learning about the Holocaust and its historical foundations. In a highly charged election year like this past one, it is not atypical to hear inflammatory words such as these. With one click of the remote you can hear these bombastic accusations regarding over one fifth of the world’s population. These narrow-minded statements are coming from some of our country’s most prominent political figures. Proponents of this intolerance lump all members of the Islamic faith together, into one category, just as Hitler labeled the Jewish people and others, in the late 1930s and 1940s. The problem is one and the same, under a different label.
My experience with Muslim people lies in stark contrast with these generalizations.
I walk into the house of my neighbor down the street on the Feast Day of Ramadan. Since before I can remember, Nasreen has been a caretaker of my siblings and me. There is the usual plethora of delicious Pakistani and American cuisine. The hosts of this feast are as familiar as my own grandparents. They are as welcoming to my Irish Catholic family as they are to their own. Little children run by, some Pakistani, some American, some wearing hijabs, some t-shirts. They play hide and seek, then retreat to the basement to watch the latest Disney blockbuster, just as my friends and I had a few years back. A gathering such as this is commonplace for my family. It is not an exaggeration to say that I would trust any of these people with my life.
Was this the experience for people in German communities in the years preceding the Holocaust? Did they struggle with the high level of interpersonal conflict with which Americans are now confronted? Had I been there, how would I have defended my friends, or prevented the downward spiral of jingoism in my daily life?
Outside of the walls of Nasreen’s house, Muslims continue to be dehumanized. Not everyone has had the privilege to be immersed in the daily culture of these Insightful people. Nasreen and her husband are so insightful that they started a not-for-profit foundation, dedicated to helping disadvantaged people in their homeland of Pakistan. Ironically, an integral part of their effort is actively promoting the image of America as a welcoming and trustworthy country.
Yet when confronted with xenophobic sentiment here, we face an impossible task.
Open-minded Germans also faced this seemingly insurmountable task. It is difficult for others to feel the way those with personal experience do, without that same background. I imagine those in Nazi Germany, like me, weren’t certain how to relate their personal experiences with their neighborhood families to others. It is imperative that people begin to understand that Muslims, such as the Sher family, are just as sickened by acts of terrorism as any of us. Islam is a religion of over 1.6 billion people, and cannot be defined by the actions of a radical few.
Today, the heinous acts of terrorists create fear throughout the world. Fear, in turn, fosters ignorance. When this fear that we all experience is combined with ignorance, there is a perfect storm. Efforts to change sentiments as strong as these have taken decades, and even lifetimes. Still, having been educated about the Holocaust and other genocidal periods in history, I am aware that I must do my part to combat any ignorance that lumps everyone in a religion into one group. In our current political and cultural climate, opportunities to do just this arise every day.
In a society that opts to build walls to solve our problems, I opt instead to share how my Muslim neighbors are family to me. The sentiments of today’s day and age are parallel to those of the Holocaust and its reprehensible outcomes. This is not to say that we are on the verge of an impending Holocaust, but it does mean that we need to be careful, recognizing, through education, the unmistakable and historical symptoms of ethnocentricity. Personal relationships need to be fostered as our primary means of education in order to counter prejudicial mindsets. Interpersonal education is the most vital part of any solution. By educating the masses we can ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself under a new name.
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