a history lesson.

September 3, 2014

If you went to school in America, you learned about Germany, the Nazis, World War II, and the Holocaust. We know these historical events intimately. Our textbooks are filled with haunting images of prisoners in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau. Even in flyover small-town southern Missouri, where the vast majority of us grew up having never even met a Jewish person, we knew that during World War II, Jewish people suffered in ways that words can’t fully describe.

I read Anne Frank’s diary multiple times and I bawled like a baby each time. I still have my worn, beloved copy; it’s here with me in Riyadh and I hope Lavender will read it and value it someday as much as I do. I want to visit Amsterdam someday just so I can go to the Anne Frank house and pay my respects to one of the few dear friends I came to know in a book that actually existed, actually lived, and was actually stolen from the world.

In school, we learn a bit about how Hitler came to power, but it’s significantly glossed over in comparison to the actual war, as is World War I. But when it comes to explaining how there came a point where Allied forces found themselves discovering rooms filled to the ceilings with the shoes of murdered Jewish people, our education is (or at least, was) woefully incomplete. We just know it happened…and never again. Because of course. We don’t need to know how it came to pass in order to be convicted that it should never, ever happen again.

But World War I is inextricably linked to the rise of the Nazi party. World War I absolutely decimated the German economy (as commonly happens to a country on the losing end of a war). The Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, required Germany to pay heavy reparations to countries it had fought against, in addition to making Germany admit that they had been at fault for starting the war. Germany had to give up large chunks of land, and its military was almost completely dismantled. The German economy was so poor that only a fraction of the required reparations were actually made, but even those payments were a heavy burden. After the Treaty of Versailles had been signed by Germany, President Woodrow Wilson announced, “At last, the world knows America as the savior of the world!”

Naturally, the Treaty of Versailles was not a popular document with your average German. Inflation was at ridiculous levels. Jobs were scarce. It was in this environment that Adolf Hitler began his rise to power as a member of a small fringe political group, known as the German Workers’ Party. He attempted a takeover of the German government in 1923, an event known as the Beer Hall Putsch. Multiple people were killed in the attempt; Hitler was arrested, tried for treason, and sentenced to five years in prison. He only served nine months, though, and during his time in prison, he wrote Mein Kampf and he honed his platform and his propaganda strategies.

Once released, he rose to power by playing on the average Germans’ soft spots. He constantly reminded them about the great history of Germany, and he promised that under his reign, the glory of the German people would be restored. He promised prosperity. He promised respect. He drew your average, everyday German who just wanted to feed his family and live his life into the Hitler vortex of crazy, by fostering a sense of collective pride in the culture and characteristics shared by many Germans. And as a result, most people rallied behind him–or at least, didn’t actively oppose him.

But even though Hitler claimed to be building a world empire based on this concept of the perfect “Aryan” race, there were plenty of Aryans who were fighting against him—namely, from the United States, France, and Britain, among other places. These were people who could have easily joined Hitler in the Aryan fight, if they had chosen to do so, but instead, they opposed him, many of them sacrificing their lives in the process.

Does any of this sound familiar? Like history repeating itself? Because it totally should.

The Iraqi and Syrian infrastructures were both decimated by war—in Syria, there was a revolution and subsequent (and ongoing) civil war, with American officials throwing their support behind revolutionaries that would later go on to spawn ISIS. And in Iraq…well, any American over the age of 18 knows what happened there. Whether or not we want to admit it, we Americans created the Iraqi power vacuum that gave rise to ISIS. And when that power vacuum collided with Syria’s…well, it was what folks call a “perfect storm” (except, of course, “perfect” actually means “stunningly horrible and destructive”). The same thing happened in Afghanistan and gave rise to the Taliban. Have you ever seen the movie Charlie Wilson’s War? There’s this perfect line where Charlie Wilson (played by Tom Hanks) says, “We go in there with our ideals and we change the world, and then we leave. We always leave. But that ball…it keeps on bouncing.”

That’s exactly what we did with Iraq. We went in, essentially tore down what established infrastructure they had, and then we left. And what we left behind was a power vacuum for crazies. Of course, it’s not entirely that simple (if you want to read more about how America was involved in breeding ISIS, you can do so here and here), but that’s the short story.

I don’t know exactly what ISIS is doing in their captured territories. I do know that if the mainstream media’s treatment of Saudi Arabia is any indication of how seriously they approach fact checking their information (and offering retractions and/or clarifications when they get it wrong), it’s safe to believe about half of what is widely reported. But even that half is bad enough, and ISIS is certainly a bloody mess to whose cleanup America is obligated to contribute.

But the difference between World War II and now is that back then, no one really worried about blonde, blue-eyed Americans, even those of German descent and/or with German last names, joining up with the Nazis. Of course, Japanese-Americans were another story; they were deemed suspicious. (Just ask George Takei.) Japanese people were easily identifiable (as many Muslims also are by virtue of our clothing choices…but, contrary to stereotype, this is not always the case. In fact, many, many Muslim women don’t wear a headscarf, just as many, many Muslim men don’t wear long beards), and so they were rounded up and made to live in internment camps for the duration of the war, even though there was no reason to suspect that they were in any way disloyal to the United States.

But Germans? Nah. No one worried about them, even though there were quite a number of Nazi sympathizers in the States (in fact, there’s actually an abandoned compound in Los Angeles that they set up to welcome Hitler to America. Not even kidding. You can visit it if you are so inclined). And in the end, the American government issued an apology for having essentially imprisoned all Japanese Americans during the war, because we had to admit that it was totally, indisputably wrong, nor did it even help the war effort or make our country safer. It was just…racism.

So, naïve as it may be, I just don’t get why so many people are unwilling to believe that these “Islamic State” nutjobs don’t in any way represent the tremendously vast majority of Muslims around the world. If you’ve never feared that your blonde, blue-eyed relatives are going to be radicalized by right-wing Aryan extremists (which, if you’re an American hoping to eliminate terrorism, as we all are, that actually should be a concern), why would you suspect Muslims everywhere are just ripe for the ideological pickin’ for this extremist movement? ISIS is doing the exact same thing that the Nazis did during their rise to power. They are playing on the soft spots of your average Iraqi and Syrian, reminding them of the glorious history of Islamic empire and promising them stability and prosperity–education, medical care, jobs–in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the people, even as they are being opposed and actively fought by other Muslims, just as many, many other “Aryans” fought the Nazis and their evil, genocidal empire.

Islam is just the shared characteristic that ISIS uses in their attempt to unify the people and rally them to their cause, just as Hitler used the history and widely shared characteristics of Germans in order to build support for his own regime. If the resources and power were up for grabs in a land where Christianity was the dominant religion, then this group would consist of Christian terrorists, and they would be claiming to follow their true religion as they obeyed brutally violent, context-stripped, cherry-picked verses from a holy book. If ISIS was operating in a land of mostly unreligious people, they would still find common characteristics to crow about as a means of bolstering their brutal power grab. Just like Hitler did.

I understand that it may be convenient to attribute the violence to Islam–after all, that’s exactly what ISIS is telling you, so why should you believe otherwise? And Islamophobia is a booming business. But Americans, Brits, and other “Aryans” outside of Germany didn’t believe Hitler when he said that he fought for “truth and justice” because he called himself a Christian, nor did they jump in lockstep behind him because he claimed his atrocities were Jesus-approved. So why do we believe ISIS about the source of their ideology?

For anyone who lives in a Muslim family, or is actually willing to listen, get to know, and embrace their Muslim neighbors, it’s obvious: ISIS isn’t about religion. ISIS is about power, money, and control of lucrative resources (and they’re certainly not the first to wage war in Iraq for those reasons under lofty ideological pretenses).

So please, do me a solid and keep these comparisons in mind. When you’re tempted to ask, “Why aren’t Muslims speaking out against ISIS?”, please know that they are. The question that you should be asking yourself is not, “Why don’t more Muslims oppose ISIS?”, but rather, why don’t most mainstream media outlets find it relevant to amplify the vast multitude of voices that do?

I’ve said it before: go talk to a Muslim. Invite a Muslim to dinner at your house. Listen, learn, and teach one another. Hug a Muslim, ya’ll. Make the world a better place. Please. If not me, then for my kid. She’s really cute…and even though she hates being buckled into her car seat, she totally knows where her tummy is.

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  • brujaja

    Thank you for sharing this Nicole.

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

      thank you for reading!

  • http://mabsootah.wordpress.com Mabsootah

    Great article! As the Muslim mother of Palestinian girls, I think it’s so important to encourage a greater understanding of those individual persons part of the minority groups of the US and in particular those ‘groups’ others see in the news. When I lived in DC, it wasn’t an issue so much, but now that I’m back in Northern CA (which seems to have a rather large group of Palestinians), I’m shocked by how little people know about Islam, Palestinians and Arabic culture. Actually, the shocking thing is how little people WANT to know about these things. Dean Obeidallah wrote a great article about Palestine, and his experience in school of trying to tell the class his family is from Palestine (and of course not being able to show it on the map) and it is something I know my girls will have to go through too. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/07/31/yes-we-palestinians-are-human-beings.html

    Anyways, on to the history. To clarify, German Americans did face popular hate, restrictions and government mistrust. World War I hurt them more than WWII, but in different ways. In WWI, there was more of a popular backlash and many German Americans began to do things like change their last name to a more English one, not speak German, and downplay/change/get rid of many traditions and words. Even though most Americans have some German ancestry, the USA was culturally closer to-and allied with – the British. There are stories of the cultural backlash against the Germans which made so many change so much of who they are.

    With WWII, we must first remember that the first and largest front of battle for the USA was in the Pacific, against the Japanese. We first entered the war with Japan, Pearl Harbor was about Japan, we had major territories in the Pacific, NO ONE else fought Japan until the European war embed- This was the MAIN battle ground that the MAJORITY of American military fought in. That’s why it’s so odd/interesting (insert conspiracy theory here) that most movies we see are in the European theatre. (Of course, directly after the war, more movies reflected the Asian theatre and majority American experience) The US government and popular reaction to the Japanese and Japanese Americans are inexcusable, but not entirely a unique experience. German and Italians in the US had to register with the government and had their purchases and possessions monitored and regulated. Thousands were also sent to the concentration camps- similar to the Japanese, but hardly on the same scale of mass deportation (there are too many German Americans basically). Also, the press this time did make the distinction between the Nazis and the German people. If you’ve never seen Dr Suess’ WWII political cartoons, they are a great example of Nazi hate vs. hate of the Japanese people.

    After WWII, the US government stopped those schools in majority German communities in the USA from teaching in German, as Cold war suspicion came into play.

    So, the US in WWII treated the Germans with suspicion, but not on the same level as the Japanese or as they treated the Germans in WWI. In this case, I think the popular reaction from Americans towards the Japanese is more similar to the experience many Arabs and Muslims face from their fellow citizens. Unfortunately, many of those politicians (Bob Dole comes to mind as one still alive) who saw what popular hate can do to American values are either dying or being voted out of office.

    I hope more people get to know their Arab and Muslim neighbors and that everyone rereads their history books too.

    On ISIS- that was interesting considering how long they’ve been around and how long it’s been a partisan issue in DC. (Personally, I’m rather ticked off at them because they are AWFUL, but also that members of Congress blocked their opportunities to stop them stop this past year) I’ll save the conspiracy theory, but didn’t you notice the timing in our press of WHEN they became a huge threat to the USA? It makes me rather mad. Doesn’t take away from how awful they are and how much they are threatening MY family over there, but still annoying. As I’m sure those people from Nigeria tear their hair or over the lack of response to Boko Haram. ..

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

      thank you for this clarification! :)

      you kind of touched on a point i was trying to make here–the reason that the japanese-americans were summarily rounded up and detained while german-americans weren’t had a lot more to do with racism than anything else, and i think that comes into play here, as well. although i know that certain elements of the nazi sympathy movement were monitored (that’s how the ‘hitler compound’ in l.a. got shut down and subsequently abandoned–right after the war started, the fbi swooped in and arrested everyone there), i’ve never heard of or read about german-americans or italian-americans being widely monitored or sent to the internment camps. but that certainly doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. a lot gets left out of our history books. :(

      i’m no ww2 historian (obviously), but from what i understand, the fight in the europe ensued in a more “theatrical” way (i hate using that word to describe a war, but there it is)–i.e., the d-day invasion–whereas the fighting in the pacific was more of a long, slow, bloody slog, which might help explain–although not excuse–why so much of the movies focus on that part of the war. i recall reading somewhere that american military officials decided that it was most important to focus on defeating the axis forces in europe first, because after that, the japanese would be severely hindered in their ability to fight. but i haven’t read about the specifics of that decision.

      regarding the isis timing, i agree. like i said in the post, i certainly don’t believe they’re a benign, misunderstood group or anything. they’re terrible. but i have no doubt that the reason that isis is now public enemy number one in the american consciousness is because the american powers that be are concerned about the potential effect on their corporate bottom line should the “islamic state” become a significant regional power in the middle east, with control over important resources (*cough* oilfields *cough*), rather than the danger they (currently) pose to americans.

  • Risi

    Christian America had already had its attempt at genocide. Hitler admired it.

    As John Toland notes in his book Adolf Hitler (pg. 202):

    Hitler’s concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide owed much, so he claimed, to his studies of English and United States history. He admired the camps for Boer prisoners in South Africa and for the Indians in the wild west; and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America’s extermination—by starvation and uneven combat—of the red savages who could not be tamed by captivity.

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

      wow, risi. i’ve never read that book, and as i’m sure you’re well aware, our american education never mentioned hitler’s admiration of american and english extermination tactics. just…wow. not surprised, but mind blown yet again at how little we learn in school.

  • Risi

    Code naming the effort to capture/ kill bin Laden after Geronimo, one of our most revered heroes and a relative of some of my in-laws…man, that hurt.

    Your statements on ISIS are correct…Though I think perhaps a better comparison would be between the run-of-the-mill Christian and the KKK.

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

      yes, of course, risi…don’t you know that now the legacy of indigenous americans is now the legacy of ALL america?

      i think a comparison between the average (shall we say “moderate”?) christian and the kkk is a really good comparison, too, both in terms of how extremists don’t represent the majority and how people will use their religion to justify horrible things when it involves grabbing or maintaining power and control.

  • http://mabsootah.wordpress.com Mabsootah

    History is so interesting- I loved my public history classes because a lot really goes into the collective memory of events! :) And with each generation, the understanding and emphasis changes; that’s where the film history of historical events gets very fun! (yeah, I’m THAT kind of nerd reading stuff like “A Global History of Modern Historiography” :P)

    Actually, I was also referring about the timing of the ISIS crisis in relation to the Gaza war. About the 3rd time Israel changed it’s objectives/reasons for their military action, the ISIS thing exploded. Literally the day before that, I noticed an increase in articles about ISIS doing things like blowing up tombs and other atrocities. …Not that I’m sorry that ISIS got this attention so hopefully they will lose support and disolve, but it is very suspision timing. Like I mentioned earlier, the President has been trying to actually get action against them for about the past year- it’s odd timing to suddenly care about their gains in Iraq. (although, in so much they were able to use their military action on ISIS to also get Maliki to move out- I’m glad for that. It shouldn’t be our place to do that, but I’m glad Maliki is out!) I think the oil is a factor, but I think it’s a minor one considering where we get our oil from and other politiks in Iraq. ISIS is not set up to self-substain, but that’s where their foreign recruitment has been so interesting/terrifying. They are not as bad as Boko Harram (in that Boko is just so far off the deep end, I’m not sure if you can reason with them), but ISIS is very dangerous in how they are choosing their actions. Of course, I’m also scared that now that the US has made such a big public deal over ISIS, they will leave it alone and things will continue in the way there were 2 months ago… (like the way the US helped the Yazidi, then left it alone, and went back after the press started up on them again. On THAT note, I think many Americans thought they were a minority CHRISTIAN group initially! They way they were presented was very interesting)

    Okay, obviously this is a political point for me to vent on, but as you write, it’s another one of those topics where you can’t trust anything you read/hear! I look forward to hearing more stuff when I’m in Jordan next month on all this 😛 We are back to only getting about 20 Arabic channels and I just don’t watch them so much right now. (Heck, I’m lucky to get any tv not kid related!) I love hearing what you have to write as well; you are so clear on your thoughts and convey your thoughts so well! I think you are a great global ambassador!

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

      well, shoot, i must be a nerd right along with you, because i just put a global history of modern historiography in my amazon cart! :) thanks for the recommendation! dang, this has been a great comment thread (for my own learning, not so much for my amazon cart, lol)–between you and risi, i have two new books to read. thank you! :)

      yes, the rise of isis certainly pushed gaza right out of the news, didn’t it? :(

      • http://mabsootah.wordpress.com Mabsootah

        Lol- you’ll love the book! :-)

  • Risi

    Thank you…but the issue was that bin Laden was referred to as ” Geronimo”. It was inexcusable.

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

      no freaking way. i had heard that the operation was referred to as “geronimo,” but i (of course, too optimistically) assumed it had to do with the bravery of the historical figure of geronimo or something like that. but now…wow. i’m so disgusted.

  • Risi

    ] In the book No Easy Day, former SEAL Matt Bissonnette, who participated in the mission, states that “Geronimo” was the code name for bin Laden.

    The historical Geronimo was a leader of the Chiricahua Apache who defied the U.S. government and eluded capture.

    Channel 4 News said “According to some analysis today, the U.S. military chose the code name because bin Laden, like Geronimo, had evaded capture for years. If they were trying to avoid mythmaking, it seems they chose the wrong code name.”Once bin Laden was killed, one of the commanders reported “Geronimo E-KIA”, meaning that the mission had ended with the “Enemy Killed In Action”.

    Many Native Americans objected to the use of the name Geronimo. “It’s how deeply embedded the ‘Indian as enemy’ is in the collective mind of America,” said Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Morning Star Institute, a Native American advocacy group.There is little doubt [the] use of a leader like Geronimo to refer to bin Laden is ill-advised,” wrote Keith Harper, an attorney and member of the Cherokee Nation, in an email with a reporter for The Washington Post.

  • Risi
  • Willis

    To further compound the history, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have been allies since WWII. So much so that KSA ignores the U.S.’s ever growing presence in the Middle East so long as the U.S. overlooks. KSA’s involvement in supporting extremism. KSA and its Western allies have been shaping the political climate in the Middle East for decades. Indeed, KSA’s own humble beginnings began with the founding of the Ikhwan (Brotherhood) and its radical ideology, Wahhabism, which provided key support for the nation’s first king, Abd-al-Aziz. With war, genocide and huge support from Britain, KSA was officially founded in 1932. Petro dollars from KSA’s ruling elite has been funding its agenda to spread Wahhabism across the Muslim world ever since. ISIS’s rise to power was also in part helped by KSA as well. KSA’s desire to crush any Shia group’s growing influence in Syria and Iraq directly lead it to team up with Qatar (another Wahhabi state) in channeling monetary funds to Sunni rebels. By the time it was all said and done, it was already too late and the damage too great to be repaired. It is sad that looking back on it now we are all saying Hussein’s regime was better even though he was ethnically cleansing Iraq of all Kurds. The ruling parties of the East and the West have all had their hands in the honey pot that is now the wonderful cluster f*** that it is now. Yet, us common citizens wouldn’t know this because each of our governments are too quick to point the blame to the other rather than admit they played a role in the unrest and tyranny that has transpired.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alastair-crooke/isis-wahhabism-saudi-arabia_b_5717157.html

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/23/opinion/isis-atrocities-started-with-saudi-support-for-salafi-hate.html?_r=0

  • KSA-Diana-Armanjani Salah

    I think you are a brilliant writer Nicole! Thanks for sharing such a powerful message with us all and thanks for the history lesson. Yes very surprising what little we are taught in school. I really like how you stated to invite a Muslim to dinner, hug a Muslim or talk to a Muslim. I just think you are an awesome writer!

    • http://thesamerainbowsend.com Nicole

      awwwww, thank you so much, diana! <3

  • http://kitabiyya.wordpress.com futuremutarjama

    And then again … Thank you sooooo much for your articles. It has a calming effect on me, these days, to read stuff from people who actually think ! :)