Share Your Thoughts

September 11, 2001. The world, we are told ad nauseum, will never be the same again. Does it mean we will never carve a Thanksgiving turkey again or go to a Macy’s sale? I don’t think so. Does it mean we will never board an Air India jet to visit families in Mumbai or Dhaka? I don’t think so. I will not forget those horrendous images on television. But I cannot comprehend the death of 5,000 as well as I can comprehend the death of one. I will never be the same again as I was before the death of my father. That loss was palpable, tangible to me.

What I have lost in the explosions of 9-11 is something much more ineffable—a sense of certainty. Certainty that America was safe even as its embassies in Africa were bombed. Certainty about right and wrong. About who was America’s friend and who was its enemy. And how I related to it—my adopted country.

President Bush wants to restore that certainty. If you are not with us, you are against us—he reminds us. He tries to bring back the neat lines in the sand that we can all use to position ourselves. He has to bring back the certainty that is spine of a superpower. That is why in the days after 9-11 everyone was expected to rally behind one President, one flag, one definition of good and evil. The posters said America—United We Stand. But coming from a part of the world, as fractious and fractured as South Asia, I find it hard to accept one truth, one point of view, one doctrine of good and evil, one anything.

That is why in this issue we have different voices all looking at the aftermath of that one dark morning in September. The hope is not to present a complete picture or even a representative one. The aim is just to make sure we do not present only one.—

Sandip Roy-Chowdhury

Waving the Flag


The President has said we’re supposed to go back to business as usual. I don’t think so. I think we need to stop business as usual and talk. I think the government is limited to tunnel-visionaries and the media seems to think we can’t handle complexity. We need to talk around both the government and the media because right now it needs to all hang out. There is no other approach to complexity but richer and deeper discussion.

I think democracy works when we show solidarity in our support for the democratic process and practically nowhere else. Democracy cannot work when we let the media tell us what our opinions are. “War powers acts” that curtail civil liberties in times of crisis may sometimes be necessary. But a democracy, if it is going to remain a democracy, needs to supplement such moves with increased vigilance and discussion. Bring out the guns if you’re going to, but bring out the people who believe the emperor has no clothes as well.

I spend my days in academia, a world politicians and other “doers” routinely sneer at because academics can so easily lose themselves in endless discussion. But the art of life has to include knowing when to act and when to stop and think. We’ve now chosen a military response, and will have to live with the consequences. The good news is we took some time to worry about how to separate Muslims from terrorists, Afghan victims of the Taliban from the Taliban, and about the Afghan need for food. But has it worked at all to bring us closer to defusing the hatred that drives terrorism?

It is tempting to tie terrorism to religious zealotry. We see the damage done by Islamic jihad, by the abortion clinic bombers, by the Jewish fundamentalist claims to land in Israel, by idiots like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who blamed the attacks on feminists, abortion rights supporters, homosexuals, and the ACLU. It’s not religion; it’s the absence of thought that’s the problem here.

Fascinated with the kamikaze pilot mentality, one of my students in Japan once offered the view that if he had lived “in those times” he would have thought as “those people” did. I asked him who “those people” were. He answered, “the people who lived in those years.” “You mean like General Tojo?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “Why General Tojo and not Chiune Sugihara?” I asked him. “Sugihara? Who’s that?”

The part of me that is Japanese smarts at moments like that. Sugihara was the Japanese consul to Kaunas, Lithuania in 1940 who with his wife sat down and wrote out some 3,000 travel visas by hand for Jews fleeing the Nazis even though the Foreign Office in Tokyo told him not to. “Why do you suppose you are so quick to think of General Tojo and not Chiune Sugihara when you think of those people in those days?” I asked this kid. He didn’t even understand my question.

In 1972 I asked some officials of the Japanese Ministry of Education, “Why don’t Japanese young people know about Nanking or the bombing of Singapore?” “Because in Japan,” one of them answered, “we value harmony above all, and we are afraid if our young people learn of these things they will lose respect for their elders and there will be chaos.” I recognized it as a rational, if misguided, course of action. The consequences of this lack of discourse are spilling over into Japanese-Korean and Japanese-Chinese relations today. What it did was shut down thought instead of encouraging it.

In the U.S. we have no Ministry of Education to slow down discourse. What we do have, unfortunately, is a penchant for black and white thinking, to reduce complexity to witty-sounding sound bites. But sound bites cannot capture my frustrations as I grapple with complexity. The questions remain. Should Congresswoman Barbara Lee have supported Bush on his war bill? I think not. Should we stop using the term “Islamic terrorists” out of a sense of political correctness? I’m not sure. Should we then call Timothy McVeigh a “Christian terrorist” even though he was not acting in the name of Christ? Should we spend billions on munitions to hunt down bin Laden? I’m afraid not doing so would encourage terrorism. I also fear that doing so is likely to increase terrorism.

If we do study the Middle East more closely, will it help us to stop shooting Indian Sikhs in Arizona? Would respect for diversity trickle down to the thugs anyway? Who does the greater harm here, the morons who lash out at women in headdresses or the boys at the top with the realpolitik Does the fact that Iraqis and Libyans and others have been terrorized by American bombs mean we too are terrorists? Is Henry Kissinger really a war criminal? Does our support of Israel make us responsible for the terrorist attacks? Can I be uncomfortable with belly dancers and women in veils and still respect the Arab world? Can I absorb the paradox that America is responsible for driving people to suicide but that it’s the terrorists and not America responsible for the attacks? Should I buy a flag and hang it from my second-story window? I’d hate to think I could be adding to the war-frenzy, but if there were any left in the stores, I know I’d go out and buy one and figure out what to do with it later.

America is doing itself proud at the moment. Stories are coming in like the one, possibly apocryphal, about the shoe storeowner who went out into the street with sneakers for the women running away from the scene of mayhem in New York in high heels. The people who run to the blood banks trying to give blood faster than the machines can receive it. The suppliers of clean socks for the rescue workers. The heroism of hundreds of police and firefighters. The recognition of these people by Americans who had previously stopped seeing blue-collared people. The announcement by Bush’s press secretary that we should go to our “churches, synagogues, and mosques” and the Imam and the Rabbi walking down the aisle together at the service at National Cathedral in Washington. These are the reasons I wish I could find a flag to wave.

There are good reasons and bad for waving the flag. Some people are waving it because they want to show we’re tough. Others because they want to proclaim we’re superior. I’m out of step with those flag-wavers. I don’t believe America is necessarily a better place to live. I don’t think we’re right more often than the rest of the world. I don’t even think we have more liberty. I have my own reasons for wishing I could find a flag to display. It’s because I think America, when it thinks about it, does a pretty good job with complexity and paradox, dissidence and confusion, and the delicate balance of reason and passion. When America is thinking, it is a marvelous place to be. Not because it is the home of the brave and the land of the free. But because it is such a good home to democracy.

Tragedy Exposes Fault Lines in South Asia

By SANDIP ROY-CHOWDHURY • Pacific News Service

My mother’s voice on the telephone crackled with anxiety. “What is happening? Do you think there will be war?” she asked. “I think you should just come back to India so we can all be together whatever happens.”

“But if something does happen,” I replied, “I don’t know who will be safer—you in India or me in San Francisco.”

“That’s true,” she said after a pause. “I don’t know which is safer anymore.”

We are on opposite sides of the world, but the aftershocks of the American tragedy are rippling out to the Indian subcontinent. We South Asia watchers are nervous, waiting to see how the unfolding events will affect traditional flash points between India and Pakistan, between them and their giant neighbor China, and between Hindus and Muslims within the two countries.

Could the talk of an Islamic holy war or jihad spark more violence between India’s Hindus and Muslims? I vividly remember the bloody riots in 1992-93, sparked by a Hindu mob’s destruction of an old mosque in Ayodhya.

What will happen to relations between India and Pakistan, two nuclear powers that have fought three wars with each other since becoming separate states in 1947? Their standoff over the disputed border state of Kashmir keeps them perennially on the brink of another confrontation.

Looming over it all is China, which has occupied some 40,000 square kilometers of Indian territory since the 1962 Sino-Indian war.

Within India, some extremist Hindus have tried to use Sept. 11 to show that their distrust of Muslims was well founded. Some Muslim leaders have threatened to launch peaceful demonstrations if India assists the U.S. without being furnished with more evidence about who is to blame. Many Hindu leaders are nervous that, in return for Pakistan’s cooperation, the U.S. will pump funds into Pakistan that will eventually be used against India.

The flash point in India-Pakistan relations has always been Kashmir. When I was a child, my family took pleasant vacations to Kashmir all the time. Now it’s virtually a military state, bristling with AK-47s and constant reports of massacres of civilians caught in the crossfire between Indian soldiers and separatist fighters. India, Pakistan, and the Taliban are all entangled there. In 1999, a hijacked Indian airliner was allowed by the Taliban to land in Kandahar, Afghanistan. To free the hostages, the Indian government released three jailed Islamic leaders. The hijackers and the three leaders went to Pakistan, where one of them, Maulana Azhar, told supporters, “I have come here because this is my duty, to tell you that Muslims should not rest in peace until we have destroyed America and India.”

The U.S. now knows that it is a target of Islamic militants not just in Yemen or Saudi Arabia, but at home in New York. Many Hindu leaders say the world may finally take seriously their complaint about being the target of Islamic militia for years.

India sees U.S. attempts to build a global front against terrorism as a window of opportunity to stop the flow of resources to the mujahedeen in Kashmir. India is making “frequent attempts to draw connections between the Pakistani jihadi outfits, the Taliban, and Osama bin Laden,” says Sanjoy Banerjee, a professor of international relations at San Francisco State University. “Their hope is the U.S. will begin to perceive these jihadi outfits as part of the global terror networks, and put pressure on Pakistan to wind them down.”

But U.S. pressure on Pakistan and Afghanistan could actually cause some of the Taliban fighters from Afghanistan to end up in Kashmir.

Whatever strategy the U.S. chooses, both Pakistan and India are feverishly jockeying to establish their places at the table. In his speech to the nation, Pakistan’s military leader General Pervez Musharraf acknowledged that one reason he decided to help Washington was that India had already offered its air bases. The Indian government, anxious to sideline Pakistan, has apparently encouraged the Russians to allow America to use bases in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

No game of India-Pakistan one-upmanship can ignore China. My parents’ generation has never quite recovered from China’s humiliating defeat of India in the 1962 war. Though China has traditionally supported Pakistan, this could be changing. After Sept. 11, Musharraf announced plans to visit Beijing. Then China reportedly asked him not to come. Within a few days, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee announced that India was committed to improving its relationship with China.

Where this apparent Chinese shift toward India will leave the Dalai Lama and the thousands of Tibetan exiles in India is anyone’s guess. But in its efforts to solicit support for its grand alliance, Washington will no doubt be less vociferous about human rights issues, whether in Tibet or in Kashmir.

As I watch life here in America change since Sept. 11, realities in South Asia are changing, too. At the minimum, Operation Enduring Freedom “cannot but strengthen the hands of countries with ongoing conflicts involving Muslims,” according to Kiren Chaudhry, associate professor of political science at University of California, Berkeley.

“There is a strange form of re-territorialization that is taking place here, in which demands for autonomy and devolution of powers in general will come under attack,” said Chaudhry.

“Governments throughout the world now have legitimacy in pursuing groups they define as terrorists. This is not just Kashmir. There are Tamils in Sri Lanka. There are insurgents in the North Eastern states of India.”

My mother’s fears are well founded. Operation Enduring Freedom aims to bring more peace to the world. But it may end up triggering instability in South Asia far more enduring than any freedom it hopes to achieve.

“I don’t know where they learned their Islam!”


I had just dropped my daughter off at school. It was still early, so I thought I would have a relaxed cup of tea at home before heading off to work. A flock of Canada geese were flying south, drawn by the mysterious pull of migration, the slow beating of their wings in stark contrast to the rushing traffic around me. A fleeting thought passed through my mind: Are the geese aware of our mad, driven ways, our desperate attempts at making sense of our lives and give itsome meaning? Driving up the winding road between the brown hills, I lost sight of the birds. Ah, well, I said to myself, thought to be continued …

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, “Oh, my God!”

Sept. 11, 2001.

As I write this, the U.S. and Britain have begun an attack on Afghanistan, 25 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 Pakistan with whom U.S. has had an up and down relationship. But Sept. 11 changed all that. Fighting global terrorism meant new and urgent alliances and the U.S. tried to put together as broad a coalition as it could.

All Bangladeshis I talked to were uniformly horrified by what happened on Sept. 11. As hard-working professionals raising families in Silicon Valley, they were doubly outraged that so-called Muslims committed the atrocities. “I was worried,” 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 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 folks with beards reported receiving “looks” and being heckled, but 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 6,000 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.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. Especially after Sept. 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 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 Oct. 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 Oct. 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, we have also rejected negation and despair and have responded with an affirming flame to the attack on America 62 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.

A Sikh in post 9-11 America


In 1967, I was a six-year-old Sikh boy in a remote village in Haryana. Every day, my classmates pulled my long hair, untied my topknot, called me girl, sissy, hijra. Yesterday, in Salinas, California, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 tragedies, a classmate of my six-year-old nephew said to him, “I don’t want to play with you any more. You’re Indian.” Different boy. Different country. Different century. Same problem.

It’s the problem of the “other.” All across the world, the “other” is the enemy. And Sikhs have been the “other” for centuries. By 1699 A.D., 230 years after the birth of Nanak, Sikhism was taking deep roots in Punjab. Its simple motto—work hard; share your blessings; think of God—had caught on. Its teachings were in vernacular Punjabi, which everyone understood. As the new religion drew followers from Hinduism and Islam, it came under fire from both. The Hindu kings of Nurpur, Bilaspur, Mandi, and Chamba attacked Guru Gobind’s men at Anandpur. The Mughal rulers of Lahore put a bounty on the heads of Sikhs: The reward for giving information about the whereabouts of a Sikh was ten rupees, for killing a Sikh fifty rupees, for producing a Sikh’s severed head in court eighty rupees. Sikhs were scared. If accosted, many denied that they were Sikhs. Guru Gobind chafed at this behavior by his followers and longed to make them brave, to give them an identity that was undeniable, visible from a mile. Hence his injunction to Sikhs never to cut their hair, to wear their hair long, to cover them with a turban. Be proud of the way God made you, he said. To Nanak’s three dicta, he implied a fourth—Never be scared.

Guru Gobind’s plan succeeded wildly. No one on earth looks like Sikhs. Except in Punjab where they are the majority, Sikhs are always the “other.” Being the “other” forces you to think about yourself, about what makes you you. That introspection is always a blessing. It puts you in touch with yourself, steels you. As a young boy, I often came home crying. “The boys at school pulled my joora again,” I cried to my mother. “Why can’t I cut my hair, be like everyone else?” “Then they’ll tease you for something else,” she said. “Your walk, your talk, the size of your nose. Be proud of the way God made you. And face up to those boys. Don’t be scared. A Sikh should never be scared.”

But how to stay brave in the face of violence? Was Balbir Singh Sodhi scared on Sept. 15 as he stood outside his gas station in Mesa, Arizona, about to be gunned down by a man who boasted, “I did it because I’m an American.” Who’s an American? I came to America as a turbaned and bearded teenager in the summer of 1980. American hostages were in Iran. Everywhere I went, people screamed at me. “F—ing Iranian! Go home!” At Great America in Santa Clara, my turban was knocked off three times in an hour. One morning, I opened my front door to pick up the newspaper and saw a five-year-old blue-eyed blonde boy riding his bike across our front lawn. Even as I smiled at him, he shouted, “Go home, Iranian!” I stood there trembling. What could I say to that little boy?These people are Americans? I wondered. Don’t they know I’m a Sikh, from India? A few weeks later, an American college student asked me, “So where isIndia? In Africa?” As I stared at him open-mouthed, he said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot. It’s in Everest, no?”

I began to understand America.

Recently, I’ve read that immediately following the explosions in New York and Washington D.C., some Sikhs who were in the vicinity were chased by American mobs. I shudder at the thought: Sikhs being chased on the streets of Manhattan and D.C.? It’s eerily reminiscent of New Delhi after Mrs. Gandhi’s murder in 1984, when thousands of Sikhs were killed within days. New Delhi or New York—no place seems safe. It’s a global village no doubt, with the same beauty and hatred expressed everywhere.

My eleven-year-old niece, born and raised in San Jose, asked me the other day, “When can I wear my Indian clothes again, Mamu? When will the world be safe?”

“This is the way of the world, my dear,” I said sadly. “You’re only finding out now.” “Just answer my question, Mamu,” she persisted. “Tell me when the world will be safe again. When Osama Bin Laden is caught?” I was forced to tell her that even if he’s caught, there might be others; that evil will never vanish off the face of the earth; that always, a part of the task of being alive will be fighting evil.

Everyone says the answer lies in education. Since the Sept. 11 tragedies, Sikhs around America have launched a campaign to educate their fellow Americans about Sikhism. Many gurudwaras have sent funds to the victims of the tragedies. Sikhs have sent contingents to Ground Zero to help the cleanup and the men and women who work there. This is all well and good, and as it should be. But I suspect this enthusiasm about educating “others” will fade. The world will return to its old ways. We will get on with our lives.

But what must not fade is the realization that this tragedy has given us, Sikhs, an opportunity to remind ourselves of the best of Sikhism. If we actually practice what our Gurus taught, if we truly share our blessings with others, if we’re not afraid of fighting the never-ending battle against ignorance and violence, and if we honestly believe in the innermost recesses of our hearts that all human beings are the same—Sikh or Hindu or Muslim, man or woman, gay or straight—then we won’t need to tell the world who the Sikhs are. The world will know.

Alan McCormick is an American professor in the Faculty of Environmental Information at Keio University in Fujisawa, Japan. He is currently teaching courses in Ethics and Liberation Theory.

Sandip Roy-Chowdhury writes for Pacific News Service and hosts the radio show Up Front on KALW 91.7 FM.

Born in Bangladesh, Hasan Zillur Rahim has lived in the U.S. for over 20 years. He has written for the Pacific News Service, San Jose Mercury News, SF Chronicle, and Chicago Tribune.

Inder Singh, a resident of San Francisco, is working on a novel set in Punjab during the 1980s.