Article first published as Faith, Race, and Terror on Blogcritics.
in America again. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that the blood of the
innocent cries forever. We join our cries with the blood split in a Sikh
sanctuary last Sunday.
As a Black American, I cannot contemplate this tragedy without
contemplating the legacy of domestic racial terrorism my people have
faced since being brought in chains to these shores. I'm reminded of Angela Davis's
description of the sound of bombs going off in her Birmingham
neighborhood as a child, bombs that would eventually take the lives of four little girls at Sunday school. I'm reminded of the thousands lost to the lynching tree discussed so eloquently by James Cone and documented so brutally by James Allen.
Domestic racial terrorism is what Wade Michael Page accomplished,
whatever his ultimate motive. While Sikhs are among its latest victims,
its practice is as old as America.
What scholars such as Nadine Naber
have offered me is the opportunity to understand this phenomenon in the
context of the dominant discourse of the "War on Terror." In her
must-read essay, "Look, Mohammed the Terrorist is Coming: Cultural
Racism, Nation-based Racism and the Intersectionality of Oppressions
after 9/11," she explains that politicians, pundits, and other opinion
leaders have constructed a threatening "other." Similar to the young
black male that haunts the American mind, this other is Arab/Middle
Eastern/Muslim and male. He is distinguished by cultural characteristics
that are treated as "natural" and inherently hostile to "our way of
life," and markers of marginalization such as Arab-sounding names or
physical appearance. In addition, he is often an immigrant from
particular countries and assumed to be suspect or "criminal" by virtue
of his nation of origin.
This dominant discourse of the War on Terror can be seen as the petri
dish in which the Wade Michael Pages in our nation have grown. Sadly,
such incidents are not new. Sikhs
were among our first civilian casualties of this discourse after 9/11.
It is in this context that I must agree with Rinku Sen that this
shooting was neither senseless nor random. It was a brutal lesson in the inevitable consequences of the color line.
Even when it does not lead to violence, the dominant discourse of the
War on Terror may contribute to bizarre mentalities. I once answered
the phone at our local Baha'i Center. A woman's voice stated, "Don't
forget what happened on 9/11 and don't forget who did it. Fucking
Niggers." Click. Somehow Baha'is, 9/11, and black folk got
mixed up in this woman's head. Rantings of a diseased mind? Maybe. But
they might also represent the very racialization of our conversations
about terrorism Naber is critiquing in her essay.
While the Sikh temple attack shocks the conscience of people
generally, for the primary targets of domestic racial terrorism it
burdens heart and soul. Naber refers to this as the "internment of the
psyche," the anxiety that at any moment you or those you love can face
harassment or violence. This anxiety operates whether the perpetrator is
an individual, or the state, as in racial profiling.
When my wife and I were considering names for our son, we actually
discussed the politics of Middle Eastern-sounding names. Like many
Baha'is, we wanted his name to reflect his spiritual heritage which
originates in Iran. Given the hysteria over Barack Obama's middle name
at that time, discussions that should have been joyful were tempered
with worry. It's these everyday efforts to cope with a sense of vulnerability
that are often not appreciated when spectacular acts of violence take
place. Whether it's wondering if you'll be assaulted for wearing a
turban or wondering whether it's safe for your son to pick up Skittles
at the store, it's the accumulation of little terrors that can cause
the greater harm. After 9/11, we were told that we launched wars across
the world so we would not have to fight terror at home. Last Sunday was a
reminder that for some Americans, the terror has long been homegrown.
It is inspiring to note that Sikhs are combating fear with faith as they have done for many years now. They are showing us the best of America as are the thousands standing in solidarity with them.
Some believe the martyrdom of children in that Birmingham Church in
1963 marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Revolution. Could we be
witnessing such an American moment again? Might this massacre challenge
us to recommit ourselves to the goal of a truly united, just,
multiracial, and religiously plural democracy? Might it inform a much
needed shift in our conversations about national security? As 'Abdu-l-Baha (1844-1921), Head of the Baha'i Faith from 1892 to 1921, has told us, the choice is ours:
See ye no strangers; rather see all men as friends, for love and
unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness...For each of the
creatures is a sign of God, and it was by the grace of the Lord...that
each did step into the world; therefore they are not strangers, but in
the family; not aliens, but friends, and to be treated as such.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia.com. This image was originally posted to Flickr by thivierr at http://flickr.com/photos/45382436@N00/1237191101.