At a loss

When I arrived back to my apartment late on Tuesday night, the eleventh anniversary of September 11, 2001, I opened my laptop to find a burning, bright orange image of a man stoking fire and a New York Times headline reading, “Anger Over a Film Fuels Anti-American Attacks in Libya and Egypt.”

As I read on about the violent demonstrations in Cairo and in Benghazi, and as I watched the offensive, bigoted video that apparently sparked these riots, my stomach began to drop.

I was at a loss for words, didn’t know what to say or even think.

How could this be happening? And why the hell was it happening on September 11th?  And what can I do that will ever, in some way, pull us out of this cycle of bigotry and violence?

Over the past week, as I’ve thought about how to comment on these unraveling events and answer these questions, no clear explanation or response has been easy to find.  Instead, I keep coming back to the place I was just before I opened my laptop to discover this terrible news—in Copley Crypt Chapel at Georgetown.

“I wish you didn’t…” said the Jesuit priest who was giving the homily at the nightly 10pm Mass.  About thirty of us, mostly students, were seated in a semi-circle in the small, arched space, where faint gold light rests on the curved walls.  The stained glass windows, depicting the martyrdoms of North American Jesuits like Jean de Brebeuf, let in only darkness from outside.

“I wish you didn’t live in this time, this era, where things are so hard and unclear. I wish you were graduating at a time like the one when I did—when walls were falling down and a man was released from jail to lead his country.” Our priest graduated from Georgetown in the nineties, optimistic that the Cold War had ended and that Nelson Mandela was free.  Things seemed to be looking up—and then 9/11 happened.

“But you are living in this new, troubled world.  And our world needs you.”  He was crying, and I began to cry, too.  On the anniversary of 9/11, I’m always reminded how much my life, my passions, and my career have been shaped by that event and what’s happened after.

Our priest then spoke of the group of us gathered there for Mass, about the difference we must make.

And it was then that I became completely overwhelmed by the good that will be done (and is already being done) by the thirty-some people sitting with me.  To my right and left sat two of my closest friends, who have dedicated their lives to address two of our generation’s most pressing issues: migration and climate change.  I thought of others in the room, and my friends who weren’t there, who are going into education and business, medicine and healthcare, just to name a few.  My eyes welled over not just with amazement at my friends’ love and self-sacrifice, but also with a heavy sadness at the challenges we face and the suffering experienced by those with whom we walk in solidarity.

The priest concluded his homily, explaining why we come to Mass.  He said that it’s not inside the academic buildings on campus where we can be transformed to make the difference our world needs.

“It’s right here, with Jesus,” he said.

The crucifix in Copley Crypt Chapel at Georgetown.

I’ve come to learn that becoming closer to God doesn’t mean becoming happier or even more at peace.  It means coming face-to-face with, and even entering, suffering.  Jesus was at his best on the cross, and in order for me to be a better, more loving human, I have to meet him there, both in nightly Mass and in the work I do during the other 23 hours of my day.

The loving Catholic community and the time of prayer that helps orient me toward a more Cross-centered life are the reasons I continue going to nightly Mass at Georgetown.  But I wouldn’t even be there in the first place were it not for the group of believers on the other side of the chapel wall—the Georgetown Muslim community.  While the Catholics are participating in the nightly 10pm Mass, the Muslim students are completing their nightly 10pm isha prayer in the musallah next door. Over the past three years, I’ve witnessed my Muslim friends’ devotion to prayer, and it’s made me want to have the same commitment to my own prayer life. That’s why I decided to become more active in my own Catholic community, and to make nightly Mass a regular part of my day during my senior year.

As I sort through and begin writing about these confusing, troubling “eleventh anniversary” events, which mark a new low in the downward spiral of Muslim-Christian tensions, I remember the good that will be done by those on both sides of the chapel wall, and the support we will provide one another as we take up our crosses.

When it seems that violence and bigotry will win out, the passionate commitment of these Catholic and Muslim communities remind me of the quiet, Arabic words that echo from the musallah into the chapel every evening: God is greater.

Trends we can’t ignore: 4) The threat of white supremacist hate groups

The recent terrorist attack on the Sikh gurdwara was committed by Wade Page, a white supremacist and member of the hate group, Hammerskin Nation.

The attack highlights the threat of white supremacist hate groups, a threat that has been consciously sidelined by the federal government, whose leaders are cowing to political pressure.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks hate groups and hate crime in America,

Since 2000, the number of hate groups has increased by 69 percent. This surge has been fueled by anger and fear over the nation’s ailing economy, an influx of non-white immigrants, and the diminishing white majority, as symbolized by the election of the nation’s first African-American president.

Currently, there are 1,018 known hate groups operating across the country.

They also highlight the “resurgence of the antigovernment ‘Patriot’ movement,” which was responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing and the other domestic terror plots in the 1990s.  “The number of Patriot groups, including armed militias, grew by 755 percent in the first three years of the Obama administration – from 149 at the end of 2008 to 1,274 in 2011.”

In the past few years, groups that are specifically “anti-Muslim” have also emerged.

These are frightening statistics, and one might wonder why we haven’t heard more about them.

On a recent episode of the Diane Rehm Show, Michael Greenberger of the University of Maryland Carey School of Law explains why.

In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report which said the greatest threat, in terms of domestic terrorism, was the growth of these white supremacist groups that is the greatest threat to stability within the United States. And it was an analytical framework of how the department and other law enforcement agencies should focus on these white supremacist groups, militia groups and hate groups. When it was issued, there was an uproar from the conservative community.

… And House Majority leader John Boehner, House minority leader at the time, now speaker, said the Department of Homeland Security owes the American people an explanation for why they have abandoned the term terrorist to describe those such as al-Qaida, who are plotting overseas to kill Americans, while our own department is using the same term to describe American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking. In fact, faced with the siege of criticism, the secretary [Janet Napolitano] withdrew the report—it actually had been published—and she apologized.

… And so there is a debate right now about the analytical force of the Department of Homeland Security. There’s a lot of information that they dropped from six analysts who were looking at this problem there to one analyst. Now, I saw yesterday at the department challenges that fact, but, nevertheless, it’s in the year that this has not been a priority.”

Because of political pressure, the federal government is intentionally ignoring issues of real security. This is unacceptable and puts all Americans—and especially minorities like Muslims and Sikhs—in danger.  The federal government must not cow to pressures from right-wing extremists, whose anti-Muslim and anti-minority rhetoric protects and legitimizes white supremacist hate.

I’ll end this post and this series on “trends we can’t ignore” with the following quote from a Huffington Post article written by Riddhi Shah in response to the terrorist attack on the Sikh gurdwara: 

Today, if we don’t ask why a small religious community in the Midwest was targeted by a 40-year-old white man, if we don’t make this discussion as loud and robust as the one that followed the attack on Gabby Giffords or on those young people in Aurora, we’re in danger of undermining what America stands for.

This series is a call to attention and awareness, a plea for a national dialogue about issues that have been ignored for far too long.

 

Note: The Norwegian terrorist who went on a politically-motivated and Islamophobic killing spree in Oslo last summer recently received his sentence–at least 22 years in prison (it should be much longer, and likely will be.)  Read Nathan Lean’s important commentary on the portrayal of the attack and the threat of white supremacist hate: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-lean-breivik-hate-groups-u.s.-20120826,0,7942204.story

Trends we can’t ignore: 3) The recent rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes

My last post discussed post-9/11 hate crimes against American Sikhs, many of whom were targeted because they were thought to be Muslim.  It’s no surprise, then, that American Muslims too have experienced a wave of hate crimes directed at their own community.

The remains of a mosque in Joplin, Missouri that was destroyed by hate-motivated arson.

In the year after September 11, anti-Muslim hate crimes rose by a staggering 1,600 percent.  While they decreased and remained fairly low (but still disconcerting) between 2002 and 2009, they rose by a sharp 50% in 2010 (160 reported crimes up from 107.)

Sadly, the FBI statistics are almost certainly a low estimate of the total crimes, because many go unreported or unprosecuted.  Working in an Islamic civil rights and advocacy organization last summer, I combed through pages and pages of bias incident reports and read countless articles from small, local news outlets reporting on incidents ranging from vandalism, to threatening notes, to bullying in schools.

Some may find a jump in anti-Muslim crime in 2010, almost a full decade after September 11, puzzling. But it actually makes perfect sense. 2010 was “a year marked by the incendiary rhetoric of Islam-bashing politicians and activists, especially over the so-called ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ in New York City.”

This rhetoric hasn’t let up since 2010, a point I won’t elaborate on more here because I’ve written extensively on it before.  (See “Sharia: A Fabricated Threat,” “Thoughts on King’s ‘radicalization’ hearings,” and “The Oslo Opportunity: Parts 3 and 4.” If interested in reading a paper on anti-Muslim discourse that I wrote for a course at Georgetown, I’m happy to send it to you.)

As community members fought the construction of a new mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee using hateful rhetoric about Muslims, the site was vandalized and the construction equipment set on fire. The mosque finally opened a few weeks ago, after years of setback due to the Islamophobic campaign. (CNN did a good piece on this last year.)

Though statistics on anti-Muslim hate crimes for 2011 and 2012 are not yet available, the dozens and dozens of individual cases I’ve read about over the past two years indicate that the numbers will likely be just as grim as they were in 2010.

After the attack on the Sikh gurdwara on August 5th, a shooting likely motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment, anti-Muslim bias attacks skyrocketed. Over the course of eight days, 11 major attacks were reported across the country.  Mosques were sprayed with paint balls and rubber bullets, hit with lemons, eggs, and pigs’ legs.  The home of a Muslim family, and a mosque, were fire-bombed with Molotov cocktails.  The grave of a prominent Arab leader was desecrated with the words “raghaed” (sic) and “killer, and the headstones of other Muslims were also graffitied.  And a mosque in Joplin, Miss. was burned to the ground (and this was the second time in about a month it had been targeted in arson.)  And these are only incidents that have occurred in the last few weeks.

One of the many desecrated headstones in Chicago 

cemeteryDid perpetrators have some sort of sick notion that the success of one attack (in Wisconsin) legitimized more? Who knows.  Was the spike in attacks intentional, given that they occurred during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan? Maybe.

Quoted in a Salon article, Ahmad Rehab of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Chicago asks:

How long are we going to go pretending like there is no relationship between this acquiescence of hatred and politics and the inclination of violence on the ground? …You cannot demonize a community and then be surprised when they’re under attack.

Many of the aforementioned attacks took place in Illinois, shortly after a notoriously Islamophobic congressman, Joe Walsh, alleged at a town hall meeting:

that “radical Islam” had made a home in the suburbs of Chicago; that “it’s in Elk Grove, it’s in Addison, it’s in Elgin. It’s here”; and that radical Muslims are “trying to kill Americans every week.” Walsh’s warnings were met with applause. (Salon)

Sadly, Walsh is only one of many politicians, media personalities, and “activists” spewing this crap.  In many parts of America and in many sectors of the media, this kind of talk is mainstream and goes unchallenged.

But this wave of attacks—this trend sparked by “acceptable” anti-Muslim rhetoric—hardly ever gets media attention outside of local community where it takes place.  It’s a national problem that isn’t being treated as such.

Though it received attention among Muslim activists and some interfaith leaders, the arson at the mosque in Joplin, Miss. was not covered like the Sikh tragedy was.  Most Americans were probably unaware of it.  True, no one died as a result of the arson.  But it is one frightening example of anti-Muslim hate that, like the Sikh shooting, must be treated as an opportunity to illuminate and address the roots and implications of racism and xenophobia in our country.  I wish more human rights and faith organizations had stepped up, like they did with the shooting at the Sikh gurdwara, issuing press statements about the mosque attack (and this trend of hate crimes I’ve discussed,) not only to rightfully condemn it, but also to push the issue into the national spotlight.

In a New York Times op-ed entitled, “If the Sikh temple had been a mosque,” Samuel Freedman writes about how anti-Muslim hate is (disturbingly) more expected—and maybe even more acceptable—to many Americans.

The mistaken-identity narrative carries with it an unspoken, even unexamined premise. It implies that somehow the public would have — even should have — reacted differently had Mr. Page turned his gun on Muslims attending a mosque. It suggests that such a crime would be more explicable, more easily rationalized, less worthy of moral outrage.

“Islamophobia has become so mainstream in this country that Americans have been trained to expect violence against Muslims — not excuse it, but expect it,” said Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American writer and scholar on religion. “And that’s happened because you have an Islamophobia industry in this country devoted to making Americans think there’s an enemy within.”

Convinced by the media that Muslims are violent and threatening, some white Americans may see threats and violence committed against Muslims as a logical response.

A sad and sick example of this logic was illustrated by someone who commented on one of my YouTube videos.  Calling Muslims “scum” and claiming that “one day we will be throwing their muslim (sic) butts out of America,” he told me to stop “betraying” my “own people and country.”  I visited his YouTube account, where I found his public list of his “Favorite” videos.  One of them was called “Top ten mosques to bomb.”  It showed photos of large, beautiful mosques around the world, and then a big mushroom cloud would appear in their places. This man was advocating violence against Muslims, so (wrongly) convinced that they were a danger to him.  This man had become the barbarian that he claimed to be fighting.

The trend of rising anti-Muslim hate crimes in America is one that can’t be ignored.  When the public sees the concrete (and horrific) effects of anti-Muslim rhetoric, the Islamophobic language that is so mainstream will become quickly become unacceptable.

Tomorrow’s post, the final in the series, will discuss the threat of white supremacist hate groups in America.

Trends we can’t ignore: 2) Anti-Sikh hate crimes

In my last post, I discussed the problem of religious illiteracy in America. One sad result of this illiteracy is the wave of hate crimes against Sikh Americans in the wake of September 11.

Valerie Kaur, an activist and film-maker who has documented hate crimes against Sikhs in post 9/11-America, writes that “Sikh men with turbans have been most affected by post 9/11 hate crimes”:

Post September 11 backlash violence has been primarily directed at those perceived to resemble the enemy – a turbaned and bearded Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda leader. Nearly all people who wear turbans in the United States are Sikh, members of the world’s fifth largest religion who trace their heritage to the Punjab region of India. On September 15, 2001 in Mesa, Arizona, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man, became the first person murdered in the hate epidemic. Out of the estimated nineteen people murdered in the immediate aftermath, four were turbaned Sikh men.

Other cases of violence against Sikhs include arson, harassment, beatings, forced haircutting, and vandalism. In many cases, the attackers made their ignorant, anti-Muslim intentions known. Before beating a Sikh man to death in Los Angeles in 2001, the attackers shouted, “We’ll kill bin Laden today.”

Despite the trauma that the Sikh American community has undergone because of these hate crimes, the federal government does not keep statistics on anti-Sikh hate crimes. The FBI simply includes them in anti-Muslims hate crime statistics.

In a Washington Post commentary, Kaur argues that not keeping separate statistics for Sikhs is “wrong and dangerous.” Hate crimes against Sikhs, she says, shouldn’t always be simply seen as a “case of mistaken identity.” Though in many cases it has been proved that crimes occurred under the premise that Sikhs were Muslim or Arab, Sikhs are attacked for simply being different, for not fitting into the (false) homogenous picture of America that some fearful whites cling to. Kaur:

I believe it would not have mattered much to Wade Michael Page [the Oak Creek terrorist] if he knew that the people he killed were Sikh rather than Muslim. From what we have gathered so far, Page is just like others who have targeted Sikhs in hate violence: they see people with dark skin, beards, and turbans as the enemy.

No matter if specific anti-Muslim sentiment or more general xenophobia drive hate crimes against them, “Sikhs deserve the dignity of being a statistic.” If we can’t even grant them something so simple and small—documenting hate crimes against them—how can we ever begin to take the next and most important step: acknowledging and honoring Sikh’s dignity as human beings.

Tomorrow’s post will discuss the recent rise in hate crimes against Muslims.

Trends we can’t ignore: 1) Americans’ religious illiteracy

In recent years, numerous polls and reports have illustrated Americans’ ignorance about the basics of minority religions.  But the media’s coverage of the terrorist attack at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisc. showed us just how religiously illiterate Americans are.

During their breaking news coverage of the attack, CNN anchors, clueless about the Sikh faith and lacking sufficient sources, were relegated to fumbling through the Wikipedia page in describing the religion’s basic tenets.  According to a Philadelphia Inquirer commentary on the attack,

One Fox anchor asked a witness whether there had been previous acts of “anti-Semitism.” A Fox local report claimed Sikhs are “based in northern Italy.” And the host of CNN Newsroom, Don Lemon, struggled with the “murky detail” of whether Sikhs are Hindus, Muslims, or a different sect altogether; he later postulated that the killer “could be someone who has beef with the Sikhs.”

Heck, I don’t know details about the Sikh faith either—something I’m not proud of.  Before the attack, I knew the religion originated in India and I could identify turban-wearing men as Sikh believers, but I couldn’t confidently claim to know anything more about it.  I remember seeing a portrait of the founder on the mantle of the Sikh family in the movie, Bend It Like Beckham, but I couldn’t tell you his name, when he lived, or how many Sikhs currently practice the faith throughout the world.  I remember being uncomfortable with the portrayal of the Sikh family in the film (it was your stereotypical, Orientalist depiction of overly-strict South Asian parents with thick accents) and yet I was just as ignorant (if not more) than the moviemakers.

Most Americans don’t know Sikhs either.  They make up only .16% of the American population.  I only know one personally—a prominent interfaith leader in Indianapolis.

In order to fill the massive gap in Americans’ illiteracy about the Sikh faith, many news outlets, like The Huffington Post, have attempted to provide resources about the religion to educate American citizens.  Organizations like the NPR-affiliated Story Corp used the attack as an opportunity to share the stories of Sikhs, so other Americans can, in some way, get to know them.

But the media is in even greater need of resources about religion. Both major networks like CNN and small, local papers should have had materials about the Sikh faith—and all religions for that matter—at the ready.  That preparedness should be common sense in an era when everything from Chick-Fil-A to terrorism seems tied to religion.  Reporters and news anchors, who shape our understanding of faith-related issues subtly and over a period of time through their coverage, critically need a better understanding of religion.

When the media—and major politicians like Mitt Romney, who referred to Sikhs as “sheiks”* in his comments about the attack—demonstrate their own ignorance about religion, it legitimizes the American public’s religious illiteracy.

The assertion made in the following comment, which was shared by an anonymous commenter on the CNN website, was recycled throughout the media’s coverage of the attack:

“Sikh people… can be easily mistaken for Muslim or Taliban.”

The key phrase is “can be easily mistaken for.” It’s saying, “it’s ok to confuse Sikhs with Muslims and with the Taliban, because we don’t really know the difference either.  A turban is a turban, right?” Note: Many (maybe, most) Muslim men don’t wear turbans, and the Taliban wear ones distinct from Sikhs.  But do most Americans recognize this? No.  And do many Americans conflate Muslims and the Taliban?  Sadly, yes.

Click here to see different styles of Sikh turban wrapping.

The media coverage of the attack also implicitly argued that Muslims and their religion are more prone to violence.  The common way anchors distinguished between Muslims and Sikhs was by saying something to the effect of, “Sikhs are not Muslims.  The Sikh faith is one of peace.”  This “distinction” implied that Islam is a religion of violence.

The attack and its coverage showed us that ignorance about religion leads us to buy into untruths, and also reaffirms our misguided beliefs about minority religions like Islam.

Religious literacy is lacking in American society, and it is critical that we as a country make an effort to improve it among the young and old, if we hope to end the violence and mistreatment experienced by all people of faith. 

Tomorrow’s post will discuss hate crimes again Sikhs in America.

*Romney used the world “sheik” when referring to the Sikh people. The word “sheik” (pronounced “shake”) does not exist, but it sounds like the English pronunciation of an Arabic word, “sheikh,” which means a learned person and is often used to describe Islamic scholars. Though the Arabic word ends in a hard “h” sound, as denoted by the “kh,” it is commonly pronounced with a “k” sound (“shake.”) Romney’s slip, therefore, points to his ignorance about religion, and also conflates Muslims (whose religious scholars are called “sheikhs”) with Sikhs.