Native Americans and Native Palestinians

If we gain anything from studying history, it is the ability to learn from the past. Since Sept. 11, when war began to seem imminent, many have been concerned that we might repeat the mistakes of the Japanese internment during World War II. It seems, though, that there is a more apt and less hypothetical comparison between America’s relationship to Arabs today and our country’s relationship to Native Americans more than a century ago.

In the most basic sense, the two groups have been displaced. Native Americans were repeatedly and forcibly removed from land they had occupied for centuries. In the Middle East, many Arabs feel that they were forced out to make room for Israel. Without displacing Native Americans, the United States would not be the most powerful country in the world (250 million people can’t survive by hunting buffalo). And though it seems reasonable that a Jewish state be created as a safe haven after the atrocities of World War II, from a Native American or Arab perspective the fairness of these land seizures has been questioned.

In addition, these two groups are linked in a particularly American sense—both have been stereotyped in film. From early Westerns to Disney’s Peter Pan, the images of “Indians” were always distorted in ways that were never flattering. As a society, we’ve begun to come to terms with this prejudice. The term “Native Americans” has replaced its derogatory predecessors, and movies like Dances with Wolves are generally good-faith attempts at respectful re-tellings of history.

But Hollywood stereotypes of Arabs have not matured in the same way at all. An often cited example is Aladdin, in which Scott Weinger ’98 was the voice of Aladdin, the hero, while the arch-villain, Jafar, speaks with a (bad) Arab accent. It does not appear, though, that this bias is malicious—merely cultural. The Siege in 1998 was an eerie prediction of Arab-American internment after terrorist attacks in New York, and the film’s intent seemed to be to show that this was not a reasonable response to a terrorist attack. But the final twist of the movie was that the ostensibly good Middle Eastern Arab did turn out to be a crazy terrorist in the end. The Arab-American cop was all right, but he was merely Denzel Washington’s sidekick, portrayed in a way reminiscent of Tonto—good, in a certain sense, but certainly not flattering.

But perhaps more importantly, we have used the terms “Indians” and “Arabs” to lump together people that are not united. Native Americans were divided into hundreds of tribes. Between many of those there were disputes; many others were ignorant of each other’s existence. In the same way, the Middle East, though populated predominantly by Arabs, is divided into many countries—some are anti-American, some are confused and chaotic, and some are our allies. And yet, I have still heard some of my (presumably educated) classmates crying out that we ought to “nuke the Ragheads” or “turn the Middle East into one giant parking lot.”

It may be that Osama bin Laden sees himself as a unifying figure, rather than a terrorist. One of the reasons our military was able to push this country’s frontier westward was that there was very little organization of the resistance from Native Americans, and what there was was mostly too late. Some tribes made treaties; other tribes tried raids, or open battles, until they were wiped out, but any resistance offered was futile—the expansion of our border was never really checked or slowed until it reached the Pacific Ocean. Though most of bin Laden’s rhetoric is laced with references to Islam, he mostly preaches against the U.S. rather than for Allah. It seems likely that his motivations are not religious, but a desperate attempt to unite the Arab world against encroachment by America and the West. His appeals to religion are practical steps towards this end because Islam is one of the few things, aside from geography, that bind together the Arabs of the Middle East.

Is a strategy of terrorist attacks on civilians acceptable or effective? No. Absolutely not. Is it practical to hope that any culture can thrive these days without assimilation to the West, and in particular to America? Probably not. But perhaps to someone like bin Laden, a massive and tragic extermination in a great war might be preferable to a future where Arabs are confined to a small, reserved, corner of the desert—accompanied only by destitution, alcoholism and casinos—and studied by third-graders as “Native Palestinians.”

Charles D. Cheever ’03, a Crimson editor, is a computer science concentrator in Eliot House.

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