Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Confessions of a New Yorker: “I am glad I left America when I did.”

When I was in London last week, my friend, Tony, said to me, “I am glad I left America when I did. The situation there has become disgusting!” I got defensive and my faced turned red (The same color when a non-Indian makes *nasty* remarks about India). I swallowed my anger along with a sip of wine and asked his reason behind such an accusation. Tony said, “You guys are so blindly influenced by your media that you forget to use your own judgment.” If possible, I got more cynical and told him to articulate his issues. I was loud and lived up to the global image of a rambunctious American.

Tony asked what I thought about the Islamic Center in New York City—the one that’s been in the news for months now. I have even blogged about it. Never shy to express my views, I told him I was against the Islamic Center or any other religious institution. In my eyes, religion has no place near Ground Zero. Only humanity should be given a room. He went on to ask if I was okay with mosques being built in the United States. I snapped, “Of course. America was built on religious freedom. People of every religious faith should be allowed to build their places of worship. I think it’s ridiculous that the pastor in Florida even suggested burning the Koran.” To his credit, Tony recognized that I didn’t categorize all Muslims as terrorists.

He then changed his line of questioning. “If you are okay with mosques being built anywhere in the US, why not the proposed site?” I told him that the suggested location was too close to Ground Zero. He chuckled, “How close is too close and how far is too far for you? Two blocks, twenty blocks, or two cities?” I didn’t have a concrete answer for him. I went on to rave about New York’s resilience and New Yorkers’ untainted attitude.

Tony looked at me blankly. After a few quiet minutes, he said, “If you think New Yorkers are that open-minded, why do you think people are opposing building an Islamic Center, which would basically be like a YMCA?” I knew I had the answer for this one. My haughtiness was evident in my tone as I defended my peeps, “Why provoke people? Their wounds are still raw. If the Germans decide to build a shrine in Jerusalem today, even with the best of intentions, do you think there will be no resistance from the Jewish populace? We are humans, and it’s not always easy to forget.” By now Tony had poured himself another glass of wine (We both knew this was going to be a long night) and said, “See, that’s the problem with America; you guys pigeonhole everyone. You automatically assumed all Germans are Nazis just like most Americans assume all Muslims are terrorists.”

His last few words turned me numb. I realized he wasn’t wrong. I might be a left-leaning, super-liberal, religiously tolerant-writer, but somewhere, my ability to trust another human has diminished both on big and small issues.

I have friends from various religious faiths, including Islam, and religious identity has never been criteria for my friendship. So what was this knotted feeling? Many of my friends have confessed to me that the minute they see a man with a beard or skullcap, they give the attire a *thought*. They don’t intentionally want to do it; their subconscious mind just does it for them. Where do these doubts stem from?

Has media sowed most of these malignant seeds of suspicion? America is very contained and limited with what its people see. I am not sure if it’s because of it’s ideologies or geography. I mean, how many foreign news channels do we get to watch? Or television shows? How many international perspectives are offered to us? It could be argued that people in other parts of the world too watch limited foreign television. But is that true? I compare apples to apples when I say that my friends in Europe watch as much BBC as they do CNN. They have a benchmark for comparison and variety of media outlets to follow. But we don't have that here. "World news" is pretty much news beyond the five boroughs of New York City. Over a period of time, do we begin to believe whatever is drilled into our heads because we aren't really exposed to options?

My hairstylist, a wonderful woman from New England, actually said to me just last afternoon: “I don’t think any of these people from Middle America have ever met a Muslim. But the television channels have provided them with biased information against Islam. In their heads they have figured they need to hate Muslims or anyone with a beard.” She didn’t stop there. She admitted that she doesn’t watch the news any longer because she doesn’t trust the media. She said, “It’s all a conspiracy theory.”

London and Paris are under higher levels of terrorist threats than the US, yet I never once felt that energy of “Ooh, beard at three o’ clock; he’s out to kill me.” Or, “watch out for that headscarf.” For some reason, Europeans confuse me for an Arab woman, yet every single time I took a train or a bus in London, people offered to help me with my luggage. And I didn’t once ask them for assistance. I never got "the look." It was nice to spend a week loving humanity as opposed to assuming the worst from people.

I am all for precaution and safety, but I don’t appreciate racial profiling. Just the other day, my friend Hena shared a Benjamin Franklin quote with me: "Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both." Mr. Franklin’s words got me thinking. Where do we draw the line? When is enough truly enough and when is it not?

I didn’t see any random bagpack checkpoints in London or Paris train or bus stations. Remember, the whole 2005 suicide bomber case occurred in London, not New York? I was told by my friends that undercover police was present everywhere in London. Uniformed cops and people from the armed forces patrolled busy areas in both London and Paris, but that was about it. You could approach them. Hell, I asked them for directions because I knew they wouldn’t send me on the wrong road. But the minute you land in JFK, the officials aren’t that welcoming. There is a difference between being professional and being rude. Everyone entering America is judged and looked at with suspicious eyes. I know 9/11 has changed the world we live in, but do we automatically have to assume that everybody is out to get us?

We have to learn to accept that one person or group doesn’t represent the entire religion. The way all Germans aren’t Nazis or all Caucasians aren’t representative of the Ku Klux Klan, not all men with beards and women with headscarves are killers. Muslims too die when the Islamic fundamentalists strike. Haven’t fanatics from other religions committed heinous crimes as well? Looking at world history, Hindus and Christians have enough to be ashamed of.

Whether we openly accept it or not, we are all, to a certain degree, tainted with filth poured by the government and media. Muslims are the target these days of public fear. At one time, America went through this wave of Anti-Semitism. I fear that our inability to trust is fast becoming our biggest handicap. And something needs to be done to rectify this problem sooner than later.

More until next time,


Copyright © 10.21.2010

“We're never so vulnerable than when we trust someone - but paradoxically, if we cannot trust, neither can we find love or joy” ~ Walter Anderson


cm said...

thanks for keeping me in the loop of your blogs - interesting issues and observations. You are doing very interesting things and being recognized for your talent - so proud of you.

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K said...

This was a great and interesting post to read!

Anonymous said...

well about the whole mosque situation, I think it's pretty obvious why we DON want it there and I think the better question would be... Why DO they want it there?