What did September 11th do to the concept of “Asian America”? Do you see a schism between “Asian America” and “Desi America,” and a new alignment between South Asian/Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim Americans? What tensions now exist between and within these various communities?
In 1998, Lavina Shankar and Rajini Srikanth edited a book that interrogated the question of whether South Asians are a part of, or apart from, Asian America. I remember reading that book with great interest. At the time, I was working at the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium (now the Asian American Justice Center), where I was one of few South Asian staff advocating on civil rights issues affecting the wide swath of Asian Pacific American communities. I remember confronting resistance and reservations from many South Asians who questioned whether the AAPI policy agenda actually included issues affecting South Asians. I felt strongly that it should, and was determined to include South Asian concerns institutionally and with broader coalitions.
But I was also acutely aware of the reality that the Asian American political construct did not appeal to many South Asians (who were struggling to even embrace a pan-South Asian construction of cultural and political identity), and that many AAPI organizations and coalitions only paid lip service when it came to including South Asians or our community’s issues in any meaningful sense. I attributed much of this to the lack of visibility and presence of strong South Asian organizations at local and national levels.
That is likely why I felt so strongly about the creation of the organization that would become South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). Although SAALT was in very nascent stages when September 11, 2001 occurred, it soon became a vehicle through which community members could mobilize and advocate. Within hours and days after 9/11, when the stories of backlash began to reverberate around the country, it became clear that Sikhs, Muslims, South Asians, and Arab Americans would be targeted for backlash by both members of the general public and by the United States government. It also became evident that our communities had to be at the forefront of documenting and addressing discriminatory policies and actions, and of reminding Americans of our country’s fundamental principles. But our community’s national structure was limited, and local community-based organizations, especially those in New York City, were completely stretched due to the pressing needs following 9/11. In short, our community was in crisis mode with little infrastructure.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Asian American community came to our side. I remember a press conference within days of 9/11 at the Japanese American Memorial in Washington, D.C., which brought a diverse group of spokespersons together to speak out against injustice and intolerance. Many of the conversations that led to this press conference occurred in my apartment in Virginia, and I remember Asian American leaders and community members being part of the decision-making and mobilizing. Beyond D.C., Asian American organizations and leaders made public statements and stood with our communities–making connections between the World War II internment and the detentions and deportations of Muslim men; providing direct legal representation to those who were detained; publishing groundbreaking reports on the post-9/11 backlash; translating information for those subject to the special registration program, and more.
As time has gone on, many AAPI organizations that were highlighting post-9/11 impact have reduced that part of their work; and at the local level, the linkages between South Asians and the broader AAPI communities seem to still be disconnected. Often, South Asians are seen as the “9/11 community” with opinions only on issues related to post-9/11 policies. Sometimes, the post-9/11 related issues we need support from AAPI communities on are seen as too controversial. This is not limited to the APA community–funders, academic institutions, policymakers, and media see our communities through this lens, sometimes to the exclusion of all others.
Whether the 9/11 moment and its aftermath will be seen as a seminal moment for AAPIs is still cause for exploration. In spite of some important connections that have been made between AAPIs and South Asians, there is still disjointedness; somehow, the experiences of South Asians since 9/11 do not evoke a collective sense of “we have all been wronged” as other historical moments in Asian American history do.
Not surprisingly, South Asian communities are finding greater alignment with Arab Americans, Muslims, and Sikhs. We are bound together by a forced political construction (case in point: the Special Registration program implemented by the Department of Justice targeted those from the Middle East and South Asia); by shared experiences of discrimination and profiling, of being cast as the “other”; by the urgency of coalition-building across religious and racial lines (if we don’t do this together, how can we endure?); and by the grouping of our communities as MASA (Muslim, Arab, South Asian) by philanthropic institutions.
And as is the case with alliances that are catalyzed by crisis situations or institutional branding, there is often misunderstanding, political dynamics, uncertainty, distrust. But we have also endured. SAALT and the National Network on Arab American Communities have been learning from each other. Muslim and Sikh organizations regularly communicate and consult with each other. Those of us with national presence in D.C. come together to advocate with government agencies. We have learned to share information, to build partnerships, to leverage each other’s resources.
Yes, the road has been challenging since 9/11. But community-building is always messy, and in times of crisis, even more so. Now, as we move past this first decade after 9/11, we have the opportunity to develop honest and meaningful alliances. If we seek to assert our collective power, we have no other option.
Asian America bears the label “Made in the USA.” We all know that. The name makes little sense in Asia. Moreover, the old Orient even adorned in the garb of new Asia is a European design at least as antiquated as Hippocrates and the ancient Greeks. And Europe’s Enlightenment gifted us the racialization Asian, which is a continental designation like those for the other major “races of mankind.” So the question of racial realignments in the U.S. post 9/11 or really any period in history bears the unmistakable stamp of human agency.
The U.S. Census tracks the strange career of racial categories. Africans were variously classed from 1790 in the first Census as slaves and “other persons” and later as mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, Negro, and so forth; “whites” were consistently whites but the groups within this category expanded to include peoples from southern and eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa such that, in the 2010 Census, natives from “North Africa,” the “Middle East,” and “Arabia” were counted as whites. When enumerated, American Indians were constrained by blood quantum and then self-identification, and, depending upon the Census, peoples from the “Middle East” and South Asia moved from white to Asian and back again. To complicate matters, individual states maintained their own racial classifications for purposes of state laws such as miscegenation statutes.
One of the Census consequences post 9/11 is the retracted request by certain organizations which had advocated for a separate “Middle East” and “Arab” category mainly because of the state’s racial and religious profiling of those peoples. And despite the war on immigrants and the profiling of Latinas/os, the question of “Hispanic” as a separate ethnic or racial category is a pressing matter primarily because of that group’s special needs and concerns over voting rights and representation.
With that firmly in mind–the social construction of race–the matter of 9/11’s impact upon racializations and “Asian America” for me devolves to human choices and initiatives. Whether South Asian/Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim Americans ally with or distinguish themselves from “Asian America” should be their option. But well we know subject positions are simultaneously imagined by selves and imposed and influenced by others. In particular, the state’s apparatuses have since 9/11 merged phenotype with culture, as in pre-Boasnian discourses of race, and Asian Americans have made common cause against those exertions.
Of the many instances of those resistances, I cite the case Turkmen v. Ashcroft, begun in 2002. Ibrahim Turkmen and seven other Asian and African non-citizens filed a class action civil rights lawsuit against the INS and FBI for their racial profiling dragnet in the wake of 9/11. In that action, the state summarily arrested and detained some 700 suspects on the pretext of immigration violations without any evidence that they posed a threat to the nation’s security. The Muslim plaintiffs were from Pakistan, Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey, and they included an Indian Hindu and Nepalese Buddhist. Five settled their claims for $1.26 million in 2009, and six new plaintiffs joined the amended suit in 2010.
In 2007, in the midst of the proceedings, Holly Yasui, Jay Hirabayashi, and Karen Korematsu-Haigh, offspring of Minoru Yasui, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Fred Korematsu, who challenged the World War II removals and detentions of Japanese Americans, filed a brief urging the federal judge John Gleeson not to overlook “the nearly 20-year-old declaration by the United States Congress and the President of the United States that the racially selective detention of Japanese aliens during World War II was a ‘fundamental injustice’ warranting an apology and the payment of reparations.” “I feel that racial profiling is absolutely wrong and unjustifiable,” Yasui wrote, and the government’s treatment of Turkmen and his co-litigants reminded her of the Japanese American past. “Their interest is in avoiding the repetition of a tragic episode in American history that is also, for them, painful family history,” the brief stated.
As in the formation of “Asian America” in 1969, a perceived common past makes for a common subjectivity and political cause, the alliance of Asians from West to East, from Turkey to Japan. Additionally, the state’s war on immigrants generally might result in an even broader coalition of Asian Americans and Latinas/os as it already has at the discrete level of litigation. And anti-imperialism might yet resurrect a post-colonial Third World to complete the unfinished business of self-determination and anti-racism and an end to all forms of oppression and exploitation. Wishful thinking to be sure, but we, the people, can forge those relations in struggle.
“Knowledge exists only in lightning flashes. The text is thunder rolling long afterward.”
–Walter Benjamin, 1932
As with all scenes of violence, the traumatized are brought back to earlier moments of violation. The abrupt racialization of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian Americans was legible to Japanese American concentration camp redressees. We re-live the pain and agony. And then we forget, yet again. (Except for those who re-fuse. Synapses hardwired.)
“Asian America begins with Vincent Chin” is Attorney Wu’s opening statement. The social historian in me knows this is not true. But the Midwesterner in me understands. In Detroit, 1980s, a gook is a gook, even if you’re a professional. It’s too much to bear. For the whitened muscular manhood I grew up amidst, losing one’s livelihood to “cheap,” “tiny,” “underpowered” Japanese cars is too much to bear.
With Chin’s injustice, new Asian immigrants suddenly realize the present is a rehearsal of a past. With the scapegoating post-9/11 and idÃ©e fixe of “the Arab terrorist,” another generation of Orientalized abjects realize “the past” of other Asian Americans is their omnipresent. What was over there and gone is the here and everyday. We live in echo.
Foundational American frailties channel how and whom we vent. Unresolved violations violate again, again. The new immigrants in our midst, “the dot heads,” the “un-American,” “smelly,” “accented” speakers proved to be the new victims of distrust, disgust, and worse.
The re-recognition of a cold reality re-birthed. The down and dirty. Trane’s scream–circular breathing stretched to the limit every time, every border, every orifice.
I replay the wounds I recall:
Acapulco, the 1635 petition against Chinese barbers in Mexico City, with 1898,
Angel Island with the 442,
Hand laundry workers with the Red Scare
The unending Korean war,
The “killing fields” reenacted, redacted in the streets of Lowell,
The automated battlefield and “Red Dawn” re-remade,
Each ground zero has its own notational sequence.
The song for Mannahatta?
The Draft Riots, 1863;
The 1741 Negro Plot;
Kieft’s War, 1643.
(Deflecting from the truly “dangerous” other
–the break beat–
and alongside Lenni Lenape.)
What is your song?
I leave with the root Daoist Derridean puzzle:
“L’Un se garde de l’autre.”
“L’Un se fait violence.”
“L’Un se garde de l’autre pour se faire violence.”
The One guards itself from the other.
The One makes itself violent.
The One guards itself from the other to make itself violent.
The American destiny?
At what point is there too much to forget?
(At what point can we live with ambiguity,
We must ever re-member more…
Sunita S. Mukhi
Two trajectories emerged after the tragedy of 9/11. Alliances amongst South Asians, especially those who use the term South Asian or Desi to describe themselves, rather than “Indian” or “Pakistani,” were fortified. Pan-South Asian organizations like South Asians Women’s Creative Collective (SAWCC), South Asian League of Artists in America (SALAAM) theater, Diasporadics, Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), and South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow (SAALT), which were already active before 9/11, became even more relevant. Their programming drenched New York with presentations illuminating the rich and diverse cultures of Islam, especially the more mystical, poetic, and artistic Sufism, the peaceful Islam, and the advocacies to protect the civil rights of Desi Muslims and other disenfranchised South Asians.
At the same time, many cultural productions portrayed how integral Islam and Muslims are to Desi culture and American culture more generally. The Asia Society, where I worked to educate the public about the plight of Afghanistan and the diversity of Islam and Muslims, hosted many multi-faith fora, symposia, and soirees. This programming portrayed Muslims as humans and not as terrorists, as Americans and not traitors. A number of plays vivified the Muslim or Muslim American experience, such as Rehana Mirza’s Barriers and Sharbari Ahmed’s Raisins Not Virgins. Our work was cut out for us, we who were part of those progressive South Asian culture worker communities, and there was so much to do in venues like the Brecht Forum, Asian American Writer’s Workshop, Asia Society, Queens Museum of Art, American Museum of Natural History, Shaheen restaurant in Jackson Heights, Flushing Public Library, and Basement Bhangra at SOB’s.
Besides engaging with my colleagues, who were moving spirits, changing minds, and protecting civil rights via cultural arts programming, I also had many opportunities to participate actively as a performer. I composed stories for young audiences that privileged creativity over the violence of war in pieces like “Princess Goody Saves New York City” and “White Tiger and Brown Fox.” The most important of my works was “Liberty’s New Wedding Day,” a tongue-in-cheek indictment of imperialism and terror presented at Basement Bhangra, Bose Pacia and Talwar Galleries, Shaheen Restaurant, Flushing Library, and the Asia Society.
The Desi American community of progressive culture workers that I was part of in New York City was abuzz, visible, alive.
Leaving the city for the suburbs to create a hub of Asian America via the Charles B. Wang Center in Stony Brook University presented the second, very different trajectory–or perhaps made palpable to me that I had been ensconced in only one reality. I was now in a more mainstream America, where the Desi America that I knew was somewhat unknown, treated with discomfort, an unease. Instead of forming coalitions, the tragedy of 9/11 produced an earnest assertion by Indians: they were in fact Hindus, not Muslims.
At Stony Brook University, a multicultural haven compared to its environs, Bangladeshis, Sikhs, and Hindus are represented in their respective student organizations where, in the spirit of diversity and much-needed multicultural education, their heritages, cultures, and religions are celebrated. Eager to educate the campus community and the public, as well as to participate in the particularities of their ethnicities or religions, they create programs to reflect these assertions of difference, i.e., a Hindu is not a Muslim is not a Sikh. Indian is not Pakistani is not Bangladeshi. All proclaim that they are peace-loving model minorities who love America as well as their ancestral lands or their roots, but of course! They are not terrorists–they are not “those others.”
On occasion, students do come together to produce, participate, or perform in each other’s programs, but much of their time and resources are spent celebrating the particularities of their cultures and religions. Programs are primarily attended by people of the same ethnicity or religion. Fundraising for a South Asian cause requires greater persuasion, since South Asia is an alien concept.
The Muslim Student Association, comprised of many South Asian Muslims from India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, is involved in religious education, keeping the Ramadan fast, and other religious customs, de-emphasizing their particular cultural differences, privileging their faith, and presenting themselves as “good Muslims” who practice Islam–the religion of peace. The Hindu Student Council celebrates Hindu festivals of Diwali and Holi, visits temples and provides religious instruction, and extols the Hindu culture, specifically the Indian Hindu culture. During the annual 9/11 commemoration, they mourn the loss of life with the other faith representatives, usually quoting the Bhagavad Gita or the Vedas.
This kind of divisiveness is reflected in the other Asian American organizations on campus. There are Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, and Korean organizations. Thankfully there is one multi-Asian American organization, Asian Student Alliance, and an online newsletter, Asian American E-zine, which chronicles the Asian-themed events and news on campus. And in the few courses we offer, such as “Cultures of Asian American Communities,” “Philosophical Issues in Asian American Studies,” and “Asian American Films and Performance,” we strive to expose young minds to an Asian American consciousness. Suturing the gap between the classroom and extracurricular life is an ongoing process. There is much work to be done!
This reality enflamed me to program at the Wang Center with a Pan-Asian American vision that included the Pacific Islands and Central and West Asia. I formulate my courses with a clear “South Asian” emphasis, and other courses do fulfill the “South Asian” agenda, such as courses on the Desi Diaspora, though for the most part the faculty’s expertise is on India, not Indian America. It helps in my case that my parents were born in Sind before Partition, and that I was born and bred in the Philippines: I understand what it means to be part of a diasporic, mercantile-entrepreneurial (non-Brahmanic) Desi (and Pinoy) community. I may have left the cosmopolitan proclivities of NYC, but I brought the Desi America that I knew, sensitized by the tragedy of 9/11 and the Islamophobia and war-mongering that accompanied it, with me.
Fortunately, there are a few who possess this kind of community-solidarity consciousness. The Muslim-themed programs (Koranic Fatigue by Rizwan Mirza, No Laughing Matter: Stand-ups for The Pakistan Floods, and Islam: Towards a Religion of Peace, with Asghar Ali Engineer) that we produced brought in progressive members of many ethnicities but needed very aggressive outreach. With only moderate outreach, the heritage or more ambassadorial programs (classical Indian dance concerts, for instance) are always sold out, the auditorium filled with members of the Indian community, both young and old. Other critical, progressive programs bring in students who have been required to attend as part of their coursework. A forced community of spectators, indeed, but the incentives of extra credit and better grades are well-intentioned, and one hopes that students will be inspired to think of coalition rather than division, pluralism rather than homogeneity.
Thus there are exclusive, particular South Asian American communities as a result of 9/11 in the current reality of my life at Stony Brook University, Long Island, New York. These communities thrive here in the segregated suburbs, earnest in their intent to celebrate their cultures, to expose the community at large to their respective differences, while the progressive, inclusive Desi American community continues its work (in other places) to push forward civil rights and social justice.
Perhaps the Origami Peace Tree that we are producing at the Wang Center in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 will help create a community of responders who insist that instead of a militaristic response to terror, a more expressive/artistic dialog about peace, solidarity, and social justice is needed. Inspired by the origami cranes that were made in commemoration of those who perished in 9/11–and by the cranes made by Sadako Sasaki as she suffered leukemia in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings–the Peace Tree may help people reflect on some possibilities of going beyond the violence of ethnic and sectarian differences. Perhaps by creating a paper sculpture while meditating on the tragedy of 9/11, we can imagine a humane community.
The classroom is inevitably the space where I consider how Asian America is shifting and how I can respond to those shifts as an educator, artist, and writer. My initial move from the Bay Area to New York made me especially aware of the transmutations within conceptions of what was “Asian” and “American” about Asian America in the popular imaginary and then in particular as they were manifest among the students I worked with at CUNY.
My foundation in Asian American studies took shape in West Coast classrooms and was initially out of step with the students I encountered as an educator at CUNY. Coming from UC institutions where pan-Asian solidarity was more or less the norm, I was unprepared for the markedly uneven terrain where students identified primarily based on country of origin, language spoken, or, in some cases, whether they had attended Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, or Stuyvesant. Those early firsthand encounters with young Asian immigrants–whom I would most likely have considered “Asian American” had I been in Oakland or Sacramento–were decisive in reframing my understanding of how Asian America cannot be rendered in relation to its West Coast center, but must be considered as a geographically and temporally specific phenomenon perpetually in flux. There was of course already significant excellent scholarship to this effect, but it wasn’t until I worked with Asian (American) students who seemed to feel that “Asian American” meant “American”–fluent in English, middle-class, with parents who stood out not for their race but for their profession–that I fully grasped the scope and complexity of the variance in that term.
Today, this particular slippage is less of an issue in my pedagogical practice, and I am instead increasingly aware of how rapidly notions of identity formation and belonging are changing on the ground, i.e. in the lives of the mostly 18-to-25-year-olds I have conversations with a few times a week. What I initially perceived to be geographic and historical particularities within a still-important political category of “Asian America” now seem to be subsumed by a broader movement towards a postracial humanism understood in the language of global capitalism, with resultant opportunities for individual self-determination. That identity is invented, not imposed, seems to be the general sentiment, and it is against this belief system that post-9/11 detention and deportation–or, as students frequently refer to it: racial profiling (eliding, for the most part, the subsequent juridical violence)–becomes a tough pill to swallow. As it should be.
For as much as the political history of Asian Americans points to longstanding and continuously resurfacing currents of foreigner racialization and exclusion/incarceration, contemporary ambivalence about how Asian Americans are marked as a racialized group (model minority still, or simply hard-working “immigrants”) makes Asian American experience a complicated framework for examining the decade since 9/11. Don’t get me wrong: students see correlations between 1882, 9066, and 9/11; the problem is that they are reluctant to make meaning of that arc and instead want to read race as archaic and exclusion as exceptional. Some of them already seem to feel that West Asia is a dubious concept–few have heard of “wars in West Asia” or “dependence on West Asian oil”–and that Arab or Muslim Americans are shoehorned into the category of Asian America. They see the broader impact on South Asian Americans, yet this is frequently understood, again, as racial profiling with the implication that it is, as in a detective novel, a case of mistaken identity. Add to that the sense of an Asian American studies framework somehow making special accommodations for a marginalized group, despite the logic of such inclusion and solidarity, and I have to work even harder to emphasize that what we are looking at is not extraordinary at all.
As an educator, this is of course the work I want to be doing, but what I am hoping to emphasize here is the challenge of negotiating the rapidly changing terrain of the classroom when it comes to illustrating the presence of a racialized margin and center. One of the consequences of postracial discourse is of course that it has made the idea of structural racism seem almost archaic, a tattered artifact that will soon be overcome with the help of globalization, free-market democracy, or even miscegenation. When I point to the aforementioned trajectories of Asian American disenfranchisement, I am clearly making a case for racialized structures of exclusion; however, catalyzed by faith in a cosmopolitan and postracial self, students are often reluctant to agree that these structures implicate them.
Furthermore, civil rights seem to frequently still be imagined along a black/white axis with contemporary public challenges to such thinking–anti-brown and yellow xenophobia and persecution, coupled with quotidian infractions of civil liberties and the Cold War resonance of “If You See Something Say Something”–seen as either globalization-induced ills or relatively benign, even innocent (and therefore of course successful) state surveillance. Awareness of “racial profiling” seems to fit somewhere in this scheme, but for those who experience this “profiling” most acutely, even violently, there is little incentive to step forward and identify as someone marked by the past as well as the present. As a slight aside, what kills me are also the students who seem so convinced of the incompetence of the state that they cannot imagine being successfully policed, never mind the fact that the effort to police needs to be interrogated in the first place.
I have no overarching conclusion, since these are simply notes on what I understand to be an ever-evolving process of working in the classroom. Let me stress, however, that my observations of “students” are not meant to imply that they are a naÃ¯ve, ignorant, or homogeneous group. I interpret their wide-ranging belief systems as being reflective of a number of broader challenges: the inadequacy of K-12 treatment of Asian American history and experience, the illusion of personal reinvention vis-Ã -vis social media, family histories of sacrifice with a subsequent insistence upon personal triumph–to name only a few of the forces they are subject to as youth, immigrants, English language learners, workers, sons, daughters. This last point resonates most powerfully since I know that the vast majority of the students I work with come from immigrant backgrounds. As first- or second-generation immigrants from Bangladesh, the Ukraine, Tibet, Poland, Afghanistan–and then often first-generation college students (at least in this country)–my students face high stakes when it comes to believing that an education affords opportunity and that anything structural is meant to include, not exclude.
As I write this text, it dawns on me that the classroom experiences I had before 9/11 were as a student: only in the years immediately following 2001 did I come into my own as an educator. Consequently, my sense of past and present shifts in the field must be read through another “pre-“ and “post-.” As a student–both similar to and vastly different from the undergraduates I work with now–I must also have wanted to believe that I had a say in the construction of my identity. At the same time, I also recall an acute sense of excitement and pride to be a subject on the margins with a growing suspicion of the center. The study of gender–in particular, then, repeated readings of AnzaldÃºa–was useful to my understanding of the provocative possibilities of locating my racial/gender/class identity on the margins in order to potentially displace or relocate the center.
The 2011 classroom is undeniably very different than its early 90s counterpart, but as the challenges are continuously shifting, so are, thankfully, the contours of Asian America. A number of critical and generous teachers helped me understand the possibilities of this generative dialectic between center and margins, and my hope is that I can do the same for the students I work with. By presenting “Asian America” as an unstable and open structure, I hope to make the broader point that identity–disciplinary, individual, collective–bears the same qualities of instability and contradiction where an understanding of the other always implicates the self.
Being a refugee Palestinian student in the U.S. for me meant one thing: pursuing an education that would be financially rewarding while providing an understanding of the sources of turmoil in my family’s homeland. Naturally, doing a double major seemed the most rewarding solution. Majoring in the sciences was fairly simple. However, being involved in establishing the Middle East South Asia Studies (MESA) major on campus and being one of its first graduates were not. The former required rallying and organizing other Middle Eastern and South Asian students to petition the University for the resources to create a balanced curriculum about the history and politics of those regions. All this had to be accomplished in a post-9/11 context at an American university at a time when students and academics alike were reluctant to endorse any campaign that might be accused of extremism or anti-Americanism.
My fervor to establish and pursue this major stemmed from a very raw and almost desperate need to come to terms with my identity. As far back as kindergarten, I remember feeling a sense of void and a lack of inclusion during activities as simple as snack-time. Classmates would be munching on graham crackers or apples and milk while I had falafels or pita bread and feta cheese sandwiches. And then we’d attend a family get-together and I’d be dismissed as too American for not comprehending Arabic figurative speech. As the daughter of immigrants, I never felt completely a part of any one culture. Given a host of spiritual and psychological traumas relating to my olive skin, my dark features, and my being Muslim in a mainstream Christian society, I needed to make intellectual sense of the emotional experiences of isolation, exceptionalism, and alienation that I was experiencing as an Arab minority in America, particularly after 9/11.
Now that I’m in my early twenties, my restlessness is evolving. No longer is it a deep-seated frustration to fit in. I’ve realized that every person who’s experienced transnational migration experiences the pangs of exclusion…and that, in and of itself, is a shared narrative and a connection.
Pursuing the MESA major post 9/11 was also therapeutic in that I was able to write a senior thesis on the covert political and corporate structures designed to exclude and oppress entire religious, political, and cultural communities in the U.S. I learned from my research that in response to this collective suffering, collaborative immigrant advocacy and human rights organizations are emerging.
Therefore for me to participate in this dialogue…Because of my own development, I would challenge the very premise of these questions and expand them to ask, “What have 9/11 and the U.S. response to it done to the concept of human identity globally?”
Ten years after 9/11 and the beginning of the War on Terror, and now after bin Laden’s capture and death, our identities have been collectively isolated, excluded, and devalued. As a biologist I study how malaria, AIDS, tuberculosis, and dengue fever kill people. As a sociologist, I see how these epidemics are more pertinent threats than the activities of any terrorist organization. Yet the funding distributed to the U.S.’s counter-terrorism efforts far exceeds the budget scientists are granted to work on eradicating these diseases.
Because of these globalized systems of oppression, our experiences as “Asian American” can no longer be perceived as unique or isolated. Our narratives for inclusion may evolve and expand in this new historical moment to include not only the “South Asian/Arab/Middle Eastern/Muslim” narratives but those of all people now coming into identities not based on paternal lineages, national pedigrees, religious tendencies, or places of residency, but rather rooted in our existence in an ever globalizing and hybdridizing world, where understanding Arab figurative speech or eating falafel sandwiches pales in comparison to recognizing one another’s humanistic value.
I was a very young 22 years old when 9/11 happened, and honestly, I really did not know much of anything. I could tell you about the Desi Muslim community in Maryland because I grew up in it. But that was it; I was just a Desi Muslim, I knew nothing of other Muslim communities.
As I was growing up, my mosque, the Islamic Society of Baltimore, was comprised of Sunni Desis and Arabs. Very rarely were we all in the mosque at the same time, though. We had separate Sunday schools, Desis in the morning, Arabs in the afternoon. Elected leadership positions in the mosque were filled with Desis and occasionally a lone Arab. And there was talk–lots of talk. “Arabs are just not Desi” and “the Indians are very different,” I heard a few times.
As for those outside the Desi and Arab communities: the African American mosques were in the city, and I did not know where the Shi’a mosques were, where the Persian and smaller subsection of the Desi community would have worshipped.
Ironically, though, I went to day school with a lot of the Arab kids I was not permitted to go to Sunday school with. Many of us were in school together, and we knew who the other Desi, Arab, and Persian Muslims were at the other schools in the vast web of lacrosse-playing Maryland private schools. We never spoke of what separated us outside of school, why our parents never socialized on weekends, why we never saw one another at our respective community functions. That which separated us was an accepted reality and we never questioned it, at least not to one another.
But we all also came together on Eid. Twice a year in a warehouse, gymnasium, parking garage–somewhere where we could all fit, all the different components of the Muslim community in Maryland came together. Only on Eid (or Triple Hug Day, as I called it growing up), for about an hour and a half, did I see how massive and diverse the Muslim community was.
After 9/11, however, that all changed. It is ironic: 9/11 happened during a time when large pockets of Muslims started migrating, some forcibly, to different parts of the state of Maryland. Gentrification in the city was beginning and many African American Muslims were displaced to the counties. The community itself was growing as waves of immigrants and refugees from the former Yugoslavia and the Middle East were making their way into Maryland. Placed elsewhere initially, they eventually found their way to Maryland where extended family and friends lived–mostly in Baltimore and Howard Counties.
And of course, they all went to the mosque. Jumma (Friday) prayers grew so much that additional space would have to be built for both prayer and parking, several languages could be heard in hallways and Sunday school classes, more Shi’a Muslims came to the mosque, and there was even talk of forming a summer camp for Muslim youth.
But 9/11 initially halted this progress. We were all terrified and perpetually on high alert. Questions were thrown out from every which direction. How could this have happened? Were the attackers really Muslim or is this all just a lie? Why are the police coming to the mosque now? Why are the police knocking on my door? Should we not come to the mosque anymore? Do you think they will really send us back home? Don’t they know it wasn’t all of us? What are we going to do? How are we going to survive?
The distress and fear were palpable. This was particularly true of the newer members of the community–new immigrants and new mosque members who really struggled in the first four to five months after 9/11.
Leadership, unity, patience, maturity, resourcefulness, and advocacy were needed, and they came from seemingly unlikely allies. Shared experience and fear brought the Arabs and Desis together like nothing else. The dividing lines blurred when we were all called enemies, outsiders, and terrorists. Finally, we were simply Muslims, not Desi or Arab Muslims, just Muslims. And veterans of those communities reluctantly took on leadership and organizing positions. They spearheaded the cleanup when the mosque was vandalized, they organized forums in which community members expressed their concerns to the police and ever-present FBI, and they put together the framework for interfaith dialogues that had never happened before. They became the leaders I know they never wanted to be and did so by banding together. And through their efforts, the community understood that we could only stand strong if we stood together.
This solidarity has carried forward nearly 10 years later. Mosques, including the Islamic Society of Baltimore, are far more diverse and inclusive. There are now several mosques in each county and representatives from those counties meet regularly. But in our continuing efforts to support one another, we cannot forget our struggles, nor simply accept this unity as a given. We must continue working and organizing to stand even stronger.
Robert Ji-Song Ku
I remember it like a dream because I was in fact asleep the moment the Twin Towers toppled ten years ago. I was living in Manhattan at the time, on East 85th Street and Second Avenue, in one of those dingy apartments that give claustrophobics nightmares. By the time I awoke, sometime around 11 a.m., both Towers had already been reduced to smoldering piles of crumbled concrete, gnarled steel, and asphyxiating plume. I thought I had heard screams in my dream, one of those shrieking horror film screams, but it was most likely a horrified neighbor who watched the events unfold in real-time on TV. Confused, shocked, and numb, I saw it only on tape delay, looped repeatedly over and over for the better part of that day and seemingly every day since. I chided myself for sleeping through it all, and then chided myself again for thinking such a thing, for treating the murder of some 3,000 souls like a sporting event that I forgot to record on my VHS.
I had at least two good excuses for sleeping in late that Tuesday morning. First, even though I was on a Tuesday/Friday teaching schedule, my first class didn’t begin until the late afternoon. (I taught in the English Department and was director of the Asian American Studies Program at Hunter College at the time.) Second, I was terribly hung over. You see, September 11th is my birthday, and the night before my birthday ten years ago, a few friends convinced me to begin the celebration a day early with a cheeseburger and one-too-many Maker’s Marks at my favorite watering hole, the Old Town Bar, down on East 18th Street. It was a good thing I celebrated that birthday early because after the Towers fell, unless you were members of al-Qaeda or something, celebrating was not what you did on September 11th, even if September 11th was your birthday.
Realizing this, I wrote an obituary of sorts of my birthday later that year, published in a special Amerasia Journal issue (2001/2002) on the Asian American responses to September 11th. In it, I used the pretense of eulogizing my birthday to take the field of Asian American studies to task for performing what I saw as a pair of magical feats. First, the field had magically ignored the question of Palestine even as a legion of Asian American cultural and literary critics fell head over heels in love with Edward Said’s Orientalism, a book which at its core is a refutation of Zionism. Sidestepping the question of Palestine in a discussion of Orientalism is akin to dodging the question of immigrants in a discussion of Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts, I opined.
Second, having neglected to integrate Arabs and Muslims into the category of Asian America for as long as the category has existed, the field suddenly, after September 11th (poof, as if by magic), began to be suffused by discussions of Arabs and Muslims. There were good reasons for this, to be sure. To their credit, many in the field immediately drew a link between September 11th and December 7th, and expressed profound anxiety about history repeating itself. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, prompting the U.S. to declare war, Japanese Americans bore the brunt of America’s venomous racial hate here at home. Sixty years later, many in Asian American studies feared that Arab, Muslim, and South Asian Americans would suffer a similar fate after George W. Bush declared a War on Terror, which functionally was not leveled against all forms of terror but earmarked only those associated with Arabs and Muslims.
Also to their credit, as they have done in the past, most notably during the Vietnam War, Asian Americanists emphatically remonstrated against the United States’ foolhardy deployment of its ferocious machinery of war in yet another Asian land, first in Afghanistan to chase after Osama bin Laden, then in Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Tragically, as many in the field predicted, this would prove to be a mere opening salvo to a war without end against what was sold to an oblivious public–with the mainstream news media playing the part of the profiteering middleman–as a global network of radical Islamic fundamentalists hell-bent on fulfilling a single incredulous mission: to destroy the so-called American Way of Life.
Thus, in light of the field’s spot-on response to the fallout from September 11th, I was compelled to ask, “You mean all it took was the toppling of the WTC for Asian American Studies to get it?”
In retrospect, I see that I was wrong about the second magical feat–it turns out there is something Asian American studies did not get. About fifteen years ago, Moustafa Bayoumi asked whether there was an A for Arab in Asian American studies. My answer then was no, not yet, but there ought to be! Ten years ago, after witnessing the Asian American response to September 11th, my answer was yes, there is! Today, my answer is no, there is no A for Arab in Asian American studies, just as there still is no challenge to Zionism in the Asian Americanist opprobrium of Orientalism. Apparently, the promising blip on the radar immediately after September 11th was a singular event, a one-shot anomaly borne out of an exceptional tragedy. It is telling that today, Asian American studies is much more comfortable debating the nuances of, say, Tiger Moms and Asians Talking in the Library than, say, the contemporaneous uprisings taking place throughout the Arab World and what these uprisings mean not only to Arab Americans but all of us in the U.S.
Then again, is this something to bemoan? Of course, there is no doubt Asian American studies can benefit, in terms of intellectual vision and activist vigor, from widening its purview to include Arab Americans, the latest group to run the uniquely (and bizarrely) American-style gauntlet of legal and cultural racialization. However, whether the Palestinian cause specifically, or Arab American studies more broadly, can benefit from Asian American studies is another matter. That is to say, Asian American studies needs Arab Americans more than Arab Americans need Asian American studies.
It has been ten years since I last felt ambivalence-free while blowing out birthday candles and opening presents. Maybe I’m just getting old. Then again, how can I not feel ambivalent when my birthday is synonymous not only with the destruction of the Twin Towers but the resurrection of Rudy “a-Noun-a-Verb-and-9-11” Giuliani’s political clout? During this time, Arab American studies did not find an intellectual or institutional home in Asian American studies as I had hoped. That said, I don’t want to minimize those instances in which genuine, good faith efforts were made toward achieving this goal, such as the 2007 Association for Asian American Studies conference in New York City, which was highlighted by several Arab American-focused papers and a plenary session devoted to Arab American studies. (Full disclosure: I co-chaired the New York conference program committee with Sandhya Shukla and Greg Robinson, and organized the plenary with the help of Sunaina Maira and Ibrahim Aoude.) No doubt it would be stating the obvious to say that this conference and other likeminded efforts during the past decade failed to inspire Asian American studies to bring Arab American studies into its fold. Nonetheless, Arab American studies abided and continues to abide–with or without Asian American studies.
But while there is no A for Arab in Asian American studies, there indeed appears to be some modicum of M for Muslim, albeit not as a part of the field’s substantive core. Religion in Asian American studies for the most part is considered only when paired with ethnicity, national origin, or geography, such as Catholicism with Vietnamese Americans, Buddhism with Japanese Americans, Hinduism with Indian Americans, or Christianity of all sorts with Korean Americans. So too with Islam, which is inextricably tied to Muslims of the South Asian diaspora.
Once upon a time (the 1970s and 80s, to be specific), there were no South Asian American studies to speak of in Asian American studies. This would change during the 1990s, as South Asian Americanists began to enter the field in significant numbers, injecting invaluable approaches and perspectives hitherto underutilized if not undervalued in Asian American studies, such as the intellectual frameworks of postcoloniality, transnationalism, and diaspora. To be sure, there was under-the-breath grumbling among the Old Guard that these sorts of extra-state expansions of Asian American studies diluted the “original intent” of Asian American studies, which, for the most part, involved the U.S.-nation-bound experience of East Asians–and most notably Chinese and Japanese–in the Americas.
If a schism existed between Asian American studies and South Asian American studies, it narrowed significantly after September 11th. Desis, more than any other group, have ensured that Asian Americans not forget there is an M for Muslim in Asian American studies. And if every now and then we are reminded that perhaps there also ought to be an A for Arab in Asian American studies, it is most often Desis who do the reminding. And for this I am heartened–although not enough to forget that I will never celebrate another birthday with the sort of reckless, joyful abandon I did the night before my birthday ten years ago over New York City’s most delicious cheeseburger washed down with America’s greatest contribution to the State of Inebriety. But I’m allowed to dream, aren’t I?
 The reading that has been most useful is Erika Lee’s “The Chinese Exclusion Example.”