The only thing on the television this Thanksgiving weekend was CNN. The events in Mumbai completely dominated our family get-together, not least because as Dawoodi Bohra muslims, we have extensive circles of friends and family in the city, as well as in Gujrat state. So as with the Godhra riots of a few years back, India’s 9-11 takes on a deeply personal significance to my own kith and kin.
And, in a way, it’s 9-11 all over again not just for Indians but especially for those of us who are Americans of Indian origin and muslim faith. Just after 9-11, the muslim-American community felt under siege, jumping at shadowed threats from within and suspicious hostility from outside. The nation drew together, it seemed, but muslim Americans felt excluded, out of their fear.
Thinking back on that period of time in the immediate aftermath of the attacks in New York and DC, I am reminded of the sea of American flags that flew, stirringly, from every corner and car windows. I confess I did not fly one myself, however. I wanted to, but for two conflicting reasons. One to express my pride in my country, but the other out of fear, to avoid the stares I was starting to receive, to appease the demons of my own paranoia, which even now I have no way of knowing was what part justified and what part imaginary. That part of me that wanted to fly a flag to say to the world, “look! I’m not a terrorist! Target your anger elsewhere!” seemed to taint the part of me that said, “look! I’m an American too! Include me in your resolve!”. In the end, I chose not to fly one at all, reasoning that the emotion needed to be pure. All muslims in the US have a similar story, of their own paranoia and fear and anger at the literal hijacking of our faith by the extremists, and the atrocities committed ostensibly in our name, and how they colored our relationships with our fellow citizens.
The terrorists had briefly succeeded, in driving a wedge between muslims and non-muslims, in America. They hit us where it mattered – in our unity, our tolerance, our values. They failed in driving us fully apart, but the scarred wound remains on American culture. Who can forget Representative Keith Ellison, the first muslim-American elected to US Congress, being asked point-blank on CNN Headline News by host Glenn Beck, “Sir, prove to me you are not working with our enemies
” ? What about the shamefully xenophobic response
to the Dubai Ports World deal – in which prospective Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played a major fear-mongering role? What about the ridiculous outcry about Rachel Ray’s scarf
, or the shape of the Flight 93 memorial
? How about the effective war on muslims being waged by the Republican Party
as a whole, even on members of their own ranks
, and finding outlet against Barack Obama
The impact on the muslims in India is likely to be similar. Muslims already suffer under suspicion analogous to that experienced by Jews in pre-Nazi Germany; muslims are seen as money-grubbing, dirty, or “in control of everything” according to various conspiracy theories. The shocking carnage in the Gujrat riots in 2002
came about with state government complicity
– reflect on the implications of that!
Ultimately, muslims will react to the tragedy in Mumbai, not just as fellow Indian citizens horrified by an attack upon their beloved homeland and the city they love, but also as muslim-Indians, acutely aware of the paranoia that the attacks have sent spiraling even more deeply into the collective Indian psyche. Of all the dozens of op-eds and essays written about Mumbai in the past 72 hours, this one by Jawed Naqvi in Pakistan’s DAWN
stands out the most, because the emotion therein is instantly recognizable to me:
I handed out candles to a group of evidently upper class women. A friend, a woman journalist who doesn’t normally have patience with communal gossip, overheard their conversation. She whispered to me that the women were suspicious of me. She thought it had something to do with my beard and the Afghan cap I wear on cold evenings. Only when I introduced myself and declared that India needed a dictator did they look relaxed. I said Narendra Modi was my hero, even though he sports a different kind of beard. This was a ploy that works when there’s no scope for serious discussion. The women said the country needed Modi as prime minister. I endorsed the view so that they could sleep peacefully that night. We parted on this cordial note.
On the way back, my friend and I discussed how beards had become particularly suspect since the advent of Osama bin Laden. And here, the Mumbai terrorists who themselves were probably clean-shaven pub-crawling college kids, had deepened mistrust that was not just rooted in facial hair. They had succeeded in their mission to drive a deeper wedge among Indians as evident at India Gate.
Film actress Nandita Das was among the mourners that broke into a dozen groups or more, each more worried than the other about what was happening to India. Nandita has just made a film about the social isolation of Muslims in Gujarat. She told me some of her close friends had wondered why she was sympathetic to Muslims, and one of them even asked if she had a Muslim boyfriend. What I know is that she has a Gujarati mother.
Let me share a bit of an email Nandita sent to her friends the day before the funeral. It said: “It hadn’t hit me hard enough till Thursday morning…I have to say, it had very little effect on me. My predictable response was, not again…more people will die, more fear, more prejudice and more hatred. But at some level the response was instant and cerebral. But this morning when I got up things felt different. Got a message from an unknown no: “See what your friends have done.” Strangely a close friend of mine got a similar message last night, but from an acquaintance. Just because Firaaq, my film, deals with how Muslims ‘also’ get affected by violence, the terrorists are supposed to be my friends!
“Today a common young Muslim man around town is probably the most vulnerable. I got many messages from my Muslim friends who feel the need to condemn it more than anyone else, who feel the need to prove their national allegiance in every possible way. They are begging to be not clubbed with the terrorists, a fear not unfounded. Then of course there were tons of messages from well-wishers across the world who asked about me and my loved ones’ safety. I too did the same. And strangely that was when tears started rolling down my cheek, almost involuntarily. Guess the thought that if our loved ones were fine, it’s all ok, seemed like a bizarre way to feel. When will our souls ache when anyone is hurt, even those that we have never seen and will never see? The more I wrote back in sms’s and emails that I was ok, the more miserable I was feeling.”
There are 200 million muslims in India – one out of every five Indians. Can a line be drawn between them and their fellow citizens? Can anyone serio
usly conceive that the actions of a deranged dozen is representative of the attitudes of millions? That is the fear that the terrorists are trying to sow – and Mumbai, glamorous and cosmopolitan and diverse, was the perfect target – the crown jewel of India’s democratic and pluralistic ethos, just asking to be shattered by those who care nothing for India, or Islam – only chaos for its own sake.