A pawn no longer: Polarizing politics endanger Assyrian community and culture

So I tried to send this in as a op-ed to numerous newspapers and never heard back. What can you do. So here it is.

This writer was moved to convey such sentiments in response to a March 7, 2019 Breitbart article entitled, Assyrian Warns Americans to Visit Ilhan Omar’s District: You Won’t Think It’s America. The article interviews an Assyrian member of the relatively unknown Middle Eastern Women’s Coalition who cites Assyrian suffering at the hands of fundamentalist Islamists as a prophetic vision for the future of the United States post-Ilhan Omar’s entrance to the US House of Representatives. The opinions of such individuals, whilst partially reflective of collective fears steeped in historical oppression and recently brought back to life through the iniquitous deeds of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, Kurdish chauvinists, and others, do not represent the opinions of all Assyrians. Such a proclamation is an insult to many liberal and conservative Assyrians alike. Like all communities they are neither of monolithic body nor mind.

The article, another attempt to politicize Assyrian suffering for a largely fundamentalist-conservative agenda item, capitalizes on desires of stardom for individuals enamored by the grandeur and wholesome virtue of “Western Civilization” and enraptured in some semblance of Stockholm syndrome and a peculiar sense of assumed “coreligionist sympathies.” And this of course is a problem for an indigenous and marginalized community as it detracts and distracts from the very real existential threat they confront and have confronted for years.

As an immigrant community in the United States, they serve from the Great War, to the Battle of the Bulge and later to the 1stand 2ndGulf Wars, protested in civil rights demonstrations in solidarity with African and Native Americans, and been maligned by fellow ‘West Asiatics’ and Americans alike. They are unrecognized in the Middle East, and perhaps even more inexplicably, have been likened to the very same group that has targeted them (from literal effacing of monuments to killings and kidnappings of hundreds) in recent years! [1] Thanks friends!

Yet they remain a lacuna to Americans or “Westerners” in general. But make no mistake, they are a people and culture with a proud history, a venerable heritage. Assyrian-Americans, while little known, are an integral part of the American fabric. From the later 19thcentury, these scions of ancient Mesopotamia, heirs to Gilgamesh and a legacy that includes great innovations and innovators from math and science (before Pythagoras and Euclid) to art, language, literature (heirs to the Aramaic language), thrived in the US. They founded enterprises (Bob Miner, co-founder of Oracle Corp), are media personalities (news anchor Nineveh Denha, radio host John Calvin Batchelor), public health advocates (Mona Hanna-Attisha uncovered the lead in Flint’s drinking water) athletes (MMA fighter Beniel Dariush), MacArthur Foundation award winners (political scientist at Stanford, Alexander George), screenwriters (Terrence Malick, A Thin Red Line) etc.

As a community, they have found themselves dispossessed, unrecognized as anything more than “Christian” and then predominantly by right-wing fundamentalists who strive to fetishize them in a manner resplendent with Orientalist fancies of indigenous cultures in some effable portrait of “noble savagery” from the 17thand 18thcenturies. As such, the hate and distrust make little sense. Such rhetoric espoused by sensationalized groups (as above) don’t reflect the Assyrians nor their desires.

To this writer, to be an Assyrian who has been demonized and despised, exploited and bowed, yet today enduring and reforged to have a revulsion of bigotry, a sense of empathy for the maligned and benighted, a propensity for non-conformity and self-reliance, a wariness of the great white savior, and a nostalgia for the simplicity of daily life. We understand endangerment and see this world through a non-anthropocentric lens, recognizing the shared siblinghood of all living beings. We stand with Standing Rock, and know in our core, roots which sit deep in a mountain and valley (framed by the Tigris on the East and the Euphrates on the West) that has been battered by greed and corruption, that we are part of a spirit far greater than our own, and we do not own anything but rather owe so much more.

The question of the Assyrians, like the question of other immigrant communities, like that of biodiversity, is a question of ethics, of meaning, of compassion and of resilience. It is neither a liberal nor conservative issue and attempting to make it so is as damaging to the Assyrian people and heritage as any sword, gun, tank or swipe of the merciless pen has ever been.

[1]https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/15/world/middleeast/syria-isis-assyrian-christians.html. For the demonizing of Assyrian heritage see https://lb.boell.org/en/2017/02/09/women-fundamentalism-and-terror-echoes-ancient-assyriaand https://www.spectator.co.uk/2018/12/the-assyrians-of-ashurbanipals-time-were-just-as-into-pillage-and-destruction-as-isis/.

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