I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but I do believe in giving thanks.
Gratitude is one of those values that is as close to a universal value that we have. I certainly have not seen any culture actively encourage entitlement. But the trouble with even universal values is that, when kept vague, apparent consensus starts to splinter and crack when we delve into specifics. The devil, as they say, is in the details. What are we grateful for? To whom are we grateful? How do we measure the sincerity of our gratitude? Can gratitude be polluted by the virtue-signaling ego?
Let’s consider a certain Christopher Columbus. You might have grown up, as I did, with the story of Columbus at sea, believing against all hope that he would eventually find land. Remember his crew was about to mutiny but he negotiated with them and they gave him a little more time, and then land was miraculously spotted? It was a good story, and really got you rooting for Columbus to succeed, even if it left the details of that mission a little hazy.
Anyone in Columbus’ situation would feel indebted, and from indebtedness we would expect gratitude. But what actions would reflect gratitude? We might imagine bowing down to kiss the solid earth, we might imagine a prayer or offering something valuable as a token of thanks.
Yale historian Alan Mikhail sheds some light on Columbus’ actual mindset in an article for the LA Times. He points out the virtually (perhaps willfully?) forgotten fact that, six months before he sailed across the Atlantic, Columbus was fighting as a Crusader in Southern Spain, attempting to drive Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula. Mikhail argues convincingly that Columbus took this Crusader attitude with him across the Atlantic. Columbus described indigenous weapons with the same words used to describe Muslim weapons in Southern Spain. He even compared some of the indigenous clothing to Muslim clothing. The Caribbean, then, became a grotesque crucible of anti-Muslim and anti-indigenous sentiment, an old crusader logic expressed in a new venue. We all know what happened next: men, women, and children were brutally slaughtered, the local population enslaved and conscripted into amassing gold. Are these actions that any reasonable person would describe as reflecting gratitude?
Let’s consider the pilgrims, the heroes of the Thanksgiving holiday. Remember in kindergarten making those tall black hats in November? Without indigenous goodwill and hospitality, it is safe to say that Europeans would not have lasted long at least in the northeast, maybe anywhere in North America. And yet the holiday of Thanksgiving and the mythology around it hides the brutal nature of European settler colonialism which violently dispossessed and displaced indigenous people from their lands and traditions. Is this what gratitude looks like? Do we make it all better by revising the story and celebrating it generations later?
Let’s consider the Oneida Nation, the indigenous peoples of Utica and the surrounding areas who were defrauded of 90% of their land by the State of New York a few years after the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, during which they were a key ally of the colonies. Is that the behavior of grateful, thankful people?
Let’s consider Palestine, another venue of crusader logic. Palestinians intimately understand the structure of settler-colonial violence. They understand broken treaties (in this case called accords). They understand internal displacement. They understand being penned into smaller and smaller reservations and camps. They understand the theft of their land and traditions. They understand the dehumanizing language that legitimates their own slaughter and displacement.
The self-styled realist will interject at this point: “That’s what everyone does, that’s just history. The Islamic conquests were the same; the Arabs colonized Africa.” It certainly would be convenient if we were all guilty of the same crimes. But not every conquest constitutes colonization and not even every colonization amounts to the type of European settler colonialism practiced in the Americas and Palestine. As scholars like Richard Bulliet have shown, the Islamic conquests mostly involved regime changes, not the displacement or subjugation of the local population seen in settler colonialism. Typically Muslims were garrisoned separately in purpose-built towns like Kufa, Basra, and Fustat. Local indigenous life was left largely intact and Islamization of society happened gradually and organically over a period of several centuries. European settler-colonialism, then, is historically, practically, and epistemically very distinct from Islamic conquests. When we conflate settler colonialism with other types of conquest, we actually diminish and trivialize the particular brutality experienced by indigenous peoples in the Americas and Palestine. But perhaps that is the point, indeed even the explicit intent.
A useful phrase has recently entered our lexicon, that “every accusation is a confession.” Part of this phrase’s popularity can be attributed to how intuitive it is, especially for Muslims who have long dealt with the paranoid accusations of Islam being “spread by the sword.” It turns out that this, too, was a confession all along. We are told we are the bloodthirsty ones as we show the world faith and humanity while our enemies foam at the mouth and justify unspeakable horrors.
As for the charge that colonial domination is over and done with, simply look at Palestine. Or look at how the US Supreme Court deals with indigenous land claims. In 2005 when the Supreme Court ruled against Oneida land claims in Central New York, Ruth Bader Ginsberg cited none other than the Doctrine of Discovery, the Papal Bull issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 which gave Christopher Columbus and European explorers the right to claim lands inhabited by non-Christians. Crusader logic is coherent and continuous, pervasive and persistent.
Indeed, the land grab never really stopped. The internal logic of Airbnb forcing real-estate crises across scenic America and the Zionist settlements in the West Bank resemble each other even if there are degrees of separation. Just as one might not want to pass up on a lakeside vacation home knowing someone else will simply come along and snatch it up, Yaakov Fauci made himself into a meme by saying “If I don’t steal it, someone else is gonna steal it” as he took over the el-Kurd home in Sheikh Jarrah. The commodification and purchase of what was once held in common necessarily creates the trespasser; the violent dispossession and displacement necessarily creates the refugee.
Is gratitude possible in such circumstances, or does a holiday of Thanksgiving make a mockery of the very idea of giving thanks? As so many innocents are being killed, as city blocks are flattened and olive trees are uprooted, when does a holiday purporting to celebrate giving thanks become an obscenity?
Given its association with genocide, and the fact that many of our Native American brothers and sisters consider it to be a day of mourning, I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, just as I wouldn’t celebrate a day of “thanks” predicated on the dispossession and extermination of Palestinians. But I do believe that true gratitude can redeem us, because gratitude is a choice and true gratitude purifies.
Prophet Ibrahim (AS) was asked to put a knife to the throat of his son. But this wasn’t an act of murder; it was an act of humble submission. He was being tested in his willingness, he was being tested in his ability to trust his Creator, he was being tested in his priorities—would he cling desperately to what he loved most in the world, his son, or would he surrender in indebtedness to his Creator who provides all blessings. In short, would he be grateful?
Ibrahim wasn’t afraid to lose what he loved because he was truly grateful to the Creator who provided it. Some people, on the other hand, find that they are afraid that the willingness to sacrifice what they really love will result in actually losing it. Maybe it will. Ibrahim didn’t lose what he loved; ironically, the reward for being willing to sacrifice what he loved the most was that he got to keep it. Maybe our reluctance to let go shows our true priorities. It might even show that our gratitude is lacking. And if our gratitude is lacking, do we deserve to keep the blessings we have?
Supposedly Israel just wants the right to exist. Supposedly. But the world has now seen clearly that the Israeli government does not merely want a homeland; it does not want merely to exist. It wants to dominate, it wants to exterminate. The level of fear and paranoia in how “from the river to the sea” is interpreted is reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe on his island, suffocated by the logic of scarcity. That logic, however, is based on fear and the absence of trust. Allah says,
The devil threatens you with poverty and orders you to immorality, while Allah promises you forgiveness from Him and abundance. And Allah is all-Encompassing, all-Knowing. (2:268)
What are they afraid would happen if Israel ceased to exist, if Palestine were set free? Perhaps out of guilt they are afraid of revenge, that they would be slaughtered as they have slaughtered. But women like Yocheved Lifshitz, who famously turned back to shake her captor’s hand, know different. Maybe in order to gain a true homeland they need to make an Abrahamic sacrifice and give up the idea of a Zionist state. Let Israel be dissolved, let its criminal leaders be imprisoned, pay reparations, give all Palestinians the right of return, and start from scratch as guests on Palestinian land. That is the very least of what it would look like to be grateful.
In July 2019, a Quaker woman in Clinton, New York donated her nearly 30 acres of land to a nonprofit organization run in part by Oneida women. Liseli Haines, the donor, said she felt that giving the land back to the Oneida women was the right thing to do. She said “I feel honored to give back the land. The Oneida people have suffered for generations.” Following the example of Ibrahim, her courage is both inspiring and terrifying. Mrs. Haines conquered the fear of loss, and gained something else. She demonstrated that she was grateful. And that can’t be measured in square footage or by a dollar amount.
Gratitude, giving thanks, is not as easy as raising your hands in prayer. It requires introspection, it requires courage, it requires living according to principles even when those principles call you to make sacrifices. We ask Allah to make us among the truly grateful. Ameen.