I was never one for history class.

Somewhere in the middle of the fourteenth century, the Black Death killed somewhere between 75 and 200 million people. Tumors would grow on glands and in groins; hard, oozing lumps the size of eggs. Blackened fingers and bloody vomit; bodies lining streets.

We know now that poor sanitation and an aggressive rodent population caused all these deaths. Through years of science and study, we know a whole lot about the transmission of viruses and bacterium; the importance of hand-washing and waste management. We know all of this now.

But at the time, people didn’t know all of that stuff. So they blamed the Jews.

The Jews, you see, were isolated in the ghettos, and thus some were spared from the plague. So the Christians decided that the Jews were behind all of it. That they had poisoned wells, to bring disease on their enemies. That they were hateful, intolerant people. That they were on the wrong side of God.

And so they killed them.

Hundreds of Jewish communities were destroyed. Jewish people were tortured until they confessed to crimes that they did not commit. In the town of Strasbourg, France alone: nine hundred Jews were publicly burned alive, their money and valuables later distributed after their screams were silenced.

This happened hundreds of years ago, and so historians debate what actually happened. There aren’t a lot of accurate records. But they basically agree on a few key points. Greed played a role, for one. It certainly provided an incentive, as the property of the Jews killed in riots legally became the property of those who killed them.

And religion played a role too. After all, the Jews killed Jesus; what other evidence do you need that Jews are evil, hateful, monstrous people?

But mostly, this happened because of fear.

Fear of others. Fear of the unknown. Fear as a destructive, evil force. Fear as the motivation to kill, to hurt, to shun, to terrify.

Of course, fear is also the trait that has allowed our species to survive. We are wired for self-preservation and designed for survival. Fear keeps us alive. We are taught, by nature and nurture both, to avoid the unknown, to seek safety in numbers. Fear is incredibly useful: “Get away from that shark!” “Don’t stand so close to the edge!” “Are you too close to those firecrackers?” So I get it. We need fear. We wouldn’t be here without it. Fear keeps us safe.

It can also destroy.

Fear had a lot to do with the Holocaust. It’s how the Mongols were able to control an empire they had no tactical way of commandeering. It had much to do with the Trail of Tears. It had a lot to do with the atrocities we likely don’t know as much about: the murder of French Creoles in Haiti.  The near-extinction of the Herero tribe in present-day Namibia, then occupied by German soldiers. The Moriori of New Zealand. The Ottoman government’s systemic extermination of the Armenian people within the Turkish borders. The Irish Potato Famine.  The Rwandan Tutsis. Thousands of others. Thousands of stories exactly like these: mass death and persecution = fear + greed + hate + ignorance, as broken down over centuries of human struggle and survival.

Reader, I’m going to make a guess now. I’m guessing that you read the above list — the Holocaust, the Mongol reign of Genghis Khan, Rwanda, etc etc — and I’m going to guess that your brain sort of flickered through it, reading that list without really reading it.

Go back and read it again. Add the 500,000 people killed in Tibet. Add the Kurds in Turkey. Think about the forcible expulsion of the indigenous peoples in Russia under the reign of Stalin. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Picture the most painful loss you’ve ever experienced — the death of a sibling, child, relative, or friend.

Now imagine that happening every day.
Now imagine that happening ten million times.

You can’t, right? You can’t. You can’t actually picture that much death and destruction, because our brains aren’t wired to comprehend pain and grief on that kind of a scale.

And because all this talk falls under the metric of “history,” we can turn it off, dismiss it. To think, with a shake of the head, how lucky we are, that we weren’t alive during those terrible times, and go back to reading on our iPads.

Try this for me, because it is possible. Imagine yourself as a Jewish person living during the time of the Black Death. Actively try to picture your daily life: what buying food must have been like, your home, your children, your parents, your spouse. What it smelled like. How the air felt. The texture of rough cloth on your skin, your feet and face perhaps a little dirty, splashing water from a bucket on a cold morning.

It’s possible to imagine venturing outside your community and feeling the sense of fear and panic rising around others as you pass; possible to picture the moment, late in the evening, when a heavy-booted soldier knocks at the door and you know that it is too late. Possible to imagine being herded into a wooden house with your family and friends and neighbors, the sudden heat of the fire as it begins to surround you and envelop everything in a smoky, terrifying glow, your eyes burning, your mouth choking, your hands losing their grip on your loved ones. It is not pleasant. But it is possible to imagine that.

It’s much harder to picture yourself lighting the torch and setting the house on fire. It’s harder to imagine yourself dividing up the possessions of the dead, the ashes of their skin and bones still clouding the air.

It’s harder for me to picture that, anyway. I guess I can’t speak for you.

I can, however, picture myself drawing my coat around me closely and looking at my neighbors with a pinched, suspicious face: it’s happened when I walk alone on the street late at night, it’s happened when a strange man moves too close to me on the bus, it’s happened in large crowds in my big city. Self-preservation. Fear.

I don’t like that I can see myself in that role. I hate it. I understand it, and perhaps it has kept me safe and alive, but that doesn’t mean that I like that it is true.

I can picture myself, a fourteenth-century peasant, whispering with my friends about the evils of the Jews. About how their hair and their clothes are not like mine; how their customs are strange and not like mine; how they smell or are dirty or poor. How I could mistake, with relative ease, those qualities for “evil.”

And I hate that this is true. That I can see myself in that role, too. But I have the power to imagine it. And I hate that I do.

I understand it because I’ve tried consciously for years to break myself of this habit, this human tendency to view “others” with suspicion. I have failed, as we all have, in ways that are mostly small and always shameful. In ways that most of us don’t want to admit to one another. In ways that most of us don’t want to admit to ourselves: that our fear has gotten in the way of fostering connection.

But that is, again, just me.

Because perhaps there are those who have no problem seeing themselves stomping in with their soldiers’ boots and setting homes on fire.

Or perhaps I am not being generous enough. Perhaps it is just that most people do not see the connective tissue that spans between the whispers and the fear and the pointing out of “other,” and cannot see the forward-moving thread that connects that fear to death and murder, to violence and flames.

Maybe I’m just responding to the news that a man was thrown off a bus in London this week because he “looked shifty,” when what that really means was, “looked Muslim,” and that’s not happening in history, that is happening right now. 

Or maybe I’m just responding to this video I watched of a man screaming at another man during a town hall meeting, “Every one of you are terrorists,” as other white people applaud and clap and cheer. And that’s not history. That’s happening in my country. It is happening right now.

Or maybe I’m just responding to the story of the man who hailed a taxicab, and asked his Muslim cab driver repeatedly about ISIS and Pakistan, who asked him to wait outside while he retrieved his wallet, and who returned with a rifle and shot the driver in the back. 

That’s not history. That’s in Pennsylvania. That’s my state. That is happening right now.

Or maybe, just maybe, I might just be responding to the news that at a mosque in my hometown, several blocks from a rehearsal studio where I work, a coffeeshop where I sit, a pizza place that gives out fresh basil plants to its regular customers, and a bunch of dudes wearing long robes that I nod at politely when I walk by, who smile and who exist in the world as I do, who live in the same city that I do, who take the same subway and walk the same streets that I do  — I might be responding to the news that last night a red pickup truck drove by the Islamic Society and rolled a severed pig’s head onto the doorstep. 

That’s not history. That’s my home. 

This is my HOME.



And it bears repeating, for the people who cannot and will not listen, that all Muslims are not terrorists. That Islam is a religion of peace. That the Bible and the Koran are comparable both in their languages of love and their violent messages of hate.

Yes. There is hatred in the hearts of some Muslims. This is true.

There is also hatred in the hearts of some Christians. Some Jews. Some white people. Some black people. There is hatred in some people. 

But not most. Certainly not all. A small fraction of people crave violence and destruction, are motivated by fear and by greed and by dogma and by power, and have done so throughout history. This much I also know to be true.

It bears repeating, for those who refuse to listen, that a presidential candidate openly advocating to ban the admission of all Muslims to the United States is at odds with this part of the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” It bears repeating that these are the actions of someone motivated by greed and by ego, who can only personally profit from the fear and the hatred of others.

It bears repeating that if a mass murder is committed by someone who shares your skin tone or your gender or your religion, you are not a mass murderer and are therefore not responsible. That because we do not require all white men to publicly denounce the mass shooters who have been white men, to say, ‘I am one of the good white guys!’ we similarly have no call to ask the same of those whose language or religion or skin does not look like our own.


It bears repeating that the overwhelming majority of the people fleeing ISIS and seeking refuge are victims, and not terrorists. Are people like you, and like me.

It bears repeating that I, like you, am afraid.

Of course I feel fear. It is a terrifying time to be alive. I am afraid of being killed by a gun. I am nervous in large crowds. I don’t like walking alone at night, and I don’t like taking the subway, and I watch the news and I draw the blankets around me and I picture how fast a bullet would rip through the soft fibers, burrow into my skin, shred my bones and my muscles, wonder how long it would take for my lungs to gasp as red blood would flow out of a hole that had not been there only seconds before.

But we are not fourteenth-century peasants. We are people with technology and medicine, with science and with hospitals, with grocery stores and with sneakers and jeans. We hold the power to access a world’s worth of information in the palms of our hands, we can fly across countries in airplanes made of metal and gasoline, we can send a rocket to another planet and we can conduct a symphony orchestra and we can read thousands of languages and we can build skyscrapers and we can map the human genome and there is so much that we can do, and do well.

But we can’t manage to shut off our brain’s capacity for fear and for hatred. We can’t just flip that switch and be done with it. So we must work a little harder. We must teach one another, and ourselves.

The antidote to a bad guy with a gun is not a hug. I am not so naive as all that. If someone were to charge into this room waving a gun at me right now, I can almost guarantee that I would not stand up and cry, “I love you,” as the bullet left the chamber. I’m not that person. I am not that brave, or that stupid, as your perspective may be.

But I know that the solution is not severing a pig’s head and rolling it out of a flatbed truck onto the steps of a community center.

It is not shouting at a Muslim that he is a terrorist. It is not charging at a cab driver with a rifle. It is not kicking a man off a bus. It is not denying help and shelter and food to anyone who is in fear of their lives, who is running from devastation and evil that many of us cannot imagine.

I don’t know that there is a “solution,” a means of correcting human nature. I don’t know that I can survey all of human history, of our collective years of killings and murders and tortures, of our genocides in the name of religion and greed, thousands of years of brutality and hatred and evil and death, and say, “I really humanity really has a chance of pulling it together this time.”

But we owe it to ourselves to try.

For the record, I am a white woman who stands in solidarity with the Muslim community. I invite you to do the same.


If you’d like more information on how to be a good ally to a Muslim-American in your own community, this list is beautiful.  I hope you will read it and share.

And this compilation of Muslim-Americans tweeting their military ID photos is pretty great, too.



Did you like this post? Help me keep writing. 



63 thoughts on “I was never one for history class.

  1. Hey.. I’ve been a follower for ages and this post just brought tears to my eyes… Thank God someone else gets it.. I’m so tired of being the bad guy when I’m not, being defensive all the time and seeing my beautiful religon being put down time and again. If even one person reads your post and changes their perspective, u have done something noble. God bless :)…

  2. I have no words to express my sincere thanks and gratitude to you for writing this post, I have to admit I have been really down the past few weeks but this post gave me hope. Let me add this: Stereotyped representations about Islam and Muslims in public minds enclose three intentions:

    1-It increases fears of Islam and Muslims; ‘the other’ in the public mind.
    2-It fabricates public consent for military intervention in the future when desired.
    3-It serves as a pretext for policy makers in the world to justify the use of military aggression against Muslim countries.

    The news coverage conveys stereotypes that affect public perceptions of how they think about race, ethnicity and religion. The world is constantly fed with partial, incorrect, and biased news coverage to raise the importance of fear from Muslims in public minds.
    Exposing public to frequent negative images about Islam and Muslims will lead in convincing the public that the threat from Muslims is real. Mass media has a great influence in changing public perception. One must distinguish between news, and truth.

    Hence, this reveals the diabolical relationship between mass media and politics. Acknowledging that some Muslims are terrorists is not condemning them all. The world need people who are fair-minded, non-prejudiced people, vehemently condemn acts of bias or violence against any community not only Muslims.

    By raising awareness of the issue and correcting the negative stereotypes, it may be possible to reverse this irrational fear. Terrorists do not speak for a 1.6 billion Muslims, no religion is responsible for violence and terrorism. Individuals are responsible. Stop stigmatizing entire communities.

  3. Pingback: I was never one for history class. | The Perks of Being an Artist

  4. Donald Trump is a rabble-rousing buffoon. The taxi shooter you described is an attempted murderer

    It is fine and noble for you to stand with Muslims

    I trust you will also stand with the broken hearted parents/siblings/offspring of those recent victims of hate crime not mentioned by you but certainly on your mind as you wrote-
    The hate crime perpetrated by Farook and Malik

    Express your sorrow and solidarity
    with these victims as well

    Hatred, like goodness, knows no religious or national boundaries.

    Blood bone and guts are apolitical. It is the ultimate leveler of a common origin to recognize that blood is blood. But what makes us choose to hate-to slaughter in the name of religion or money or oil or power or jealousy-or NOT to hate-is the factor that makes us enequal.

    Choose wisely, humanity, before all hope is gone

  5. Thank you so much for this, and the links, it made me so emotional. I’m not a Muslim, I’m not a Christian. I don’t adhere to any faith, but that is my choice and I respect those who do believe in religion just the same. What hurts is that too often, people forget that people are people, no matter where they come from, what they believe in, who they love. What hurts is when some use it as a weapon to attack those that are different. What hurts is when some use it to justify horrible acts. Life is hard enough as it is, why make it harder by spreading hate?

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  7. This piece is definitely a piece of Peace if there ever was one. You masterfully used history to parallel the present “scene” that is being played out on different stages by different people for the same reasons, to illuminate what is REAL now. I feel so sad for the Muslim people who are subjected to so much hatred by so many whose fear is being amped up by others whose fear is evidently boundless, when the majority of the Muslims are such peaceful people. It should be easy to understand that there are extremes in all subsets.

    I wish everyone could read this piece, that it would find font in something widely read like the Huff. and anywhere or everywhere online. I suppose the world is heir to the lightness and the darkness and as I feel so much darkness descending it’s good to see this light shinning and people reflecting it back at you and I and others.
    I ask myself how do we quell those that are so full of fear? How do you get them to become non dualistic and abandon their fear. Perhaps this is not something we can DO for them, but when we don’t take on that fear, when we can emulate love and trust in something beyond their fear, I know it doesn’t hurt them or anyone Perhaps to help them we can only become the evidence that we have stopped fearing, maybe we are in a balancing game. Thank you for sharing your work.

  8. A very heartfelt and touching piece of writing. The presidential candidate openly advocating to ban the admission of all Muslims to the United States is a fool. In my heart I hope that he does not honestly believe this, but is so consumed in trying to find foolish supporters that he’ll say anything to get another vote. On a side note, I do not exist in this world worried. I simply try and enjoy all the moments that I have, with all the people around me. I wish everyone to find peace in their existence… this can only create good things.

  9. My thoughts exactly. The other two horrors I think about a lot and wonder why & how they happened, the murder and destruction of the Native American communities and the internment of the Japanese during world war 2.

    The world has been and I guess will always have men who take and take and take, usually with riches as a motive and will do incredibly creul things to others. I guess it will always be that way.

  10. As someone who got threatened to be thrown on the rail tracks and got called f******Arab (I am Asian!) I thank you for writing this inspiring and hopeful article for all people in general…If it was a speech you would’ve deserved a standing ovation.

  11. Read about the Stanford Prison Experiments. It appears that human vs human is really an us vs them equation. Polar opposites and is seen across all parts of society and history. Liberal and conservative. Jocks and geeks. Cops and civilians. Boys and girls. Workers and management. Government and governed. Haves and have nots. India and Pakistan. Royalty and peasant. Tutsi and Hutu. And many many many more.
    The beauty of the American system is to equalize all groups and prevent any one from having power over another. Perfect? Not even close. Work in progress.
    Common belief in core values (bill of rights), a judicial system that is blind and opportunity to pursue self improvement is the recipe, but i think we are moving away from that and are now more polarized than ever before. ” United we stand, divided we fall”.

  12. One of the most beautiful posts I have ever read. My heart breaks every day these days seeing what even the leaders of our country are doing to Muslims. I’m a little Irish hothead who simply is incapable of sitting idly and watching injustice happen (I promise my actions are calm… it’s just my brain that gets fired up!). I only hope more people start to actively support our Muslim co-citizens, start to actively – peacefully, but firmly – prevent injustice and hatred and by saying “no, this isn’t acceptable” start to make a change.

    • Me too. It just pisses me off to see that every day, hundreds, if not thousands of people fleeing violence to the US, or to the EU, are denied because fear and xenophobia fuels more and more hate.

      I’m a Mexican-American whose parents moved to Los Angeles to have a better life than the one filled with cartels, corruption, and violence and hate to a country that seemed to them to give them hope, opportunity, and equality, no matter their religion, their race, ethnicity, or nationality. When I see bullying, when it happened to others like me, I was pissed, I was afraid, I was hopeless.

      This post has inspired me to want to do something.

  13. Pingback: I was never one for history class. | ameeraharazinphotography

  14. On a train In England last week a whole carriage full of people came to the aid of of two young Muslim women. A man was screaming racial abuse at them , the whole carriage closed ranks and threw the man off the train . One of the young girls gave a speech of thanks on YouTube. I love the fact that #youaintnomuslinbruv went viral after the “terrorist” attack in London last Friday.

  15. Thank you for posting this. I am a Muslim and it’s pleasing to see that there are people who care about sterotypes and can get past those misleading news article lines

  16. Beautifully written. There were so many paragraphs that jumped out at me, and so many times I felt myself nodding, like that’s exactly what I was thinking! Thank you for so eloquently putting into words what many are thinking, but cannot say.

  17. Although you seem to almost lament your ability to imagine these horrible situations, the reality is that your ability to picture those has in fact greatly contributed to the content you’ve written and the unique perspective you’ve shared. I’m not here to do a rhetorical analysis of your writing. The caliber of it speaks for itself.
    What I will say is well done. Understand too, fear is an extreme reaction to the unknown. The opposite of fear is rashness – a complete inability or drive to preserve one’s own well being. I’m a huge fan of Aristotlean ethics – in particular his concept of the golden mean. The mean between the two extremes here, fear and rashness, is courage. Having courage is the ability to recognize our fears, yet to act in spite of them. Because it is this middle ground, it is considered a virtue.
    I’m explaining this because even something as simple as writing your view, and confessing these fears of yours takes courage. So again, well done. 🙂

  18. Shared this on Facebook, hope people read this.
    Every thing you wrote is horrifyingly true. The connection with history is something I have never read before and for that I loved this piece. I guess if more people think this way, posts like these would not be needed anymore

  19. “But we are not fourteenth-century peasants. We are people with technology …”

    Everything you list here is something external to human nature. Biologically we are very similar to 14th century peasants. Technological advancement is not related to moral advancement.

  20. With all due respect, the statement “Islam is a religion of peace” is, at best, naïve, and more likely intellectual dishonesty. Islam isn’t a religion of peace, and so-called extremists are actually seeking to implement what is arguably the most honest reading of the faith’s actual doctrine (which most Americans haven’t bothered to read, let alone understand). Jihad is not just an inner struggle, it’s a doctrine of holy war. and the only acceptable peace is through either forced conversion or the death of every infidel (that would be you and me, and all our friends, by the way), curiously similar to the literal interpretation of the Bible’s Old Testament.

    The majority of Muslims (much like the majority of Christians and Jews) in America are peaceful and civilized, not because of their religion, but in spite of it. We function on a cooperative level, not because religious leaders impose it or religious texts demand it, but because we live under the rule of secular law, and choose to ignore those aspects of religions that are either outright illegal in a civilized culture or uncomfortable to our modern sensibilities.

    None of this is your fault, however. In America, it’s considered taboo to even notice the fact that there is a difference in doctrines, let alone acknowledge those differences openly. Unfortunately, pretending certain things are true long enough and hard enough doesn’t make them any more true. When fundamentalist Muslims throw acid in little girls’ faces for attending school, they have explicit permission of people who’ve studied their religious texts for decades longed than your parents have been alive. Further, I would submit that by supporting their religion, civilized Muslims are providing tacit permission for the insanity to continue. Where are Muslim marches denouncing this deplorable behavior? It’s unlikely, as in their religion, if you publically disagree with a religious leader, he can legally offer money for your murder.

    I apologize for being long-winded, but please, in the future, do some actual reading before you make blanket statements that are patently false.

  21. Pingback: I was never one for history class. | Awestruck Nerd

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  24. Katherine, Thank you for writing this timely article regarding what is happening in our world today. I was never one for history, religion, or politics. The atrocities that are happening today have happened in the past, ” as the saying goes; history repeats itself.” I live in Central New Jersey and can relate to all the stories that we hear on the news, how fearmongering has taken a huge effect in our world today. I agree, America should open their doors to refugees fleeing persecution. However, how do we know for sure these same refugees are not part of the terrorist plot to destroy the United States? We don’t know, and unless we try to make a difference, we will never know. The question is where do we start?

  25. The majority of Muslims (much like the majority of Christians and Jews) in America are peaceful and civilized, not because of their religion, but in spite of it.

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