On any given day, there occurs a great deal of cultural stereotyping that we as 21st century Americans are prone to engaging in, whether conscious of it or not. Both the concept and practice of racial profiling are more or less second nature to us at this point, in spite of devoted efforts to convince ourselves and each other alike that we have risen above such behavior.
Take, for instance, the image above. It was featured in GAP Clothing’s 2013 Holiday Ad Campaign (likely as a corporate effort to address the company’s longstanding reputation of catering almost exclusively to the white upper-class). The man you see in this photo is Waris Ahluwalia, a designer and actor of Indian-American descent.
However, owing to a general lack of awareness on the American public’s behalf with regard to the range of religious head wear worn by Eastern cultures — working jointly with the profiling tendencies mentioned above — a majority of the American public is inherently disposed to identify him as being Muslim, rather than Sikh.
In theory, these misconceptions can be claimed as relatively innocuous (in the eyes of most, at least). One could argue that a lack of knowledge absent ill intent or agenda does not constitute actual wrongdoing — and not necessarily be wrong in doing so — but that is off the mark entirely.
A more relevant argument would be one addressing this lack of knowledge, thereby exposing the epidemic of ignorance and intolerance allegedly harmless misconceptions like these are merely symptomatic of; a sickness which thrives on the paranoia and hypocrisy of a nation too self-righteous to account for its own assailing of the rights, both civil and natural, upon which it claims to have been founded.
At 9:00 PM EST on 20 September 2001, nine days after the most devastating act of terrorism ever committed on American soil stunned the nation, and indeed the world, then Commander-in-Chief, George Walker Bush, made an historic address to a joint session of Congress and the American people wherein he famously declared a “War on Terror.”
Lest we forget, the former President also made a point to delineate his administration’s suspected causes for the radical anti-American sentiment evangelized by Osama Bin Laden, former leader of the terrorist organization Al-Qaida, and the individual chiefly responsible for inciting this 21st century method of warfare.
Foremost among Bush’s expressed motives was “a resentment of American freedom”, followed by “the hatred for U.S. backed governments in the Middle East” (presumably referring to the Nation State of Israel), and of course, “an intolerance for Christianity and Judaism”. Our country’s mass media wasted no time in running amok with theories and conjecture as to the point and purpose of these declarations.
Was Islamic culture inherently violent, or had Al-Qaida “hijacked the religion”? Was American support for oil monarchs to be blamed for spawning this hatred, or perhaps its support for the sovereign nation of Israel? Above all others, though, there loomed one question weighing on the minds of every fellow American in this time of unprecedented duress: “Why do they hate us?”
At the expense of editorializing, there are few things more American than taking the massacre of civilians and making it a matter of national ego. Albeit very young in 2001, I can distinctly remember the profound sorrow and rage I felt not only for this senseless taking of human life, but also for the fact that it seemed — and naturally, this was soon to change — these inhuman criminals were going to get away with it.
It took less than 20 hours for what seemed like every household in the country to acquire some form of American flag, and thereafter broadcast having done so. Citizens were brought together in grief and in rage; they now had a common and identifiable enemy against which to unite in equal parts disillusion and fear.
Although it should go without saying, the real, unspeakable tragedy of September 11th lies in the innocent lives taken and families broken, rather than the attempted dismantling of American hubris or nascent threatening of its supremacy in global politics; yet that is exactly what it became about.
Each and every one of the 2,977 who perished in that heinous attack were ultimately relegated to anonymity, faceless in the whitewashed pages of history, and tragically lost to the memory of a nation so engrossed in vindiction that it neglected to actually mourn the souls it set out to avenge.
You’d be forgiven for perceiving what I’m saying as distasteful, but do not mistake my frankness for disloyalty or treason. I am a proud American just as wounded by the atrocities of 9/11 as any, but I am also willing to acknowledge that the aggressive, synthetic brand of patriotism said atrocities fostered is indicative of a huge and discernible national flaw: that of incorrigible pride.
This sustained, collective delusion that ours is the only true and valid system of freedom or justice — compounded with that dictating it ought be imposed on all those fortunate enough to receive it — is precisely what made us targets to begin with. Make no mistake, that is for nothing and no one to dispute.
Many attribute anti-American sentiment to what political scientists have come to refer to as the “Clash of Civilizations Theory” (positing that the cultural divide between Western values and those of Islamic states is the primary motive behind radical sentiment and acts of terror). Arrogant as it may be to say, I don’t quite buy into that, because the premise is too reductive to fully assess all relevant factors.
Now, I do recognize that there are vast discrepancies between the American way of life and those of countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Iran. But perhaps it’s worth considering for once — even just once — that we are at fault in the matter of impinging on the rights and freedoms of peoples who never did anything to invoke it.
By no means is this to suggest that we at all “deserved” the retaliation incurred by Al-Qaida and the Islamic states. What they did was despicable and subhuman in ways I will never even begin to comprehend. It is most certainly to suggest, however, that the Islamic state’s retaliation was an act of exactly that, so there’s no sense in trying to kid ourselves by trying to claim victimhood, running around and asking the world incredulously: “Why do they hate us?”.
Comparisons drawn between the persecution of Asian-Americans after Pearl Harbor and that of Arab-Americans after 9/11 are relatively easy to give credence, but similarly so to discredit. While both cases saw the unfair and frequently unlawful treatment of American citizens as punishment for crimes they did not commit, it is important to recognize the substantial differences in context that exist between the eras in question.
Yes, the general public has made considerable progress in the way of fostering civil rights for some minorities since the 1940’s, but it has been just as successful at marginalizing others with amplified vigor and prejudice. For substantiating evidence, please look up the Black Lives Matter movement — it makes for good reading.
Too, we must face the ugly truth of crimes committed against humanity much closer to home than most are comfortable giving mind to. All the literal horrors which transpired at Abu Ghraib have become rightfully infamous for their malice and contempt, but many more besides have gone under the radar, even until now.
Moreover, there’s no denying that incidents of mass-murder involving the death of white Americans (such as those at Columbine, Sandy Hook or Fort Hood) are far more likely to garner attention in the media than ones which claim the lives of Muslims, Sikhs, and other denominations of Eastern origin. Once more, this is indisputable.
Quite apart from the grim, unsettling reality that it has apparently become socially acceptable to denounce Islamic culture — and frankly, now popular — is the somehow yet grimmer reality that most of us don’t even really know what we are denouncing.
Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, which means that it claims many more followers than those we’ve grown to hate with such blind vitriol. Most of us are not aware that the country with the highest concentration of Muslims in its population is actually Indonesia; or that there are distinctive sects within Islam (Sunni, Shi’a, and many more), just as there are in any mass religion.
The broader point here being that we were so desperately eager to find an entity against which to take punitive action in the wake of 9/11 that we failed to earnestly address our role in precipitating it, to say nothing of our neglect to discover anything about those we were vilifying, a vast majority of whom (Sikhs and Arab-Americans) were totally innocent.
Rather than simply looking for someone to blame — as is, it must be said, the true American way — we ought instead to brave the unknown waters of introspection, and hold ourselves to the high standards rightfully expected of us as a world superpower. Most imperative, though, is that we collaborate decisively in endorsing an American future which truly seeks to honor those fundamental principles of freedom and religious tolerance our great nation was supposed to be founded on.