Why September 11 Didn’t Matter – part 1

sikh_holding_flags.jpgI waited a few days.  The title may be sacrilegious, but bear with me and let me explain.

Undoubtedly, for the lives lost in the World Trade Center, for victims such as Balbir Singh Sodhi, for the innocents and “collateral damage” dehumanized and murdered in the hundreds of thousands (and rising) in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to the regime that invokes the “War on Terror” that has led to unethical detention, the promotion of anti-humanist values such as torture (whether conducted in the US or contracted out to other governments), the erosion of that most “American” of constitutional values (i.e. civil liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights) – September 11, 2011 mattered and will continue to matter.  Although, some analysts are even now wondering if it will matter to the future of America.

What I am writing about are the experiences of a Sikh-American.

The narrative in our community goes as following.  The world changed on September 11, 2011 (again, that most American quality – to believe that the ‘world’ changed for an event that only occurred in the US).  Then, we as Sikhs were attacked “twice” – “double victims”, because as one Sikh civil rights group, SALDEF, writes “[first we were attacked] as Americans and again by those who wished to divide our country based on religion and ethnicity.”

I understand the storyline and it makes sense.  But there is something that rankles me here.  It is the arrogance of the younger generation.

I write this to try to bring out the actual continuities of the Sikh-American experience and why with a proper scope beyond ‘now-ism’, we can see that while an exacerbation may have occurred, much still remained the same.

I focus on the two most important continuities, despite claims of ‘revolution’ – hate-influenced violence and our institutions.

On Hate-Influenced Violence:

A number of my Sikh sisters and brothers have written various pieces in the last couple of days recollecting their experiences and memories – again it had me thinking so what was really new?

One such writer wrote about his cousin, who stated – “I look like the guy on TV [in reference to Osama Bin Laden].” Another observed “hate crimes were on the rise against Americans who didn’t “look American.””  However, was this new?  There is data suggesting a spike in reported hate crimes and hate-related intimidation in the days following 9/11, but again, was this new?  They key part in that statement is that we now have data.  Did we have data before?

For an older generation of Sikhs here in the 1970s and 1980s, was there a spike following the destruction of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, killing 241 American service personnel?  I have a feeling there was!  Even earlier was there a spike in hate crimes and hate-related intimidation after the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the capture and hostage holding of US embassy personnel?  I have a feeling there was!

My point is that despite how ‘earth-shattering’ a young vocal generation of Sikh-Americans believe their post-9/11 experiences to be, it is an arrogance and lack of an understanding of the history of our community.

My friend’s father said it best: “In the early 70s, I was a dirty Ay-rab (Arab, referring to the American populace anger over the OPEC oil embargo in 1973 following Israel’s War); in the late 1970s, I became an eye-rAnian (Iranian) and Ayatollah Khomeini (in reference to the Iranian revolution and the hostage-taking of US embassy officials); in the early 1980s, I became God-offi (in reference to Ghaddafi’s role in the bombing of Pan-Am flight 103); in the 90s I became So-damn Hussain (Saddam Hussain in reference to the first Gulf War against the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait); and in the 2000s I became Osama Bin Laden (after 9/11).  And throughout I was called raghead and towelhead.  So what changed?  How is this so different?”

I didn’t have an answer; he was right.  We are more vocal now and have a few better means of communicating our responses, but what has fundamentally changed?

In fact whatever our generation has experienced following 9/11, it still pales in comparison to ACTUAL RIOTS against Sikhs, in places such as Bellingham, Washington – mislabeled as the “Anti-Hindu Riots.”  Here over 500 townsmen with active collusion with city administrators set upon the Sikhs, endangering their lives and robbing them of their possessions.  Not a single person was convicted.  In fact it was the Sikh men, who spend the night in jail.  Sometimes I believe the present generation of Sikhs in the diaspora either does not know or woefully has forgotten the inhuman racist indignities felt by our predecessors (luckily, @Blighty and others do remind us, at least in the case of England in the 1970s).  Nothing even remotely similar to what occurred in Bellingham repeated itself after 9/11.

On Our New Institutions:

There were undoubted changes that occurred.  One of the most important has been the birth and evolution of Sikh-American organizations.  While SMART (Sikh Media Action Resource Task Force) existed before 9/11, it re-invented itself as SALDEF (Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund), shifting from a media watchdog group to one more focused on legal defense and legislative advocacy.  From the belly of the post-9/11 beast (New York, NY), the Sikh Coalition was born with a mission largely overlapping that of SALDEF (legal defense and legislative advocacy), but also taking a role in protecting “Sikh civil rights”, which has largely been defined as advocating against bullying.  The third group is the United Sikhs.  The role of the United Sikhs is a bit more complicated (partially because it is an international Sikh organization in contrast to the two national organizations mentioned earlier).  It is engaged with the same issues as SALDEF and Sikh Coalition (legal defense and legislative advocacy), but most famously also supports humanitarian relief efforts, while playing a role in fighting for Sikh rights throughout the world.

So this is the lasting legacy.  We are more vocal.  We have better channels and systems to engage with state agencies.  We have more money devoted.  We are more efficient.  To put it bluntly, we have better institutions that ‘talk to goray’ for us.  Is this all new?  Was this all born after September 11?

My answer is a resounding no!  Despite limited resources the various Khalistani lobbyists were doing some of this work as well.  Dr. Gurmit Singh Aulakh of the Council of Khalistan, Dr. Amarjit Singh of the Khalistan Affairs Center, and even the World Sikh Organization, in addition to their advocacy for a Sikh state, did approach and work with members of Congress on issues of discrimination.  They did not have a legal defense fund, as SALDEF and Sikh Coalition have now, but with extremely limited resources they did a remarkable job.  It is the arrogance of our young generation that we believe we know more and are “smarter.” They did an admirable job.  We may speak English better now, have attended elite universities, understand the American political system better, and have better transparence and accountability through institution building, but none of this work is as new and born after September 11, 2011 as we sometimes think.  It is a matter of greater efficiency and resources.

Our parents and grandparents in the United States played an extremely important role in creating the foundations for what we stand upon today.

So while we contemplate the meaning of 9/11 after 10 years, let our community take stock of how far we have come and how far we have to go.  While some things have changed, maybe not as much as we first thought.  Let us critically reflect on our experiences with a broader view and with less arrogance about our supposed ‘revolutionary-ness.’  The road behind was long and the road ahead is still longer.

Part 2 will be my take on what are the actual ‘novel’ situations we have seen created post 9/11 for Sikh-Americans.

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48 Responses to “Why September 11 Didn’t Matter – part 1”

  1. Nina says:

    Provocative but I like the historical perspective you shed light on, moving away from nowisms to what's really underneath the problems we face today. There is a global epidemic of hate and its seeds were planted far before 9/11, there is and always has been a pervasive lack of knowledge and understanding across cultures — and not just in the US but perhaps especially so. What Sikh Americans face today and have faced for decades is a symptom of that disease — we have never been exempt nor will we ever be until we take active measures to educate people more deeply and unite with other communities.

  2. Jugraj Singh says:

    I understand this writer is being honored at SALDEF's national gala next month. I expect him to share his profound wisdom and experience of being a REAL grassroots worker from the podium. What have these new arrogant orgs done anyway? His brainchild Jakara Movement has changed the Californian Sikh youth landscape. I have never met more knowledgeable Sikhs in my life. The veterans of Jakara Movement who have been organizing/attending Jakara for the last 10 yrs…and spearhead mass grassroots movement projects all know the names of our 10 gurus ..and that too by heart. Let me see if anyone can contradict this.
    Organizations like SALDEF, Sikh Coalition and United Sikhs need to learn from Jakara, how to make a 'real' difference. I am sure when this writer's dastar is taken off by a TSA agent, he'll be calling the Khalistan Affairs Center for help….and yes, he'll never encourage his close friends to go work for any of these arrogant organizations…never!

  3. rocco says:

    Jodha as always an excellent post. On a personal level I wanted to recognize Dr Gurmit Aulakh who literally "single-handedly" educated congressman, senators and members of the executive branch of who Sikhs are. Trust me, before Aulakh spoke to them no one know a thing except that we killed Indira Gandhi.

    Sikh Coalition, SALDEF, United Sikhs are organizations post 9/11 that have done wonderful work documenting the hate crimes, bullying ect of Sikhs. I don't want to take away from work they do but I do have a problem with Sikhs accepting this "victim" definition of themselves. Times have ALWAYS been tough for the followers of Guru Nanak. However did Banda Bahudar say he was a victim when he was executed? Did Bhai Taru Singh consider himself a victim of hate crime when he was descalped? Did Satwant Singh (executor of Indira Gandhi) consider himself a victim when he received an unfair trial and was executed? I think not. The Khalsa is NEVER a victim. Yes documenting hate crimes is important and we need to continue to be vigilente but we need to redefine ourselves and live a life of chardhi kala and possibilities.

  4. sanehval says:

    "They [Khalistani activists] did not have a legal defense fund…but with limited resources they did a remarkable job…"

    What civil rights work/discrimination work did these organizations undertake? I am completely unaware.

  5. brooklynwala says:

    jodha, i hear what you're saying and also appreciate the historical context, as this country has most definitely been over-obsessed with 9/11 in many ways…so in our community work, we should not get caught in the same trap. absolutely. i've also appreciated the phrase, "your 9/11 is our 24/7" that i've been hearing a lot the last few weeks, from the perspective of the global south and parts of the arab world where violence has become the norm (often due to our government's policies…which preceded 9/11 also). but nevertheless, from a US sikh perspective, 9/11/01 definitely was a turning point in many ways. and more than our community just becoming more vocal. it gave birth to a sikh civil rights movement, which really didn't exist in an organized or institutionalized way before then. different sorts of sikh movements existed in this country, as you mention (which began with the sikh ghadarites in northern california over a century ago), but a US sikh civil rights movement is new, and significant. and it's been more necessary than ever, as we've faced more widespread violent racism and discrimination than we ever have in our lifetimes… that's been my experience and that of most turban-wearing sikhs i know… bigotry is nothing new for us, but the intensity of it greatly increased after 9/11. i agree with you that a lot of the struggles we face existed before 9/11, but i do still believe 9/11 was a turning point — to an unprecedented intensity, and mainstream acceptance, of the vilification of muslims, which of course, we face the consequences of, along with our muslim brothers and sisters.

  6. kantay says:

    You might want to look at how that view of turning points, major changes bringing about new movements, qualitative and quantitative differences based on single events, all of that fits a progressive view of the world but not a view in which everything cycles of ages. Progressivism is rooted in a world view that includes the coming of a messiah and the preparation and perfection of society. You just are not taking that seriously, but it pervades the articulated politics you express. Not everyone sees the world or recent events as you and that does not make them apolitical or less morally right or wrong. The idea here that Sikhi is a progressive religion is distortion and appropriation and this has real effects on how events, issues, and actions are seen and taken

  7. kantay says:

    You are both being way to quick to dismiss the importance of using this term without situating it and undestanding where it comes from. Sahneval, books on the progressive movement are widely available, you can, respectfully read them for yourself. Also read the Mahabharata. I think Sikhi in this realm and others is much more profound movement then a progressive movement, and in this way and others is a resolution of semitic/abhramic and dharmic views. Otherwise it seems the response to my point seems to be that holding fast to the progressive ideology is a badge of honor. I’m familiar enough with left views to see that its become a settled question with the right answer being firmly supported in the name of justice, and beauty. The seeds of an opposing view have been planted hopefully and anyone interested should read on the issue

  8. kantay says:

    Start with books on the progressive movement, meaning the historical movement of that name

  9. kantay says:

    The Center for American Progress website would be another place to start, but not end

  10. kantay says:

    In a line I’m unsettled because we here are discounting a world view with vast amounts to offer for a substitution that is short sided on a grand scale……

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