An Open Letter On Saying The Pledge

“Grief is a matter of relativity; the sorrow should be estimated by its proportion to the
sorrower; a gash is as painful to one as an amputation is to another”. – Francis

Dear Ms. Rosenblatt:

I am wondering if it might be possible for you to arrange for me to pledge allegiance to the American flag in your place? For less than the cost of litigation, I will prostrate myself at your feet and render myself your slave, if you would only grant me the privilege. Call me on your cell phone when the state challenges your personal freedoms. I’ll be there at the drop of a hat. Assert yourself by all means but shamelessly I beg you, allow me to pledge allegiance to the American Flag in your place.

And to be fair, because you are only 14, and little more than a child, allow me to share the circumstances that lead me to make such a request of you. I, too, will not pledge allegiance to an inanimate object. That inanimate object, for me, is the Malaysian Flag. I am not sure when the Malaysian flag ceased to signify personal security, freedom and citizenship. Certainly it was long before September 11th 2001. And sadly, I did not see it coming.

Despite freedoms and friendships enjoyed in America, as an International Student in the 1980s’, loyalty to the Malaysian pledge of allegiance- commitment to God, King, Country and the Malaysian Constitution- took precedence. I returned home. I was forewarned. A Malaysian friend called to say: “We, Malaysians, are like frogs in a pot of slowly boiling water. We will float up dead to the top before we know it” but impassioned by American education and ideals, I was deaf to her dour predictions.

I taught school in Malaysia. Critical thinking. I urged my students to think about everything, question everything. Sex, politics, religion, no holds barred, I was teaching them to write. Around about then the Malaysian Prime Minister who has remained in power these last twenty-two years announced his vision for the future – 70 million Malaysians by the year 2020. In hindsight, it’s clear. But here’s what created for me a sense of alienation from Malaysia.

One of my students, let’s call him Mohammad, was of the opinion that the Prime Minister’s goals would create paradise on earth. Each man, he proposed, take on 4 wives, each wife, he proposed have 22 children…”

“ Mohammad, you can’t possibly be serious.” I laughed. “For one thing, not all Malaysians are Muslim. I am not sure what even Muslim women would think about going forth to multiply in this way. I know, I, for one, am no Mumtaz Mahal. Build me the Taj but please, darling, let’s go easy on childbirth…”

The girls in my class, perhaps taking their cue from me, laughed. Delighted by their obvious affection, I taught school and returned in the evenings to teach drama. It was then I learned from the girls what life was like for them. And why Malaysians, like lifeless frogs will float up to the top of the melting pot.

The religious teacher, the Ustaz, stared sternly at me. He had no training in drama. Just those piercing eyes and state authorized religious authority. He wished to observe my class. Aiming to please I dropped my skirt length and my eyes, and taught drama. The boys were unperturbed. The girls were decidedly self-conscious. Then abruptly, he got up and left my class. His verdict: men and women could not be on stage together. He directed my students to let me know. Or else...

The next day, Mohammad was up on the podium conducting assembly. He gave that speech on how Malaysia could be paradise on earth. He exhorted the youth to be patriotic. He requested the women to observe religious laws, cover their heads and show decorum. The rest of the non-Muslim staff, shifted their weight, one foot to another and carefully, we avoided each other’s eyes. In time, my teaching contract was discontinued. I was asked to leave.

The school system in Malaysia is different. 55% of the population is Muslims. These Malaysians attend compulsory religious education and prayer after ordinary school hours. The girls in my class, like you, only parrot what they know. Their world shrinks in the religious classes, God dominates their consciousness, and in an odd way, man outweighs God because the women are taught not to question their primary obligations. The way, you are so bravely questing yours.

Obligations are clearly and narrowly defined in the Koran, as they are in the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Torah and Buddhist Sutras. In Malaysia, if you are not a Muslim, if you are Hindu, Buddhist, Christian or Jew, you may say the Malaysian pledge of allegiance but the nation/state owes you nothing. There are no inalienable rights. You are by virtue of your dissenting faith, an infidel. There is nothing you can do to change your life, or assert your freedoms. As a woman, you are nine parts of desire, a temptress and at fault for inciting lust. When the Islamic hudud laws are passed, as a Malaysian woman, you will be in your proper place at the mercy of four men before whom you must prove your case, if you are violated in any way. That’s the Malaysian pledge of allegiance to God. You understand why I refuse anymore to say.

Ms. Rosenblatt, you are only 14 and yet you possess so much power. As an American, as part of one nation under God, you have the power of life and death in your mouth. If you withhold what I ask of you, you pronounce, dear heart, death upon me. If you grant me my request, you pronounce life. I ask again, with all the persistence and perseverance of my soul, will you grant me the privilege of saying the pledge of allegiance to the American flag in your place?

If I were to return to Malaysia, for having spoken my mind, for having exercised my natural talents, for using my voice, I shall be punished, imprisoned, raped or suffer the lashes of the rotan. By writing this open letter to you, by beseeching you in this way, I feel no shame. On the contrary, I have everything to gain and nothing, nothing whatsoever to lose. So, I beg you, you - who have the power to take so great a nation and so wonderful a state to court - if at all you have the power to grant me the ability to say the pledge of allegiance to the American Flag, would you be so gracious, to allow me, the privilege?

The Malaysian Flag is similar in appearance to the American Flag. There it ends. If saying the pledge of allegiance to the American flag is an imposition that leads you to court, imagine my position, trying to prove government sponsored religious persecution, as a mere woman, an infidel before the Malaysian courts.

If the Malaysian Flag stood for even a fraction of what your American Flag stands for, I’d gladly return to Malaysia and shed my blood there. But I cannot. I have a 12-year-old son to raise, a husband and a life to live.

There is something about the human soul that longs to be free. Here is a poem I wrote as
a 10-year-old Malaysian- Hindu girl, growing up:

“I wish I were a spirit wandering free and flying high,
Unlocking the mysteries of the world,
Unfolding the secrets of time
Oh, but if only I were a spirit,
I’d leave everything be and fly!
Fly up to the sky and Sing!
Sing, of the rhapsody the life.”

The American Flag is worthy of my pledge of allegiance because it symbolizes life, liberty and the pursuit of truth. Happiness? I don’t know what that is. I know that in America, under the American flag, so long as I keep the laws of the land, I am free. I have certain inalienable rights. I walk a little taller, I read, I write, I think. I have a choice.

There are mean-spirited Americans who exploit people in our circumstances. In the words of Gary Haugan, author of ‘The Good News Of Injustice”, those bullies are everywhere, people who prey on (and don’t pray for) others. But that has nothing to do with this one nation under God, America; nothing to do with the American flag; or the commitment of the Americans who created this nation to be the envy of others.

It saddens me to hear you describe the American flag as an inanimate object. The American Flag bring tears of joy to my eyes, whereas the sight of the Malaysian flag reminds me of the silent shroud that covered my mother’s body and the rags that so long gagged my mouth. You can only imagine the price we continue to pay as a Malaysian family to purchase if at all possible the pearl that lies buried in this land, America. Gladly, gladly, if I may, I pledge allegiance to the American Flag. And I pray, that if at all it is within your power to do so, do not withhold from me the privilege to say it in your place. God Bless America.

Yours sincerely,

Anushka Anastasia Solomon.
Former Denver Post Compass Columnist 2002.