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Bill Ong Hing

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Vigilante Racism and the De-Americanization of Muslim Americans

Posted: 09/06/11 02:49 PM ET

We are told at a young age that we are a land of immigrants. But we are reminded all too often that we are a land intolerant of diversity.

Consider the experience of the Muslim American Society in Westchester County, New York, this past Tuesday. In celebration of Eid-ul-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, the group organized a daylong event at Rye Playland amusement park. The celebration ended with baton-wielding police officers pounding Muslim women to the ground.

The mess began when Haifa Ali, wearing her traditionally hijab headscarf attempted to board a rollercoaster. A park employee asked her to remove the hijab, citing a park rule that loose items had to be removed for safety reasons. Ali explained that it was against her religion to remove the scarf and that she had been permitted to wear the scarf on other similar rides. When the attendant stood firm, Ali and other women in the group decided to go ask for a refund. But someone grabbed her hijab from behind to pull it off then a park ranger wrestled another one of the women in the group to the ground. From there, other law enforcement officers began to converge on the group, hitting them with batons and pinning some of the women to the ground. An independent eyewitness heard one female police officer yell, "I don't give a f*ck about your culture." And one blogger commented the next day, "This is Playland, not Prayland. Thanks to some trusty batons and nine different police agencies, the rides (and the funnel cakes, God bless 'em) stayed 100% American yesterday."

Unfortunately, the incident, occurring shortly before the 10-year anniversary of the tragedy of 9/11, is a stark reminder of the expanded profiling of Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians by officials and misguided civilians in the past decade.

Within hours of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Americans of Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian descent found themselves targeted for acts of hate and racial profiling. In a suburb of Chicago three hundred protestors, many waving American flags and chanting "USA! USA!" marched on a mosque. One 19-year-old demonstrator exclaimed, "I'm proud to be an American and I hate Arabs and I always have." In Huntington, New York, a 75-year-old man tried to run over a Pakistani woman in the parking lot of a shopping mall. He then followed the woman into a store and threatened to kill her for "destroying my country." In San Diego, a Sikh woman was attacked by a knife-wielding man, shouting "This is what you get for what you've done to us." A Sikh family was followed out of a restaurant by two white men who screamed to the family, "Go back to your country." Soon, arrests were made of individuals who were racially profiled, and by October, over 1,100 suspicious individuals, mostly Arab Americans, were detained, without access to family or counsel. By November, the Department of Justice developed a list of five thousand Middle Eastern men, between the ages of 18 and 33, who were to be "voluntarily" interviewed.

The fact that hateful acts and words of private citizens are followed up with official regimes of detention and profiling only reaffirms the subordination of the victims through suspicion of loyalty. The governmental imprimatur helps to marginalize the victims in U.S. society.

The message is one of exclusion: "You Muslims, Middle Easterners, and South Asians are not true Americans." Certainly, de-Americanization is a process that involves racism, but unlike the racism directed at African Americans, with its foundations in the historically held beliefs of inferiority, de-Americanizers base their assault on loyalty and foreignness. In the minds of the private actors, who are nothing more than lawless vigilantes, self-appointed enforcers of true Americanism, their victims are immigrants or foreigners even though they may in fact be citizens by birth or through naturalization. Irrespective of the victim community's possible longstanding status in the country, its members are regarded as perpetual foreigners. The victim community is forever regarded as immigrant America, as opposed to simply part of America and its diversity.

What has been happening to Muslims, Middle Easterners, and South Asians in the United States in the wake of 9/11 is a process of ostracism from the American community -- a de-Americanization process -- that we have witnessed before. The process often involves two aspects -- (1) the actions of private individuals and (2) official government-sanctioned actions. On the private side, the process involves identifying the victims as foreigners, sometimes mistakenly, other times simply treating the person as a foreigner knowing otherwise. De-Americanization is a twisted brand of xenophobia that is not simply hatred of foreigners, but also hatred of those who in fact may not be foreigners but whom the vigilantes would prefer being removed from the country anyway.

Sadly, the de-Americanization process is capable of reinventing itself generation after generation. We have seen this exclusionary process aimed at those of Jewish, Asian, Mexican, Haitian, and other descent throughout the nation's history. De-Americanization is not simply xenophobia, because more than fear of foreigners is at work. This is a brand of nativism cloaked in a Euro-centric sense of America that combines hate and racial profiling. Whenever we go through a period of de-Americanization like what is currently happening to South Asians, Arabs, and Muslim Americans, a whole new generation of Americans surmises that exclusion and hate is acceptable; that the definition of who is an American can be narrow; that they too have license to profile. Their license is issued when others around them engage in hate and the government chimes in with its own profiling. This is part of the sad process of unconscious and institutionalized racism that haunts our country.

There are two Americas when it comes to race, ethnic background, and who is an American. One is an all-embracing America on the matter of who is an American. This vision recognizes that the United States is a land of immigrants, and that in spite of exclusionary policies aimed at different groups throughout its history, the country is comprised of members of all different shades and ethnic backgrounds. The other America is narrow in its view of who is an American. This second vision is Euro-centric, excluding those of Latin and Asian descent, and as we have witnessed since 9/11, excluding those of Muslim, Arab, or South Asian background.

The nation's public relations position is that we are a proud nation of immigrants inclusive of all. Yes, we take steps in the direction of inclusiveness. But we take steps backwards in that regards as well. We learn and unlearn, and in the process, the bad behavior of vigilante racism is reinforced. In the process, we de-Americanize many communities of color, perpetuating their image as immigrant Americans rather than full Americans.

 

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