When I first arrived in this country, news of the Iranian hostage crisis was all abuzz. Nightline with Ted Koppel had just been created to cover the crisis. I remember watching it nightly and not quite understanding the gravity of the matter: I was young and idealistic. While there were only a few foreign students on the campus I attended, we were visible among the student body in stark relief against the all-American Iowa backdrop. The campus was mostly comprised of middle class white Americans from Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Illinois and surrounding states. Until that time the whole concept of racism was as foreign to me as I was to the Iowans.
Nothing out of the ordinary was perceptible to me, or I was simply oblivious to it, until one weekend night out: I was walking with my friends in the cold Iowan night and wondering why I hadn't dressed warm enough and worn a second pair of socks, when suddenly a pickup truck full of passengers drove by fast, and something was hurled towards us along with some epithets that accused us of being (blank) Iranians. We were totally aghast because the object hurled towards us was a full bottle of beer that shattered at our feet, and we were outraged by the mis-categorization of our nationality (Indian).
This single event altered my doe-eyed innocence, and since then I became more attuned to people's behavior towards me and wondered, what were they really thinking? The whole concept of racism unfortunately became a part of my awareness, and the word did enter my lexicon. Then my brother got assaulted operating the dormitory elevators during the weekend, and my friends and I were subjected to more epithets over time. All was somewhat civil during the week, and older Iowans were civil regardless of the day of the week. After the release of the hostages, the negative sentiments towards us subsided. But I never really regained that sense of idealism I had when I first arrived at the campus.
When I came to the Bay Area, the diversity of this place allowed me to weave myself into the fabric of society like a flourish in the pattern rather than a mismatching afterthought. The international students who were in the same situation as I, found it easier to relate to me. This and the 'live and let live' attitude of California may have been one of the reasons why I chose to stay in the Bay area--though the weather helped to fortify my decision.
During my stay here, I have seen a lot of things transpire and I have experienced a few things like getting mugged, being subjected to a random act of violence, and even racism. But subsequent to the event in Iowa, they were of a milder variety. I thought the L.A. riots were one of the worse racial events I had seen in this country during my presence here. Then there was the post 9/11 fear-mongering, which seems to go on eternally, so when the voters opted for a different brand of politics in 2008, I was somewhat relieved. What I didn't know was that the respite would be short-lived.
I am presently beyond agnostic but having been raised Muslim; news of the New York Muslim community center and mosque being opposed and maligned brought back some of that familiar foul taste to my palate. I though to myself, this is the fear angle of the Republican Party this election cycle. Thomas Aquinas once said, "Fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take us over, it drives compassion right out of our hearts."
Seems like the Republicans, self-anointed purveyors of freedom, teamed up with the Fox network, always manage to reach a new low using the fear issue, using it to divide the community and bolster their base while poaching some independents along the way every election cycle. During the Reagan era it centered on communism, socialism and big government. During the senior Bush election cycle it was Willie Horton and racism. During Bush Jr.'s first term it was morality, taxes, and big government (ironically). During his second run it was terrorism, terrorism, and gay marriage. And now it is back to racism, socialism, big government, and terrorism as we approach the mid-terms (illegal immigration was the issue du jour few weeks ago).
It is as if they have plundered past scripts and combined them into a massive election playbook--pick your poison, something is bound to stick. These reruns are so tired by now that one can recite the lines verbatim, and yet much of the electorate falls for it every single time. Who are these voters that buy into the reheated rubbish, and really, how short term are their memories?
When I adopted this country, I had to study a few things about the constitution, and freedom of religion was right at the top. This is a country where politicians are quick to point to how we are unique and different from Europe, how we are the oldest democracy, how we are a country of immigrants, how we have one of the best constitutions around, and how we are free--proud assets that are curiously forgotten depending on the direction of the political winds. The Irish came here to escape famine and religious prosecution by Cromwell, the Quakers came here to escape religious prosecution both in England--and even in puritan Massachusetts: the Quakers were the first to petition their government in the new world, earning the right to religious freedom and quite possibly being the impetus for that famous entry in the first amendment.
The United Sates has always had pariah immigrants (some brought here against their will) through its history, and you knew they were pariahs by the derogatory names they were called. I won't list them here but you are familiar with them. These names, verbal hatchets of a racial nature, are not buried for good: they come out during lapses of good judgment and economically challenging atmospheres.
But I thought in just over two hundred years, this country had matured enough to elect a black president, and had gotten past some of its more flagrant prejudices and ignorance. Far from it--today these ignorant bigots are trotted about on Fox all day long as experts of Islam, and even get exposure on other channels. The new pariahs are the Muslims, and they didn't even earn a disparaging nickname; they went straight to an all-encompassing crudely offensive characterization: terrorists. This unbridled generalized hatred is like a historical déjà vu of the Crusades variety.
There are many politicians who are conspicuously silent on the Mosque and community center issue. They have conveniently forgotten the words of the first amendment but are quick to brandish them when convenient. After making a commendable speech on this issue, even the president back-tracked a bit. One of the few politicians who have been admirably unwavering on this issue is the mayor of the City of New York, Michael Bloomberg.
When I first arrived in the United States, I landed in New York, and the very first monument I sought from my airplane's window was the Statue of Liberty: the mother of exiles. This deservedly celebrated landmark, with its famous invitation to comfort and protect the world's tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning for freedom, is the very essence of America. Every group of people that has immigrated here has done so wanting to breathe free--whether economically, politically, or religiously. The current climate of prejudice and religious bigotry around the New York Islamic community center is not only un-American, it is oppressively suffocating--and none of us should breathe free if one among us is suffocating.