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Gissou Nia

Gissou Nia

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Bin Laden's Death: Do I Fit Into the Celebration?

Posted: 05/10/11 06:12 PM ET

Bin Laden is dead.

These words ran on a news feed circling around a Times Square building as I made my way back to my flat on the upper west side of Manhattan. A man next to me mouthed the words out then spontaneously grabbed me and yelled. "We did it! We did it!"

As a crowd gathered, fueled by both drink and patriotism, I noticed an Arab man pushing one of the many falafel carts in midtown Manhattan some distance away. Our eyes shared a moment of instant recognition. I sensed we asked ourselves the same question: in 2011, did we fit into this national celebration?

On September 11, 2001, I was visiting friends in New York City and had just hopped on a bus going south to New Jersey when the first plane hit the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan. Before the advent of handhelds with wireless internet and ubiquitous social media, no one on the bus knew the cause of the plumes of smoke on the horizon.

But when we reached our destination less than two hours later, the staff at the bus station raced around shrieking -- "We are under attack! They hit the Pentagon as well!" That is when I saw the playback of the crumbling towers on the run-down television screen in the station's corner -- indeed, we had been attacked.

If this act of terrorism was shocking then the aftermath was, at least for me, equally so. As more details came out and it became clear that Islamic fundamentalists were to blame, I -- an Iranian-American of Muslim faith -- increasingly became a target.

As an impressionable (teenaged) university student I was ill-equipped to deal with the raw emotions of some formerly friendly faces, whose good will towards me seemed to have evaporated over night. This included one neighbor who screamed "Why don't you [expletive] go back to your own country!!"

The adversity politicized me. Formerly on a pre-medicine track at university, I officially registered as a political science major. I voraciously read whatever I could get my hands on about the history of the Middle East and world religions. I tried to make sense of it all.

With this newly acquired knowledge and developing sense of self and purpose, and as hate crimes against Muslims were on the rise nationally, I became more emboldened. My religion had previously been an "unseen" part of my personality. I did not veil and as a casual Muslim, I randomly selected the parts of the religion I felt like adhering to.

Now however I wore the identity defiantly. If someone asked me about my origins I would calmly recite both my ethnicity and religion. I took pleasure in the panicked look that sometimes followed.

At the core of it, I was indignant that my parents, who built a life in the U.S. to escape the religious oppression of post-revolutionary Iran, now perversely faced religious discrimination of a different kind. The irony was that if in Iran we were not Muslim enough, now in the U.S. we were too Muslim.

I soon left the U.S. to work on war crimes trials in The Hague. There I spoke with survivors of the internecine conflict in the former Yugoslavia who explained how the hate speech of a few led to the disintegration of their society and eventually full-scale war.

If you had told an average Yugoslavian at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics that a decade later their country -- a nation made prosperous and united by the Yugoslav statesman Josip Broz Tito -- would be irreparably torn apart by the ethnic hatred fueled by two men, the Croatian nationalist Franjo Tudjman and the Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic, they would have told you to stop drinking so much of their Balkan liquor. Yet there they were, in 2005, witness to their leaders on trial for the rape and murder of thousands of civilians.

I had spent the years following 9/11 reacting to the discrimination of those around me. But what I learned in that courtroom in The Hague was that my true concern should lie not with the prejudices of the average person but rather the failure of some of our political leaders and their recourse to cheap political rhetoric to stoke fear. For it is the failed leader who incites hatred, or at the very least who does not speak out forcefully against it, that ultimately allows it to thrive in ways that lead to deadly violence.

The killing of bin Laden may ultimately only prove to be a symbolic scourge. The threat posed by violent Islamist radicals persists. And the fallout from the ill-conceived portions of the U.S. response to 9/11, namely Guantanamo and the war in Iraq, will not be resolved overnight. In fact, selling the Iraq war as somehow connected to 9/11 will forever stain the U.S. legacy for years to come.

However bin Laden's death comes at a time when the Middle East is undergoing its most radical political transformation since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. This opportunity to re-adjust relations between east and west should not be squandered. Hopefully pressing the re-set button will change the ugly rhetoric that has been associated with the region, so that the average American who thinks of the Middle East will not think solely of Bin Laden, but instead, the young leaders of Tahrir Square.

But no matter the long-term impact, bin Laden's death is at least, for now, some comfort that my dark decade -- and that of my nation -- has finally come to a close. It is absolutely my celebration too.