If the government of the United States requires its Muslim citizens to register, I will register as a Muslim.
Almost a year ago, then-candidate Donald Trump first publicly flirted with the idea of forcing American Muslims to register into some kind of ill-defined national database whose nefarious purpose was never articulated save by pointing a fat, small finger at the usual bogeymen: ISIS or terror. When asked follow-up questions about this registry Trump stared at his interlocutors and spread his arms wide open, as if to say: “What?”
Since the election, discussions of the possibility of a Muslim registry and how we would resist it have exploded. Proposals for the registry have come from inside the new administration, and they draw on horrifying historical examples — including the internment of Japanese Americans— as justification. They also revisit, as Ayesha Siddiqi (among others) have pointed out, the ugliest Islamophobic tactics of the Bush administration, during which a post 9/11 de facto registry was put in place.
Both precedent and the administration’s statements suggest that a Muslim registry may be instated. No one — left or right — seems to be denying it. And I’m certainly not the only person or group this week to promise to register as a Muslim if any sort of law requiring Muslim registration is enacted.
But let me say that there may be one crucial difference: I mean it.
As stunned reactions to the idea of a registry have spread, I’ve seen a lot of invocations of the King of Denmark. The idea is that the Danes — including their king, Christian X — wore the yellow armband required for Jews by the Nazis. The noble King’s actions, the story goes, inspired enough Danish Gentiles to follow suit and thus rendered pointless the Nazis’ attempt to publicly stigmatize and “other” Denmark’s Jews. That sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Only problem is that neither the King of Denmark nor any average Dane ever actually did that. In fact, Jews in Denmark were never even ordered by the Nazi occupation to don armbands. (Elsewhere in Europe many Jews were, which might explain the myth’s origin.) The myth has proven persistent over time, however. It has its own Wikipedia page and a Snopes.com entry debunking it. The lesson here seems to be less one in historical examples of collective action against racism, genocide, and religious persecution but in the perils of trusting what people think is a nice thing to put on Facebook.
If we’re interested in historical examples of resistance to state-sanctioned genocidal racism, we might consider what the Danes actually did to collectively resist the rounding up of their Jewish population. This went far beyond symbolic gestures. In October 1943, ordinary Danes — shopkeepers, fisherman, workers, and students — organized the most successful resistance to Nazism seen anywhere during Hitler’s regime. And they did it entirely through word of mouth. Denmark’s Jews were warned of the impending Nazi raids. Thousands of individual Danes ferried Jewish families to Sweden on their personal boats. Denmark’s Jews — 99% of them — survived Hitler’s attempt to exterminate them — not, as is too often misremembered, by the symbolic performance of solidarity by wearing a Star of David armband (or updating your facebook status with platitudes about unity) but by putting themselves at dire risk. That is solidarity lived. That is how we may have to help each other survive. (If you’re interested in an accessible and evocative history of Denmark’s actions during World War 2, I cannot recommend radical preacher/folksinger Fred Small’s song “Denmark 1943” enough. Make sure you have some tissues handy.)
And if Danish history isn’t your cup of tea, there is an American equivalent worth considering: the Underground Railroad. Trump threatens to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, regardless of the vital role they play in every American community. Ask yourself whether you would house an undocumented person or family. Would you ask your parents, your friends, your schools to declare themselves part of an already growing network of municipal, institutional and private sanctuaries for those facing deportation and perhaps death?
Look, if it helps focus your activism against the impending and almost unthinkably pernicious Trump Administration, feel free to invoke the World War 2-era or German fascism. But make sure you query why it may be emotionally safer for you to compare Trump’s racism to the Nazis’ instead of to any one of the innumerable examples of genocidal racism with which US history is replete. And make sure you commit to carrying out the true lesson of Denmark’s saving of the Jews.
Public declarations of solidarity can be inspiring and important. But symbolism will never be a substitute for direct action. Let’s be clear, folks. Your heart can be in the right place, but your heart isn’t the only thing that’s needed. If you need proof that such a pledge, absent a commitment to collective organizing and resistance, is a meaningless gesture, look no further than the quasi-liberal, very racist and fanatically Zionist Anti-Defamation League. The League has advocated, in no uncertain terms, that Jews should pledge to register as Muslim, should a registry come into effect. But everything they have done — as opposed to what they have said — has been on the side of oppression.
By contrast, it’s important that we listen to, take leadership from, and be organized by American Muslims. Fighting Islamophobia and defending the most vulnerable Americans from the serious — fatally serious — threats posed by the Trump administration requires work far beyond symbolic gestures. We must collectively resist and collectively risk perhaps everything we have to protect everyone whose lives were made much more perilous on November 8th. How such collective action will look is unclear, but centering American Muslim leadership so that we can effectively strategize and plan is more important right now than trafficking in sentimental symbolic pledges.