Minutes after the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center, my friend watched in horror as a man shot at two women in head scarves near Canal Street in downtown Manhattan. Policemen overcame the gunman and my friend lost sight of the women in the melee that ensued. In the wake of the horror that had overcome lower Manhattan, the incident seemed to pale into insignificance.
But this was just the first of many incidents in which persons perceived as Middle Eastern were attacked or publicly humiliated. Hostile stares, suggestions that people “go back to where they came from,” shouted curses from passing cars have become commonplace for Arab-Americans or those perceived to be somehow culturally similiar to to the September 11 terrorists. In Long Island, a Pakistani-owned store was burned down. In Queens, an elderly Sikh man was beaten with baseball bats. A mosque was torched outside Toronto. A Sikh traveler was hauled off a train for questioning by the FBI apparently because his turban gave him a cursory resemblance to Osama bin Laden. A Sikh man was shot to death in Mesa, Arizona.
This kind of treatment transports many of us who are from India back to October 31, 1984, the day Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shot dead by two of her own bodyguards in New Delhi. The guards were Sikh, on a mission to avenge the recent storming of the Golden Temple-the holiest of Sikh shrines and the hotbed of fundamentalist Sikh separatism-by the Indian Army. It was a suicide attack.
Within hours, a blood bath ensued. Sikh property was looted and destroyed. Sikhs were chased down, beaten, set on fire, killed. People forgot that Sikhs make up a huge portion of our army, that they defended the country in wars with China and Pakistan, that most Sikhs are not fundamentalists.
Terror struck us all as we acknowledged the vulnerability of our head of state, but for Sikhs the nightmare was compounded by their neighbors turning on them. Ultimately, students, intellectuals, journalists and homemakers came forward to protect the Sikhs, to offer shelter and comfort. We called friends to apologize for the sins of our countrymen, just as many Sikh leaders apologized for the crime committed by those of their faith. But the disgrace will remain as long as all of us who remember the anti-Sikh riots are alive.
What happened in India then is not so different from what is happening in the United States now. The first shot fired at the innocent left the gun before anyone knew anything about the culprits. Head scarves began to signify the enemy. Unschooled eyes mistook the distinctive Sikh turban for Osama bin Laden’s headgear. Never mind that Sikhism started as a response to Islamic invasions of India. Never mind that the Sikhs were the first Indians to arrive in North America or that many have been US citizens long before many of the flag-waving patriots were born. Never mind that some of these Sikhs left India in the wake of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.
Those who masterminded the assassination of Prime Minister Gandhi remain unpunished. And while the names of the organizers of the well-orchestrated backlash against innocent Sikhs in Delhi are known to all, they too remain unpunished.
For the moment, we don’t know whether those behind the September 11 attacks will be apprehended. Meanwhile, commentators are calling for casting an ever wider net to snare terrorists lurking among us, and a hysterical populace turns on people with brown skin as potential suspects. Muslims and Sikhs–two groups with deep-rooted historical differences–have taken the brunt of the abuse, but Hindus and Middle-Eastern Jews are also unjustly suffering.
Suddenly, neighborhood kids we have seen grow into their teens chant, “No Muslims, no, no,” as we return from candlelight vigils held in memory of the victims of the attacks. Old men at street corners shout, “USA, USA,” as I return from the store.
The Indian Consul General in New York has advised Indian women to wear bindis as identifying marks on their foreheads. But what of the Arab-American women who would like to donate blood but are afraid to go out in their distinctive hijab? The terrorist attacks are an unfathomable national tragedy, but the xenophobia they have unleashed is a national disgrace.