Monday, August 13, 2012

Faith, Race, and Terror

Article first published as Faith, Race, and Terror on Blogcritics.

It's mourning 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 This image was originally posted to Flickr by thivierr at