Most of the undergraduates in my courses on Asian- and South Asian American communities, were in kindergarten when the attacks of 11 September 2001 occurred, so they have lived in the reality of post-9/11 America for most of their lives.
But their ability to critically analyze our government’s policies and practices in the post-9/11 environment is limited, because the narrative about the day and its aftermath – lives lost; War on Terror triggered – excludes the stories of South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh communities in America and their ongoing experiences with hate violence, discrimination, government surveillance and profiling.
While the level of anti-Muslim sentiment increased precipitously in the months after 9/11, it has not subsided in the 14 years since then. The environment created by discriminatory government policies, xenophobic rhetoric and biased media representations remains a reality that many members of these communities contend with daily.
Anti-Muslim sentiment is alive and well, with small businesses coming together to designate “Muslim-free zones” and right-wing groups protesting Islam in front of mosques, armed with guns. And the political rhetoric about Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities is still divisive and harmful, with presidential candidates deciding what they will do to them in order to protect the nation’s best interests.
It’s 2015, and not a month goes by without reports of hate violence targeting Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs and South Asians. This year began with the February murders of Yusor Abu-Salha, her husband Deah Barakat and her sister Razan Abu-Salha, Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It continued with news from Bothell, Washington, where leaders of a Hindu temple found a swastika and “Get out” spray-painted on a wall and a nearby junior high school was vandalized with the words, “Muslims get out.” Just this week, days before we mark the 14th anniversary of 9/11, Inderjit Singh Mukker, a turbaned Sikh man, was assaulted while on his way to the grocery store in a Chicago suburb. The perpetrator apparently shouted, “Terrorist! Bin Laden! Go back to your country.”
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Many houses of worship, including Sikh gurdwaras, have been forced to employ increased security measures three years after six worshippers were gunned down at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. And federal anti-profiling guidance still allows for racial and ethnic mapping by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the name of national security, leaving the door open for state and local law enforcement to spy on our communities at mosques, hookah bars, restaurants and cricket matches, as the New York Police Department has been doing for years.
In my classes, students learn community histories, and we discuss what could happen if our national narratives, history books and media reports were more inclusive and representative. If they were, public discourse might become more critical of the continuing role of government and law enforcement in criminalizing communities of color and immigrants 14 years after entire ethnic and faith groups were scapegoated for the horrific acts of a group of extremists. We’d be better prepared to demand accountability from our government leaders about policy initiatives such as why the Joint Terrorism Taskforces – created in the wake of 9/11 to target and investigate Muslim, South Asian and Arab communities – are now being used to monitor the activities of Black Lives Matters activists.
Our institutions too must be prepared to change. Conservative media outlets and commentators must abandon their framing of Muslim communities as being disloyal and worthy of suspicion in their reporting. Elected officials and candidates must pledge not to mischaracterize South Asian, Muslim and Arab communities as easy targets for political gain, and they must acknowledge their demands related to discriminatory post-9/11 policies. Our schools and colleges must welcome and mandate the inclusion of post-9/11 community histories in textbooks and classrooms. Policy makers must recognize that the government cannot function both as a champion of civil rights and as the promoter of profiling and surveillance.
As we mark 14 years since 9/11, we must make room and space for community memories, narratives, histories and experiences in our classrooms, congressional halls, community centers and living rooms so that we can transform post-9/11 America from a nation of “us” and “others” to one in which there is a place for all of our communities.