Being Brown in Trump’s America: A Roundtable on Hate Crimes Against South Asians in the United States

Monday, March 20, 4-6pm  |  University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Co-sponsored by the Tricontinental Solidarity Network (Tricon), Islamic Studies Program, Asian / Pacific Islander American Studies, Center for South Asian Studies, South Asia Solidarity in Michigan (SASMI)

Facebook event: here.

Panelists: Manan Desai (American Culture), Hafsa Kanjwal (History & Women’s Studies), Salman A Hussain (History & Anthropology), and Shama Lakdawala (Chai Tea Party).

The roundtable was moderated by Tapsi Mathur (History), and organized by Tricontinental Solidarity Network (Tricon) and Lia Wolock.

Following are the edited and revised comments delivered by two of the panelists.

Introduction: Salman A Hussain (UM History & Anthropology)

Good afternoon everyone.

We’re gathered here, in the aftermath of the recent racist murders of Indian Americans in Kansas, to discuss and share our perspectives on what it means to be brown in Trump’s America, as the title of this roundtable has it. It is important for us to understand that these attacks emerge from somewhere, that they have histories — and Professor Desai will put them in historic context. The thrust of my comments, however, is to investigate the terms “hate crimes” and “South Asian” in the subtitle.

The legalist term “hate crimes” hides a fair bit. It is used to describe individual acts of physical violence by private individuals, acts motivated by hate, bigotry, and prejudice. The term does not capture, even when it is pluralized (“crimes”), the interrelations between these individual incidents, or a sense of a sustained and wide campaign, connected to a certain kind of ideology and politics. Let’s call these (appropriating Johan Galtung’s typology) physically violent acts by private individual, “direct violence”. This violence is but one leg of a three-pronged violent machine arrayed against South Asians, some more so than others. The other two legs are “cultural violence” and “structural violence”. Cultural violence can be understood as ranging anywhere between casual, everyday bigotry, to stereotypical representations in popular culture, to active microaggressions, to explicit, overt, intentional racist jeers, taunts, graffiti etc. I think that we can intuitively sense the link between cultural violence and direct violence. The two are attached at the hip to structural violence. It is this last aspect, in its statist form, that I wish to emphasize, particularly the continuity and bipartisan-ness of this violence, from Clinton to Bush to Obama to Trump—each upping the ante, as if to out-man their predecessors. Of course, the wellspring of what we think of as “Islamophobia” (cultural violence) in the U.S. is the state itself. Infiltration of mosquesmappingsurveillance, the informantswitch-huntsharassment of Muslims by various policing agencies, profiling,  detentions and deportations of Muslim migrantsracist discourses, mostly-Muslim and Muslim-only gulags at home and abroadthe list of state’s hate crimes against Muslims, both at home and abroad, but especially those who are ‘out of place,’ is long. 

Since we’ll hear a longer historical perspective from Professor Desai, I will restrict my comments to the past few years.

In 2001, I was in Wisconsin as an international student from Pakistan. On the day of 9/11, a kind Indian American professor pulled me aside and suggested that things might get crazy and that perhaps my brother and I should stay home for the day. Things got crazy fast. Soon enough, a fellow Pakistani student was chased home. “Osama’s whore” they kept taunting.

On 9/15, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man was shot dead in front of his Arizona gas station. Frank, the murderer, wanted to “Kill Muslims” to avenge 9/11. Frank considered himself a patriot. On the same day, Pakistani immigrant Waqar Hasan, 46, was shot and killed inside of a grocery store in Dallas.

Six days later Mark walks into the store Rais Bhuiyan worked in at Dallas. He asked the Bangladeshi man that seemingly innocent question good white folks like to ask when they meet someone from “another culture”: Where are you from? He didn’t need to hear Rais’s reply.  The self-proclaimed “Arab Slayer” shot Rais in the face with a shotgun from a few feet away. Rais survived.

Within a month the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, and starts carpet-bombing it.

Iraq was next.

Liberal Indian American commentator, and Realist Political scientist, Fareed Zakaria argued in a 2002 Newsweek article, “Unless Saddam is stopped, in a few years the world will almost certainly face a nuclear-armed megalomaniac. That’s why we need to get to work, find a trigger and—then carefully start shooting.”

Or as Tom Friedman famously argued on Charlie Rose in 2003:

what we needed to do was to go over to that part of the world and burst that bubble. We needed to go over there basically uhm, and, uh, uhm take out a very big stick, right in the heart of that world and burst that bubble…. We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. We could have hit Pakistan,  We hit Iraq, because we could. And that’s the real truth.

Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda. Or not. It didn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.

As the Global War on Terror ramped up, so did the one at “home”, again targeted at Muslims. As the drone and the jet bombed the poorest areas of the “Muslim world”, the American eagle preyed on the most vulnerable of its Muslim population: the undocumented, the visa-holders, those afforded the least legal protections.  

We now know of Trump’s “Muslim Registry” and have seen pledges from Americans to register themselves as Muslims should Trump move towards that. The Muslim registration had happened before with nary a peep from the bleeding hearts. 9/11 was fresh; there was blood in American eyes. Or since it wasn’t called Muslim registration, no chest thumping occurred.

“THIS NOTICE IS FOR YOU” screamed the flyer for a new national security initiative started in late 2002, called the NSEERS, or “Special Registration”.  Basically, You’d get finger-printed and provide information that you’re asked for. It started with migrants from just a few countries and expanded. All of the “countries of interest”, except for North Korea, were Muslim-majority countries. Hundreds who voluntarily came in for the process were detained.

My call to register, too arrived.  I do not remember what questions I was asked. I only remember that it was cold inside the building. I could feel the cold concrete floor through my boots. The searing eyes and cold stare of my inquisitor shook my insides. To a migrant there is perhaps nothing more terrifying than the confluence of immigration services and national security. Whatever protections law may afford can be revoked if one is deemed a potential threat to national security—always a possibility for a Muslim immigrant in post 9-11 America. At the port of entry, in front of an immigration officer, in that limbo a migrant experienced her utter vulnerability. She had consciously cultivated faith in the fundamental fairness of the society and the state, in the rights discourse. But she can see that something is amiss. Those rights can be revoked, particularly so in her case for she does not have that right to have rights. She is the one for whom exceptions to the rule of law exist. She is the exception.

I survived.

It’s 2005, a Pakistani and a Bangladeshi walk into a drunk-food, gyro place. Hey, Are you guys Arabs? asked an inebriated White college kid from his table. “No, we are not Arabs.” Nah, you are lying to me. I ignore; he continues. Why do Arabs ride buses all the time? We stay quiet, he ramps it up: Are you going to blow this place up?  I retort: Are you going to blow this place up? Tim McVeigh was white, and so are you. Since they lack the history of social stigma and don’t have the weight of the power differential behind them, such attempts at turning the tables do not have much of a bite. My accoster, perhaps new to this gig, acted surprised, as if insulted that his punching bag hit back. Uh Is this supposed to be a smart-ass comment? We leave.

DHS, ICE, TSA, FBI, CBP, NYPD and other local law enforcement state institutions have all run their own anti-Muslim programs as part of the domestic war on terror.

FBI’s counter-terrorism informants program, for example, works thusly:

  1.     Squeeze a migrant with irregularities in their immigration record
  2.     Turn them into spies
  3.     The informants, though vulnerable, are very well paid.
  4.     The informant ends up fermenting and hatching a plan to conduct a terror attack
  5.     The informant preys on the young, the mentally ill
  6.     The informant recruits them, in some cases, by showing them pictures from torture at Abu Ghraib or the bombing of Iraq and Afghanistan.
  7.     The informant arranges for ammunition which his “team” is itself incapable of getting themselves.
  8.     The FBI rolls in before the attack.

In short the FBI stops a terror attack that it itself had funded, fermented, hatched, and organized. Gitmo and other black sites are filled with prisoners from America’s imperial wars. But there are also domestic prisons, Gitmos inside the heartland, “Muslims only” supermax prisons for those charged with “material support of terrorism”– a deliberately fuzzy concept.

Obama’s election was yet another trigger for Islamophobia. The “Secret Moslem” president becomes the deporter in chief, and also holds Kill-list meetings on Tuesdays to decide who to drone next.

The plans to construct an Islamic Center in Manhattan gets taken up by the right as a “victory mosque”. The idea is that Muslims conquer a place and build mosques as markers of conquests. Those familiar with the Babari mosque demolition would know this shtick.

“Are you a Muslim?” asked Enright, a student the School of Visual Arts as he got in Ahmed H. Sharif’s taxicab in New York City in 2010. When Sharif, a man from Bangladesh, answered in the affirmative, Enright, who “recently traveled to Afghanistan,” said Consider this a checkpoint,” before he slashed Sharif’s throat with a knife.

In the summer of 2012, a White supremacist walks into a Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and shoots dead 6. “Don’t hate me, I’m not a Muslim” was one of the response to the perp’s “misrecognition”. This and other campaigns before have tried to educate Americans that Sikhs are not Muslim. In the aftermath of the Kansas shootings, rightwing Hindu groups have also advised Hindus to look visibly Hindu, with Bindis and all. It is a problematic response. Implicit in that is a message, that we’re not Muslims and we didn’t do 9/11, so don’t come after us. It will not help any of the national or religiously defined South Asian American communities to throw the other or some other community under the racist bus.

Note how in the strings of incidents I have described, bureaucratic violence and state surveillance precisely identifies and then targets Muslims, but the direct violence does not care to, even as it operates on the cultural logic of Islamophobia. Though, of course, TSA, CBP, and the pigs are menacing to Sikhs just as much. The racist imagination has a picture of the Muslim: brown, bearded, turbaned, hijabed. It does not care to dig deeper. If the person fits the image, that’s enough.

For instance, Amardeep Singh has argued:

I don’t know if the shooter would have acted any differently if he had really known the difference between the turbans that many Sikh men wear and a much smaller number of Muslim clerics wear — or for that matter, the difference between Shias, Sunnis, and Sufis, or any number of specificities that might have added nuance to his hatred.

As I have experienced it, the turban that Sikh men wear is the embodiment of a kind of difference or otherness that can provoke some Americans to react quite viscerally. Yes, ignorance plays a part and probably amplifies that hostility. But I increasingly feel that visible marks of religious difference are lightning rods for this hostility in ways that don’t depend on accurate recognition.

I am not sure why the reaction can be so visceral — perhaps because wearing a turban is at once so intimate and personal and so public? Walking around waving, say, an Iranian flag probably wouldn’t provoke quite the same reaction. A flag is abstract — a turban, as something worn on the body, is much more concrete and it therefore poses a more palpable (more personal?) symbol for angry young men looking for someone to target. Whether or not that target was actually the “right one” was besides the point for the Oak Creek shooter.

This violence thus transcends the communal self-identifications and internal fissures among “South Asians”. (You can read Vijay Prasad and Amardeep Singh on the terminology debate.) The experience of violence, in the tripartite sense I mentioned at the beginning, though is differently distributed along various axes: religion, national-identity, gender, affluence, sexuality, citizenship, immigration-status, degree of whiteness, distance from fob-ness, 1st/2nd generation, etc. The South Asian American response, in my view, needs to not only acknowledge these differences but build  solidarity based precisely along these differences, to come to each others’ aid, to then engage with non-Desis with this principle, to apply it consistently here and in South Asia, and elsewhere as well, to think Chicago, Kashmir, Balochistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, and Palestine together.  

***

Hafsa Kanjwal  (UM History & Women’s Studies)

I wanted to begin with more of a personal reflection on growing up as a South Asian Muslim in the US, especially since 9-11. I remember vividly sitting in my tenth grade biology classroom in Toledo Ohio being forced to take on an apologetic posture for something that had absolutely nothing to do with me. And to be honest, that is pretty much how the entire American Muslim community has responded after the attacks and continues to do so, despite the many problems there are with that stance.

I think for many of us that went to college around that time, our Muslim identity became so crucially linked to doing some sort of cross-cultural understanding—basically explaining and humanizing Islam to people who didn’t know any better was our full time job alongside taking classes and being a normal college student. We held poetry nights, invited non-Muslims to take part in our Ramadan iftars, held events featuring Muslim women to let people know we weren’t oppressed—and basically this went on and on. And you can see how prevalent this is in pop culture today—a constant effort by Muslims of all types to dispel stereotypes, and let people know what is beneath the veil, so to speak.

And yes, while holding informational events is important—I guess what I wanted to talk a bit more about today is the extent to which this has completely been adopted as what ones role as an “American Muslim” should be. We have became little footsoldiers for what has been termed as a “good Muslim”—a proud and patriotic American of the Khirz Khan variety, someone who has internalized notions of American exceptionalism—and by this I mean believing that America is the only place you can really practice your religion as a Muslim b/c we don’t have the cultural baggage of the rest of the world, and that we have the duty to go around and tell the rest of the world how they should reform their Islam.  And unfortunately, for the past 15 years, American Muslim organizations have for the most part adopted this stance.

What we are seeing today is not something new that is happening under Trump but has been ongoing since the Bush and Obama administration. Unfortunately, many American Muslims—the leadership and everyone else—were completely smitten with the Obama administration- who would say one thing about building bridges with Muslim communities, and yet, send in informants in our mosques and drop over 20,000 drones on Muslims abroad in one year. The cultivation of the good Muslim reached its pique under Obama, and many Muslim leaders and communities, in an effort to get a seat at the table and an invite to the annual White House Iftar, turned a blind eye to policies that were extremely problematic—including ubiquitous surveillancetargeting of leadersintimidation of community membersinfiltration of community spacesentrapment of youthcriminalization of speech and charitable contributionspolitical prosecutionsunlawful detentionspunitive prison conditions, and so on. . Not only that—many of them even took part in them, as we see in the case of the adoption of Countering Violence Extremism programs by a number of organizations.

On a personal level, I have grown pretty distant and skeptical of my own identity as an American Muslim as a result of these developments in the community, especially in seeing so many Muslim leaders compromised by them. But this brings us to today—and the topic of the panel—being Brown in Trumps America, which has led all of these organizations and individuals who were so politically quiescent to now be at the forefront of “leading the resistance.” I can’t help but wonder where all of the new-found activists were during all of these years when our communities were being attacked, bombed and surveilled. But I am hopeful, that for those who have always been marginalized and placed on the sidelines, that they can take this moment and use it to build solidarities with other communities, and build an American Muslim identity that isn’t just interested in being accepted by the mainsteam, but can speak truth to power.

***