The phone was ringing when I got home. It was my sister from Bangladesh. My heart skipped a beat. My mother had been in poor health recently and I dreaded any call from the old world, a permanent part of the immigrant’s paranoia. But her concern was about me! “What’s going on in America?” she asked, her voice trembling with concern. “What do you mean?” I asked, as I turned on the TV. And then it was, “Oh, my God!”
September 11, 2001.
As I write these lines, America and Britain have begun their first phase of attack on Afghanistan, twenty-five days after fanatics attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It took painstaking negotiations to establish a coalition that included Muslim nations in the region, including countries such as Pakistan with whom Unites States has had an up and down relationship. But September 11 changed all that. Fighting global terrorism meant new and urgent alliances and the US tried to put together as broad a coalition as it could.
All Bangladeshis I talked to were uniformly horrified by what happened on September 11. As hard-working professionals raising families in Silicon Valley, they were doubly outraged that so-called Muslims committed the atrocities. “I was worried, to tell you the truth” one engineer told me. “My neighbors know I am a Muslim, my co-workers know I am a Muslim. I didn’t know how people were going to react toward me.”
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, there were reports of backlashes against Muslims in general and Arab-Americans in particular but most Bangladeshis agreed that the government handled the situation with care and sensitivity. “I was really relieved that the President and the attorney-general and the law-enforcement agencies made it clear no hate crime will be tolerated,” a marketing manager told me. “I was particularly pleased that Secretary of State Colin Powell said religious adjectives should be removed from descriptions of terrorists.” Some Bangladeshis with beards reported receiving “looks” and being heckled, but overall, there was no glaring abuse.
Many Bangladeshis participated in the “Hour of Remembrance and Prayer” programs held at mosques in San Jose and Santa Clara to pray for the more than 6000 innocent Americans of all faiths who had perished at the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon. Joining the Muslims were Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh clerics who spoke movingly of the danger of hate crimes and reflected on how diversity had enriched America. A Bangladeshi housewife remarked after such a gathering, “This is what makes America great.”
But a sense of the greatness of America was tempered by a sense of the injustices wrought by past American policies. While Bangladeshis praised Americans and the media for their rejection of stereotyping, many felt that the attack was a wake-up call and that America had to begin addressing the root causes of terrorism. Their feelings can be summarized as follows: American foreign policy must be revised. The United States has to use its influence to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian people have a right to a homeland of their own. It is not a question of religion but of right. The people of the United States are supportive of the Palestinians’ right to a homeland. Unfortunately the government has lagged behind its people in recognizing this truth. The Palestinians have suffered too much and for too long. Israel has received unquestioned and unqualified support form the United States. Especially after September 11, it is critical that America injects justice into the Israeli-Palestinian equation, in accordance with the United Nations resolutions. When Palestinians are fully autonomous and can coexist in peace with the Israelis, only then will the threat of global terrorism be minimized or eliminated.
Without exception, everyone I talked to expressed outrage at the terrible condition of women in Afghanistan and the way they were being systematically murdered and brutalized by the Taliban. “I don’t know where they learned their Islam!” a devout Bangladeshi Muslim wanted to know. “Theirs is certainly not the Islam I practice!” He also wondered whether it was the Taliban who controlled Bin laden or whether it was Bin Laden and his followers who controlled the Taliban.
What comes after Bin laden and the Taliban? This was also a question that weighed heavily on the minds of Bangladeshis. If America makes the same mistake of withdrawing as it did when Afghanistan defeated the Soviet Union, other extremist groups would fill the vacuum. Most Bangladeshis felt that a moderate government representative of the myriad ethnic groups of Afghanistan had the best chance for peace in that country. “I think America has learned its lesson,” a program manager told me. “I cannot imagine them leaving this time without creating a stable infrastructure in Afghanistan.” Everyone I spoke to hoped for a quick end to the war with a victory by the coalition forces and freedom and basic amenities of life ensured for the people of Afghanistan.
In the midst of this, Bangladeshis were distracted by the national election held in Bangladesh on October 1. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by Khaleda Zia, trounced Awami League (AL), the ruling party led by Sheikh Hasina. For about 48 hours, news of the election replaced news associated with the “attack on America.” But when American and British bombers began their assault on Kabul and Kandahar on October 6, the fight against terrorism took center stage.
Which brings me to poetry. Yes, poetry. Responding in anguish to the outbreak of the Second World War, the poet W. H. Auden, living in New York at the time, wrote a poem called “September 1, 1939.” Set in Manhattan, it contains the lines: “Waves of anger and fear/Circulate over the bright/ And darkened lands of the earth,/Obsessing our private lives;/The unmentionable odour of death/Offends the September night.” The mood is melancholy but the poem ends with these lines:
“Yet, dotted everywhere,/Ironic points of light/Flash out wherever the Just/Exchange their messages:/May I, composed like them/Of Eros and of dust/Beleaguered by the same/Negation and despair,/Show an affirming flame.”
Like other Americans, Bangladeshis have also rejected negation and despair and have responded with an affirming flame to the attack on America sixty-two years after Auden wrote his poem. They hope and pray that this flame will burn bright and long until the cancer of terrorism is eliminated from the world and peace and justice is achieved for all.