JI bloggers invest significant amounts of time and effort in this blog, and this commitment becomes quite evident through the internal debates that sometimes occur behind the scenes as we discuss the future and purpose of this ever-changing form of new media in which we have become involved. Today we invite you behind the scenes to illustrate one of the great debates among historians today. In part, the discussions developed as many of us commented on Max’s excellent post on the proposed New York City mosque and community center, the debate about building it so close to Ground Zero, and how Mormons should react based on their shared history of religious persecution. Max adeptly historicized the issue of Mormons and the mosque in an effort to turn the overwhelming and sometimes baffling tide of Mormon opinion against its construction.
As the discussion continued, it became evident that our email debate on whether the blog should post support for a facebook group was touching similar questions floating around the academy regarding the political responsibilities of historians. As political pundits such as Glenn Beck and Keith Obermann bend and stretch the realms of historical credulity both to entertain and to push forward their own political agendas, what is our responsibility as historians and historically informed persons to push back and correct these half-truths and de-contextualizations? Why do we study the past? Should historians utilize their craft to advance personal politics and benefit the communities in which they live? What good is historical inquiry if it cannot inform action in the present? Do we do our students a disservice by bringing politics into the classroom?
Almost any historian will agree that knowledge about the past powerfully influences the present and the future. Take the example of Islam and the way it is perceived. If historians ignore the centuries of peace and prosperity fostered by Islamic peoples and regimes throughout the Middle East and India during the Middle Ages when inequality, hunger, and fear reigned throughout much of Europe, then it is much easier to paint Islam as a pathogenic faith. In many ways the European Renaissance emerged as contact with Islamic powers reconnected the Christian world with classical traditions that Muslim philosophers, doctors, and scientists had guarded and advanced. I would argue that current strains of radical Islam actually gained power as means to resist the violence and dehumanization of Western imperialism. It seems sad that such a noble history should be whitewashed through current demonized portrayals of devoted Muslims. It should not matter whether Barack Obama is a Muslim or not—the Constitution guarantees that there will be no religious test for holding office, but the cultural label of “Muslim” through the trauma of September 11 and subsequent wars has become a code for an enemy of the United States. As a label, it has been divorced from any real religious connotation in the minds of many. This has happened before to the Japanese, the Vietnamese, the Germans, the Chinese, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and African Americans.
Whether we visualize the past as a foreign place, a source of comfort, an uncontrollable fascination, or a tutorial for the present, we must decide what to do with the knowledge we hold about the past. The stakes are high since the stories we tell about ourselves often define us as a people. Here at the Juvenile Instructor blog we encourage all to learn about the past and act politically as your conscience might lead you.
Notice that this post uses the example of the Mosque in Manhattan merely as an entrance point for examining the relationship between historical inquiry and activism. My thoughts on the history of the Islam are only given as an example of the power that narrative holds for helping us understand the world in which we live. We have already held a rather lengthy debate about the nature of the Islamic religion and the historical precedents for possible Mormon support of a mosque and community center near the former site of the September 11, 2001 attack. I, and the rest of the bloggers here at JI, reserve the right to moderate and/or delete any comments that do not deal specifically with the connection between history and political activism.