The premise of my very first column in Barbados TODAY back in November 2014 was an African proverb, “In crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build dams”.
Today, our world, while in crisis, seems to be witnessing less of the building of bridges and more of the building of dams or rather the building of walls. Are we less wise or more foolish?
The building of walls is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the practice stretches way back in history. Some walls were built to keep others out and some to keep certain people in. Some walls have withstood the ravages of history and have remained a potent symbol of what they stood for.
The Great Wall of China is a tourist attraction. This was started in the 7th century B.C. Like most walls it was created to protect the inhabitants of one region from the people of another region.
Our sacred scriptures tells us of a wall built by a righteous and just ruler and world traveller who led a powerful force that went from the western to the eastern end of the world. Dhul Qarnain, as he is named in Arabic, was asked by the inhabitants of a place in the east to build a barrier to protect them from the ravages of two tribes known as Gog and Magog.
These two tribes are found in Jewish, Christian and Islamic eschatology, associated with the end times. Dhul Qarnain built a wall made of iron.
My generation’s experience with famous walls relates to the Berlin Wall. This wall was started in 1961 by the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and completely cut off West Berlin by land from surrounding East Germany and East Berlin. The Berlin Wall was a symbol of the Cold War divide between the Communist/Socialist East and Capitalist West.
Two US Presidents went to the site of that Wall to proclaim America’s support for West Berlin and its opposition against the Wall. John F. Kennedy in 1963 with his famous “I am a Berliner” speech and Ronald Reagan in 1987 when his even more famous pronouncement was made “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!”
An interesting and detailed article on this subject of barrier walls can be found at: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/borders-and-walls-do-barriers-deter-unauthorized-migration. It mentions: “At the end of World War II there were fewer than five border walls in the world, according to Élisabeth Vallet, a professor of geography at the University of Québec at Montréal. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there were 15. Today, there are nearly 70.”
In very recent years, the Israelis built a wall to divide Palestinian lands. Donald Trump lauded this wall and has used it as a symbol of achieving security. Yet while the Israelis would have the world believe that building this wall prevented suicide Palestinian bombers and other terrorists from attacking Israel, the results of this wall have been devastating on the Palestinians.
An article by George Lowery in the Cornell Chronicle highlights the findings of Christine Leuenberger, a senior lecturer in the Department of Science and Technology Studies, who previously studied the Berlin Wall and finds there are commonalities with the Israeli-West Bank barrier-wall. She pointed out that the barrier is damaging Palestinians’ culture, education and economy.
“On the Israeli side, they most often call it the security fence or anti-terrorist fence or some refer to it as the separation fence or demographic wall. On the Palestinian side, the apartheid wall, because they consider it racist. The colonization wall, because they see it as a mechanism of colonizing their land. Whatever it’s called, the barrier and its associated checkpoints have negative implications for people on both sides. Palestinian education is suffering and its economy is shattered while Israel is faced with implementing a costly occupation that many experts believe affects the social and moral fabric of Israeli society. When very young soldiers have complete control over another population, the potential for abuse is high”
Leuenberger adds: “. . . Social networks built through family networks are falling apart because of barrier closures. People are becoming more alienated and society more fragmented. From the Israeli perspective, the various closure mechanisms within the Palestinian territories –– including 558 gates, roadblocks and checkpoints –– are vital for Israel’s security. The barrier at times veers deep into Palestinian land partly due to topographical and security concerns for the 250,000 Jewish settlers in the territories, at times cutting off Palestinians from their own land, towns and villages. Tales of critically ill Palestinians who had to travel 60 kilometers to a hospital in Ramallah rather than to the Israeli hospital in East Jerusalem five minutes away.”
In 2017, we have US President Donald Trump signing an Executive Order to build a $15 billion wall along the US/Mexico border. Interestingly, this Executive Order comes not even a week after his inauguration. An inauguration which witnessed Trump attending a pre-inauguration church service at which Robert Jeffress, a Southern Baptist pastor who has a history of inflammatory remarks about Muslims, Mormons and Catholics, stated in his sermon: “You see, God is not against building walls.”
Jeffress, in that sermon, compared Trump to the story of the biblical leader Nehemiah who helped rebuild the city of Jerusalem and its walls. Trump is making good on campaign promises that got him elected but that has also made him the most divisive President of the modern era. Building physical walls as well as legal walls, as witnessed by his most recent Executive Order banning persons from some Muslim majority countries and refugees from entering the United States, can in reality be seen as all smoke and mirrors as pointed out by Suad Abdul Khabeer, an assistant professor of Anthropology and African American Studies at Purdue University.
She writes: “So, what is at play here? Trump is continuing what he started on the campaign trail. He is tapping into the fear that breeds the kind of xenophobia that gets folks excited about walls and bans, only to distract them from all the promises he won’t be keeping. In this way, these moves are a bunch of smoke and mirrors, for which Trump has become pretty famous. However, that doesn’t mean these distractions aren’t dangerous. Indeed, they are. They are a danger to the communities of colour they target. Likewise, they are dangerous for Trump supporters who will find that even with bans and walls, they will still be left behind.”
If Hollywood movies are anything to go by, President Trump would do well to watch The Day After Tomorrow –– a 2004 climate change science-fiction disaster movie that showcases the large-scale destruction of the United States and the US Government, including its President, having to seek exile in a friendly and welcoming Mexico.
Don’t underestimate the power of God in causing the mighty to fall and the lowly to rise.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace, secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI. Email: [email protected])