I grew up in New Jersey, in a commuter town for New York City. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 hit us hard, ripping away many of our neighbors from our community. Many in our small town in liberal New Jersey turned to a reflexive Islamophobia in the months and years following September 2001. Brown, young, and insecure, I joined them. I feared being perceived as Muslim. I feared the consequences of the post-9/11 ignorance that lumped all the dark-skinned children of Asian immigrants together into one frightening Other, even in this cosmopolitan suburb of America’s biggest city. My response to bullying was simple but incomplete-“I’m not Muslim”-without ever including a challenge to their hateful words themselves.
Today, I wish I could have rewritten that response. I didn’t know better. I should have instead said, “I’m not Muslim-and even if I were, nobody should be hated for their religion.” I wish I had had someone tell me at the time that it was counterproductive, short-sighted and cruel to try to assert my Americanness and Hindu cultural identity by deflecting prejudice onto another minority group-or even sometimes by joining in their bigotry. I don’t blame teenaged me for failing to see the bigger picture: I was just trying to make it through high school. Now, however, as an adult-a dark-skinned, bearded man sometimes perceived as Muslim-I understand more fully my responsibility to combat not only the ignorance underlying the hatred but also the hatred itself.
I too often see my fellow non-Muslim Indian-Americans respond to bigotry the same way I used to: by rightfully distinguishing their Sikh, Hindu, or Jain faith from Islam, but without ever challenging the Islamophobia underlying the bully’s rhetoric. But we can’t give anti-Muslim bigotry a free pass in the name of defending ourselves from ignorant hatred. Islamophobic attacks against turbaned Sikh men, for example-far too common in this country-are not just wrong because Sikhs aren’t Muslim, but also because no innocent person should be subjected to violence regardless of his religion. Anti-Muslim vandalism on Hindu temples is not just wrong because Hinduism isn’t Islam, but also because it’s cruel and hateful to vandalize a place of worship regardless of the religion. We shouldn’t implicitly condone prejudice against our Muslim countrymen by failing to always follow our “I’m not Muslim” with an “even if I were, violence, bigotry and hatred are always wrong.” As President Obama and President Bush have reminded us, Muslims are our neighbors, our doctors, our shopkeepers, our coworkers, our classmates and our friends-just as they were our parents’ and grandparents’ neighbors, doctors, shopkeepers, coworkers, classmates and friends in their homeland. And if we deflect bigots’ hatred on to Muslims-or worse, join in-we risk further amplifying a blinding ignorance that endangers all American immigrant and minority communities, Muslim or not.
It’s also important to stand up for what’s right. We must embrace our shared humanity by challenging bigotry. The shrill anti-Muslim demagoguery of people like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and their supporters should enrage us for inciting fear against immigrants and the children of immigrants who are just like us. Our parents and grandparents were drawn to America by the possibility of meritocratic advancement. All prejudice-including the bigotry du jour against Muslims and Hispanic immigrants-undermines their dream for us. It fractures our society. It makes it harder for our and other immigrant communities to succeed. More deeply, however, American Islamophobia against ordinary Muslim Americans should worry us for inciting violence and hatred toward our fellow human beings. Hindu, Sikh, and Jain scriptures call us to compassion and service toward others in combating injustice. Basic universal human values, too, call us to uphold social justice regardless of religion. Condoning prejudice against Muslims, whether implicitly or explicitly, is a betrayal of those values.
Indian-Americans bear a uniquely urgent responsibility to speak out against anti-Muslim bigotry not just because we are likely to be perceived as Muslim. Many of us come from the same cultures: we eat similar food, we wear similar clothes, and we put up with the same immigrant parents. But even though our parents’ homeland is hyperdiverse in religion, but today’s politically polarized India is no shining exemplar of tolerance. Some of the rhetoric peddled by influential right-wing Indian firebrands vilify and alienate their Muslim countrymen in ways that are far viler than anything from America’s politicians. Indian-Americans, however, should roundly reject that genre of bigotry even if we hear it repeated at home from our elders, by recognizing that nearly all Muslims in this country are just like us: immigrants or the children of immigrants who are concerned foremost about our successes, our failures, giving back to our communities, and all of the other mundane details of ordinary American family life. We as Americans bear a responsibility to foster social justice and fairness in America, not to import the hang-ups of our parents’ homeland.
I can’t rewrite what I said when I was younger-but I can now challenge and encourage others to stand up against injustice and bigotry, including Islamophobia. It’s in our interest for all of us to fight for an America that is increasingly tolerant and diverse-not just because it’s good for our individual communities, but because it is right.
Author Bio: Sandeep Prasanna is currently a Legal Fellow at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights in Washington, DC, where he works on applying international human rights law to domestic issues, like police brutality. He holds a JD from the UCLA School of Law, an MPP from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, and a BA from Duke University. He has worked in Johannesburg, South Africa; The Hague, Netherlands; Geneva, Switzerland; Bangalore, India; and South Kivu, DR Congo. He previously wrote weekly for The Economist on language politics and linguistics under the byline SAP.