I am African American. I am Muslim. I oppose the war. And my little brother is a Marine.
The war is against a country filled with Muslims. I am both a racial and religious minority in America at a time where it is not safe to be either. I am American at a time when Americans are moving targets throughout the world. Akbar and I have a lot in common in that sense. I wondered, at the split second when the news of Akbar's religion was released, would any harm or discrimination come to my brother who left his wife and his daughter behind to loyally defend his country? Would he be treated badly now that a Muslim, and an African American at that, had allegedly committed treason and mutiny against his fellow servicemen and his country?
The day after the war started, when antiwar protests drew more than a thousand students, faculty and staff to walk out of their classes and into Harvard Yard, I could not help but feel like a useless sack of bones that would surely incur God's wrath for not doing more to stop the inevitable while at the same time asking myself, "What more can I do?" That ominous day, I stood on the outskirts of the crowd unable to join in on the chants of, "No war on Iraq! Bill of Rights, take it back!"
"My little brother is a United States Marine!" I wanted to shout as I observed a young Asian-American student weave in and out the crowd with a sign taped to his head that read, "Support the troops, go to class." The urge to say this bubbled in my throat as the self-described "anti-antiwar protestors" shouted, "Go to class, you guys love Saddam." I was saved from having to say anything when a student passing by said, "I used to be in the armed forces and I oppose the war."
Instead, a deluge of conflicting emotions moved me to tears. Here I stood, a descendant of slaves in America, whose "peopleness was fired in the crucible of their American experience," as one esteemed professor eloquently put it recently. At that moment, I felt psychologically transported, like a trauma victim with flashbacks, to the agony and torment of a time I have only known heretofore through the stories of my elders, who will not let me forget. As a child I used to wonder how so many people could have stood by while millions of human beings were entered into chattel slavery in America. Now I can only imagine the innocent Iraqi people wondering how the world can stand by while 2000-pound bombs drop on their country.
I cried not just for the Iraqi civilians and the American troops, who, like my brother, must follow orders at a time when perhaps their consciousness too might be moved to tears. I cried because of the sheer acceptability of injustice by so many and the staunch arrogance in the way it is supported. My own loss of innocence did not start with 9/11, or when the Secret Service and FBI came to my house six days later because I write on Islamic issues, or with the daisy-cutter bombs dropped on Afghanistan, or with the current war in Iraq. "We [African Americans] just got to be free and now all the freedom is gone," I said to my African-American and Muslim friends, in a feeble attempt to lace half-hearted humor with a marker of truth.
As America scrambles to liberate Iraq, we must not forget what it has done to create resentment in the hearts of racial minorities in America. In fact if we cannot forget it, it will serve us better in our treatment of others in times of war. You will be hard pressed to find a large cohort among historically oppressed minorities in America fervently in support of this war. This line of thinking is not an apologia for Akbar if he is guilty--and the Army has stressed that Akbar should be considered innocent until proven guilty. Rather, this is an attempt to understand what type of resentment could incite one to commit such an indisputably heinous act, just as we took the time to understand the lives of the white students who viciously murdered their classmates at Columbine. We often forget to do this when racial minorities commit unspeakable crimes. Akbar is reported to have told his mother, "Mama, when I get over there I have the feeling they are going to arrest me just because of the name that I have carried." Whether Akbar is innocent or guilty, imagine what it is like to live with that fear.