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Kemal Argon

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What Can the Salem Witch Museum Teach American Muslims?

Posted: 06/26/2012 5:41 pm

In New England, we usually know about the Salem witch trials of 1692. These were made famous by Arthur Miller's play, "The Crucible," and every year loads of schoolchildren and visitors from all over the world come to visit the renowned Salem Witch Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. I would argue, however, that the meaning and importance of the Salem Witch Museum goes far beyond being an entertaining field trip for schoolchildren.

American Muslims are increasingly concerned about persecutions of Muslims in American society. I would urge more of them who can do so to make their way to the Salem Witch Museum. However, taking a short tour of the Salem Witch Museum is to be recommended as an important educational experience for anyone concerned about fear-driven persecution of any group or individual in our society today.

The story of the persecutions and witch trials in Salem is very moving. The first museum exhibit should be acceptable to Muslims and it tells the story of the Salem witch trials with a mannequin display and a recorded narration. In a setting of fear and hysteria in Puritan New England, innocents were falsely accused, persecuted in witch trials, and numbers executed by hanging. Others were driven into debt, their lives destroyed. One man had stones piled on his chest until he was crushed to death. Of course this all turned out to be utter hysterical nonsense and finally, in 2001 the governor of Massachusetts signed into law the posthumous exoneration of those remaining victims of the hysteria not already exonerated. This exhibit itself is excellent and makes a visit to the Salem Witch Museum worthwhile. The museum staff was notably at all times professional, courteous and charming.

I should warn that the second museum exhibit does have some content that Muslims may find unacceptable and may wish to ignore or avoid. Nonetheless, what is interesting is some material in the exhibit that is relevant for civil rights activism generally. The exhibit ends with a mannequin exhibit of a couple of present-day practitioners of a New Age religion, presenting themselves as good, quite misunderstood but harmless, and wanting to be protected by the US Constitution. Although I am not personally interested in the New Age religion in the exhibit nor do I agree with it, this part of the exhibit successfully expresses a human concern about tolerance and is interesting from the point of view of civil rights. This call for tolerance sounds all too familiar to American Muslim ears: wanting to be respected as part of the American mainstream, yet being unfairly and irrationally feared and persecuted, like medieval witches.

Also quite interesting from a civil rights perspective is the last presentation of the second exhibit, the large display on the wall showing a simple formula of a background of extensive fear in the community. This, when added to a trigger, yields scape-goating or what I call "persecution." There is also a very truncated list of examples of this formula in recent history. I would argue that this simple formula of "fear-trigger-scape-goating" may be increasingly of concern to Muslims given their situation in the USA nowadays.

Although it is a small exhibit, this last exhibit was effective in making its important point against persecution generally. I could imagine expanding that exhibit to rival Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in London with standing mannequin displays in the hundreds, exemplifying countless persons and groups who want to be free of persecution. Indeed our Constitution and Bill of Rights should apply to all of them in the USA. Out in the waiting room before the main exhibit there are plaques listing the victims of the witch trials as well as a description of the witch-hunting done by Senator Joe McCarthy during the Red Scare of the 1950s.

The museum gift shop did effectively provide me with better literature dealing with the subject of the history of the witch trials. While I am also pleased that I did find the gift shop to be sensitively free and clear of anything overtly satanic, ungodly, or malignant, some of the other material there I would simply describe as to be ignored or avoided by Muslims.

The Salem Witch Museum does have an important message for American Muslims and many others too. American Muslims are forced to contemplate their own ethics in this country and adopt standards to maintain their ethical foundation. Without an ethical foundation, we are left with the law of the jungle. The anti-persecution message of the Salem Witch Museum can inform American Muslims in their process of ethical discernment. This ethical discernment and maintenance of an ethical foundation has two sides, that we should neither be unjust persecutors nor should we allow ourselves to be unjustly persecuted.

We can recognize that this hysterical witch hunting and persecution that we sometimes see in America is nothing new. At the very least, we can recognize any pattern of intolerance and persecution recycling itself in American history for what it really is and refuse to be part of it. In the case of Islamophobia manifesting as witch-hunting and persecution, although we cannot oppose this persecution with our hands in our current situation, we can oppose it with our voices and with our hearts. Such nonviolence in opposition to unjust persecution is legitimate.

 
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