When I went back on my annual visit to Lahore, Pakistan, the city of the country where I was born and raised, shortly after 9/11—I was transformed from an object of some envy as a lucky resident of the USA to one of pity and righteous condescension for having made a bad life choice . “You poor dearhow do you stand it?” Well-informed folks, friends who had been students like myself at American universities in the 70s and 80s and so one would think knew the country and its people better, started making sweeping statements like, “It must be terrible over there for you nowcome back home. Thank God I don’t live in America! ”
The assumption of course was, that I, like all other people of Muslim background, my creed announced through my name or accent or whatever, was now a target for hate and harassment, in constant danger of being humiliated, pulled over, frisked, made to wait with shoes and socks off at airports, subjected to all manner of daily insults, and humiliations at shop counters, airports, my workplace, an object of suspicion wherever I went, looked at askance by those who may once have been intrigued by my exotic appeal but were now certain I was, if not a terrorist myself, possibly connected to some in a far-away land and even supporting them through charitable donations of dubious intent.
I could tell you that indeed, my son, then only 8 yrs old, was asked by a neighbor’s husband why his parents weren’t flying the American flag on their front lawn; I could also tell you that on my campus list-serv for faculty and staff at the university in New Jersey where I have been teaching now almost twenty years and where in 2001 I was one of the youngest-ever Full Professors in the Department of English (not bad for an immigrant Muslim woman from Pakistan, eh?)-some rude and obnoxious and yes, even racist professors directed verbal assaults at me, the Chair of the Philosophy and Religion Department (??!) going as far as to exhort me to “crawl back to the caves you came from.”
I do recall asking him to inform me which caves he had in mind, since I was born and raised in the city of Lahore in Punjab province, a flatland, with ne’er a cave in sight.I don’t think I received a response to that one
I could also tell you that my son, now 12 years old and in Middle School in this suburban town northwest of Manhattan, where my husband and I have been residents for almost two decades and where our firstborn graduated High school two years ago-has been complaining this past year of taunts directed his way by some boys on his bus, to the effect of “you Muslim faggot” and “Pakistinians[sic!]are terrorists”.
I could tell you all of these stories, and all of them would be true, and may seem to validate my friends back home who feel so sorry for me and my family for having to endure Islamophobic treatment in the USA today. But then what of all those other stories? Those that somehow don’t make it to the Op-ed pages of renowned mainstream media, or even alternative media much?
What about the fact that when I travel, domestically or internationally—and I travel a lot, on business and pleasure-I am not treated any differently from dozens of other passengers of all stripes and hues who have to follow the same irritating shoes-off! Laptops and other personal items in plastic containers! Jewelry off! procedures as I do.
That when I traveled to Sarajevo shortly after 9/11 I had a harder time crossing into Bosnia-Herzgovina by car (my theatre troupe and I had flown from JFK to Venice, rented a car and driven 20 hours to get in to Bosnia..a shortcut according to our manager-don’t ask!)-and again, when getting on the plane in Venice for our return journey, than getting back into the USA. The bigger irony was that an Italian fashion-designer was subjected to even more gruelling questioning in Venice than me and my motley crew (who actually looked scruffy and villainous!), and the repeat searching of her person and her luggage left her a weeping mess, poor woman! Indeed, arriving back in to New York was a cinch.
Welcome Back! Those were the words with which I was greeted by the passport officer, despite my name and my peculiar, somewhat suspicious travel itinerary. I was so exhausted from the madcap trip across Italy and the Balkans in under four days (which also included rehearsals and a big performance in Sarajevo in the bombed-out Skandariye auditorium)-and the suspicious questioning my crew and I had had to undergo trying to get in toand out of- Bosnia in the middle of the night—that I could have hugged the Yank on the other side of the booth welcoming me back home. Yes. This was my home. I felt happy to be back. And welcome. Not treated like a foreigner. Not being looked at askance. Just being welcomed back.
What about that other story. When I got diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, and felt so grateful it happened to me here, in the USA, where the team of physicians-including an Indian-American, a Pakistani / Muslim-American, an Italian-American , a Japanese-American and a Jewish-American-cared for me as though I was their sister, not just a “patient.” And friends-even acquaintances-from within my suburban town were quick to come forth to help out in whatever way I needed-including my friend Claire the Minister (of a local Episcopalian church), who had her congregation pray for my return to good health and left me her signature Minnesotan rice soup every week
(I still have some in my freezer two years later-perhaps I shouldn’t tell her!)
No, I have not, truth be told, felt seriously muzzled, artistically, academically or as an activist, certainly rarely afraid, and much of the reason for this is because of my education, because of the way I carry myself, my ease of articulation and sound knowledge-base which most people, including my students, listen to, and respect, even if they may not agree with all of my opinions. Which is fine, because that is to me, the essence of a democratic culture, as under siege as it might be at this historical juncture.
Am I angry at what the current US administration is doing in the name of the War Against Terror against Muslims abroad and against its own civilians, including non-Muslims, who are/will be affected negatively by the fascist attack on our hard-won American freedoms, an internal offensive which goes by the misnomer “Patriot Act”? Am I upset when my son complains about “you Muslim faggot” remarks directed at him by some school-bus bullies (yes, homophobia and Islamophobia rolled into one, sigh), or when some of the kids in his 6th grade class think most of the suicide bombers on those fatal flights were Iraqis and Afghanis ore even “Pakistininians”? You bet I am. But, as I tell my son, the bus-bullies are a minority (one or two at most)-and like some of his classmates who obviously believe we are in righteous war against nations and peoples who had nothing to do with 9/11-they are clearly ignorant.
So, I tell my son, quit whining and get acquainted with the facts so you can dispel these views! As for the teasing and bullying, well, he gets that not just because he is a Muslim, but because he is also a sensitive boy, a wonderful drummer and aspiring poet, who harbors serious delusions of grandeur out on the baseball field, which is perhaps the real arena of battle for him right now. Every time he drops a ball or strikes out, he sulks, throws tantrums, even cries!! Real boys don’t cryespecially if you’re Muslim to boot!!! And he makes sure he finds some way to get back at the rest of his more gifted team-matesoften by trouncing them in classwork and bragging about his academic brilliance. Not quite your average easy-to-like, one-mold-fits-all pre-teen American boy on any count! Is the fact that he gets teased and bullied (though never physically) really so unusual??
And this brings me to the notion of “class” I allude to in my title. By class, I am not referring-or at least not predominantly-to the commonly-understood meaning of it as an economic and social marker. What I am suggesting here is a much more nuanced, a subtler concept. An attitude to life as it were, that shapes the way we respond to the crises, personal, political, existential, which we as individuals and groups all face in varying degrees during our lifespan. We can face such moments by becoming fearful, alternately angry at our fate and self-pitying (the Why Me? Syndrome), scream bloody murder -and sometimes actually commit it-against those we perceive as villains out to get us, or we can bemoan the stars, our karma, the powers-that-be whether of this world or above it, become alternately fearful and angry, and end up adopting the self-righteous mantle of victimhood. Murderer or Victim. Crusader or Jihadi. And even when we think we are challenging these simplistically dichotomous ways of thinking or being perceived, most of us end up reiterating some version of this binaristic model.
It is time to make this debate less polemical. Those of us who are Muslims living in America, need to recognize that part of the complexity of issues we need to address now revolves around the issue of class-and now I do mean more broadly the class composition of immigrant Muslim communities. Never mind those of American converts, who are primarily African-American (although Latino/as are fast catching up)-and have battled long and hard with a triple legacy of racist, class and gender discrimination which doesn’t simply vanish by their embracing a religion-Islam-which promises equality of all in the eyes of Allah. They still have to deal with the racism of American society todayto which many of their Muslim brethren, including those from South Asia about whom I can claim some experiential knowledge-add their own brand of racist thinking.
Never mind their/our gender inequalities and class snobbishness. Practically speaking, what all this adds up to is the fact that while folks like me or my son or others in my family or in the Pakistani and Muslim communities I know can and do face occasional harassment, yes, to a degree more so now than pre-9/11, most of the people I am thinking of and know happen to be well-off, well-educated yuppies (okay, okay, so many of us now are not-so yuppy anymore, our children moving into those ranks now, sigh…)
These are not folks who can really claim with any degree of honesty that they are “victims” of the Islamophobia that is surely affecting hundreds of other Muslims in this country. The real victims of terror are the poor illegal restaurant workers, cab-drivers, others holding menial jobs, many of these of the same class without recourse to legal help, not knowing how to work the system, such as the South Asian men of Jackson Heights who were among the 1500 “disappeared” men following 9/11, who never got fair trials (or any trials!) and were in many cases simply deported-their terror and that of their families documented so poignantly in the excellent documentary by Kathleen Foster, “Point of Attack.”
Those of us who can speak out, because of our facility with the English language, because of our cosmopolitan abilities resulting from our economically and educationally-advantaged positions which help us to “fit in” anywhere-or-not-if we choose to, would do well to remember the real victims of this debate, and now of the new immigration laws poised to be passed. These, as always, are aimed at the poor and the disenfranchised, whether they be Muslim or Catholic or neither. It is time to tease out all of these complexities of affiliation and difference, scrupulously underscoring our own complicities in a system where it is indeed tiresome to have to explain Muslim terrorism if one is a Muslim, as Ms Anar Ali points out in her NYT Op-Ed essay of June 19th. It is, however, infinitely worse to have to explain why one is poor and willing to take life-threatening risks to try and enter a country which simultaneously enriches itself through your cheap labor but wants to keep you out at all costs, including building a wall that quite literally instantiates my colleague’s desire, “go back to the caves you crawled out from” Words may hurt, but I, like the Miss Alis’ of this world, have words in my arsenal too.
It’s the guns and the walls that’ll kill ya.
FAWZIA AFZAL-KHAN is a Professor Of English at Montclair State University. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org