Whenever a prisoner is released from jail, an important question must be answered: can they be rehabilitated? In other words, will they integrate into and become a productive member of society? Are they at risk of causing further social disturbance? Can we be reasonably certain that they will put their past behind them?
Now this question is being asked not of a human being but of a thing: the swastika. Some individuals and groups are saying that after years of being associated with the Nazis and the horrors they perpetrated, the swastika deserves a chance at rehabilitation. Most recently, this demand has been made by the International Raelian Movement, the religion/cult generally known for its images of little green men and weird sexual practices (they later clarified their position by stating that they didn’t advocate promiscuity but felt that people should be free to express their sexuality in any way they wanted as long as they didn’t hurt anybody else). But even before this, some people had expressed reservations about the across-the-board demonization of the swastika. Indian-American activist Rita Chaudhry Sethi, for example, called the swastika an “extremely common, ancient Hindu symbol” and wondered why South Asians should be criticized for displaying it simply because Adolf Hitler chose to appropriate it.
Indeed, the swastika has a long and, before the Nazis, illustrious history. In Indian-descended religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, the swastika symbolized the cycle of life and rebirth and the movement of the universe and the planets. It was a sign of harmony and prosperity. Even today some homes and places of worship in South and Southeast Asia place a swastika in the doorway just as some Westerners keep a lucky horseshoe. One Buddhist temple in Toronto has a swastika at its entrance. But the swastika can be found even further afield, such as in pre-Hispanic Mexico. And surprise of surprises, there was even one on the floor of the Ein Gedi synagogue in Israel.
All this changed, of course, when the Nazis decided to claim the swastika as their own as a symbol of the Aryans, the people who conquered Northern India about 1,500 years before Christ and gave that region the Indo-European languages spoken there today. For this reason, the swastika tends to elicit strong reactions in Western countries. Germany, for instance, has banned the swastika and other Nazi regalia in an attempt to eradicate a less than complimentary part of its past. Prince Harry (son of Charles and Diana) was roundly condemned for wearing a swastika to a dress party. And here in Canada, an Ontario teacher of Ukrainian descent was temporarily suspended from her position when she had her students paint the swastika, which she said was a good luck sign in her native Ukraine, on their Easter eggs.
So can the swastika be rehabilitated? Without ever forgetting the atrocities committed by the Nazis, can we now allow the swastika to take its place in the sun? I will admit that I myself could probably never wear, say, a swastika necklace. To me, it would feel like an affront to my many friends and family members who suffered because of the Nazis, like my high school ex-boyfriend’s father who, as a soldier in the Canadian Forces stationed in London, narrowly escaped death when a bomb from the Luftwaffe just missed the church in which he was attending Mass; or my father-in-law, who as a small child in England was forced to go into a bomb shelter; or my aunt and two uncles who served in the US army during World War II.
However, a small part of me hopes that the swastika loses its stigma, which after all it did nothing to deserve. At the very least, individuals like Rita Chaudhry Sethi and the Ukrainian-Canadian teacher, who come from cultures where the swastika as a tradition pre-dates Hitler by hundreds if not thousands of years, should not be shamed for using it. I am not sure whether the swastika’s reputation will be restored in my lifetime. But hopefully someday the swastika will return as a symbol of peace and good luck.