The closing weeks of the year 2012 did settle the debate about the Mayan calendar and the end of the world. Thankfully we are all still here. But the year also ended on a very troubling note in both South-Asia and within its diaspora here in the United States.
We have held vigils and demonstrations for Jyoti Singh who was gang-raped (and murdered) in Delhi, and for the female workers in Karachi shot dead for trying to help in the battle against polio, and the atrocity committed against the Shia Hazaras in Quetta, Pakistan.
But this article is centered around events closer to home right here in our United States and how our reactions frame the way we handle ethnic stereotypes.
The shooting last August at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, which killed six people of the Sikh faith was troubling enough but 2012 closed on another grim note for our community when on December 27, a native of India, Sunando Sen, was pushed to his death on to the rail tracks of the New York subway by one Erika Menendez, who later explained her actions with these words: “I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001 when they took down the twin towers. I’ve been beating them up.”
Mental illness might be the likely cause of homicide here but this tragedy could not have materialized without the imagery associated with 9/11/2001 itself.
One can argue that only time will heal all wounds. Our nation was certainly attacked by a vicious and murderous group of people close to 20 in number whose active support group may run into a few thousand worldwide. That they quite incorrectly claimed to represent over a billion people of the Islamic faith is a topic for another day but the images that we have seen on and of that day (of the WTC towers falling in New York) have become etched in our minds.
Like the rest of America, we South-Asians were horrified at what we saw and heard on 9/11. Soon after, a tall individual with brown skin and wearing something resembling a turban on his head was identified as the man behind the worst attack that the United States has had to face since Pearl Harbor. Understandably, Americans of all colors, races, ethnicities and origins were mad as hell. We wanted an enemy. And South-Asians, especially members of the Sikhs faith fit the description of the villain because Sikhs are brown skinned, often tall, and are required by religious convention to wear a turban, to conceal their long uncut hair within it.
It has now been over a decade since 9/11 and Osama bin Laden is dead. In America, an era usually ends after a movie is made on it. The movie Zero Dark Thirty about the hunt, capture and killing of Osama bin Laden is out on the silver screen now. Once again what was “overlooked” in this film was the cooperation provided by some of our people in finally locating him.
Today, why are we South-Asians in America still paying the price for something that we had no part in?
That was one question amongst others that was on the minds of people who attended a vigil on August 10 in Sacramento at the California State Capitol, after the deadly attack on a Sikh place of worship in Wisconsin.
At that vigil, local attorney and activist Amar Shergill from the Sikh American Political Action Committee, while addressing the participants, said that when his relatives who lived in Wisconsin asked some in the neighborhood what was going on because they were prevented by police from entering their gurdwara, the neighbor said that “there was a shooting at the mosque. Imagine. That is a neighbor from the community who thinks that he/she lives next to a mosque!”
Nobody is asking our government in Washington that it should let its guard down when dealing with terrorism. But more than eleven years have passed since 9/11 and desis are still being attacked. Our outreach work has not been as effective as we would like it to be. What we need now is assistance from our elected representatives and the Obama administration, to help us deal with hate crimes. The mainstream media in this country has not done enough to spread this message. Our collective liberties as American citizens have also been impacted. We need to be heard and for that we have to come out of our cocoons. .
Not everyone can sift through the news over time and conclude that the person taking an order at a fast food joint, at a gas station cash register, the doctor or engineer at work or just one of our senior citizens walking down the street with a brown complexion is not the enemy. Some South-Asians in this country are rich and immensely successful. But that high achievement has still not translated into a change of perception and we are still foreigners who can easily become targets of anyone who hates us because of the way we look.
In another bizarre case, during the first week of December 2012, an altercation took place at another New York subway station which claimed the life of a 58 year old Asian-American, Ki Suk Han. During this sordid episode Han was pushed onto the rail tracks allegedly by one Naeem Davis a homeless possibly bi-polar 30-year-old man. Both alcohol and drugs may have been involved in this incident, one which has attracted attention and acquired notoriety because it was photographed in a gruesome closeup by a South-Asian and the pictures were subsequently published in The New York Post newspaper. One cannot think of too many places in the world besides America where an immigrant from Korea is pushed to his death by an immigrant from Sierra Leone in a subway station while being photographed by a free-lance photographer originally from Pakistan. (The ethics of the photographer R. Umar Abbasi has come under question. It was a most chilling example of exploitative behavior.)
South-Asians can no longer remain mere spectators. Voyeurism is a luxury we can no longer afford in America. We have to remain collectively alert to details which we may have considered too small to attract our attention earlier. We also need more desis in law enforcement and the media. Till the number goes up in a significant way we must establish close links with all branches of the security apparatus in this country.
If we Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis etc.look in the mirror we are looking at our first calling card to any possible bigot or potential perpetrator of hate crimes—our brown faces.
Whatever may happen politically “back home” between our countries of origin (or between them and our adopted country), it should not divide us here in the United States. We have to remain more united than ever before.
Our karma in post 9/11 America is tied to our skin color!
Ras Siddiqui is a South Asian writer and journalist based in Sacramento.