In the weeks following the twelfth anniversary of 9/11, I have found myself increasingly disappointed in my fellow Americans. The terrorist attack orchestrated by al-Qaeda may have brought down the Twin Towers, but it also brought down our faith—not just our faith in humanity, but also our faith in difference.
America is known for being a melting pot, where multiculturalism and diversity are appreciated and welcomed with open arms. But all too lately, those arms have been filled with guns, violence, and hate. I have progressively become more and more frustrated with the acts and comments of ignorance all over the news and in the media. But I very quickly find my frustration evolving into downright fear of persecution.
In late December 2012, a woman pushed a Hindu man in front of a New York subway train. The two did not know each other, nor did they have any conversation on the platform. But that did not matter to the woman, Erika Menendez, who pushed Sunando Sen anyway. He landed on the rail bed, where his head was crushed by the second car of the oncoming train. Sen tried desperately to climb back up to the platform, but couldn’t get out of the way in time. When asked, Menendez explained her murder with a brutally honest and ignorant answer: “I’ve hated Hindus and Muslims since 2001, since they put down the Twin Towers.” This is a terrifying, but not uncommon, prejudice. Hindus had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. But they look similar in appearance to those that did, due to their dark skin and traditional dress. Additionally, al-Qaeda was a Muslim militant group, but not all Muslims are in al-Qaeda; not all Muslims are terrorists. Not only did Menendez’s actions come from a place of ignorance, but they also came from a place of hate.
On September 21, 2013, Prabhjot Singh was attacked on the street in Harlem. The Columbia University professor of International and Public Affairs, who is also a resident physician at Mt. Sinai Hospital, was attacked and chased by 15 to 20 men on bikes. As the men beat him repeatedly, they pulled on his beard, tried to tear off his turban, and called out “terrorist” and “get Osama.” He was eventually taken to the hospital, where he was in critical condition for a while and is recovering from a fractured jaw. Singh’s attackers wrongly misinterpreted his beard and turban. These are traditional and sacred elements of the Sikh faith—they are symbols of peace and a spiritual closeness to God. But they were incorrectly associated with Osama bin Laden and terrorism, and thus perceived Singh, with his turban and beard, as a threat worthy of hate, cruelty, and violence.
Creating and acting in line with these false connections doesn’t always manifest in blatantly violent ways. Last week, Nina Davuluri, representing the state of New York, was the first woman of Indian descent to be crowned Miss America. Thousands of angry viewers took to Twitter for an outlet to voice both their irritation and ignorance. Some hate tweets called Davuluri “Miss Arab,” and said things like, “I swear I’m not racist but this is America.” Most other tweets accused her of terrorism: “Miss America right now or Miss Al Qaeda?” and “Miss America is a terrorist. Whatever. It’s fine.” When I saw these tweets, I was literally blown away. I had no idea that so many people could form such conclusions and throw around such serious accusations about someone without batting an eye. Davuluri is an American citizen, born in New York, descending from Hindu parents from South India. She is not Muslim, or Arab, and there is no reason to believe that she has anything to do with al-Qaeda, except that she has dark skin. Making any or all of these baseless assumptions is a reflection of either stubborn ignorance or blatant stupidity.
When people wrongly associate a particular religion or culture with another, dangerous things can and have happened. I said it before, but I will say it again. All Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims are not terrorists. They are not all a part of al-Qaeda. They aren’t. And to assume they are is not only offensive, but also incredibly ignorant. Having a similar skin color to a terrorist doesn’t make a person a terrorist; only being a terrorist makes a person a terrorist. We’re all still grieving over 9/11. But this is not how we heal. This is how we continue to hurt each other. Committing acts of terrorism against fellow American citizens isn’t going to stop other people from terrorizing us. Once we, as a country, recognize this, we can finally begin to move on. But the first step has to be fighting ignorance.
Sonia Okolie, Slant Editor