Backlash is Part of the Story

Everyone has a story about 9/11, including desis. South Asian American Leaders for Tomorrow (SAALT) has been working to make desi voices a part of the national tenth anniversary commemoration and conversation about 9/11. SAALT’s campaign called An America for All of Us was mentioned in the SM post “It’s Been Ten Years”.

A recent interview with Mou Khan, a SAALT program and communications associate, gives more information about the kinds of stories SAALT is seeking to share and highlight. To listen to or read the full interview, visit Center for American Progress.

E: …what are the unique experiences of the South Asian community and their stories in the post-9/11 America?

M: South Asians, like all Americans, experienced 9/11 primarily as the violent, tragic attack that it was. Our story since then is also in the distinct and different ways that our community—along with other communities like Muslims, Sikh, Arab Americans—has been targeted by a post-9/11 backlash.

In the week immediately following September 11, 2001, our organization documented 645 reported incidents targeting South Asians and Middle Easterners. There were also large scale roundups of Muslim Americans. In 2002 we saw the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System which began the mandatory registration and questioning of certain male nationals from a number of Muslim-majority countries including Bangladesh and Pakistan. While no national security threats were identified, more than 13,000 of these 84,000 men who registered were placed in deportation proceedings for minor immigration violations.

Another hallmark of the post-9/11 South Asian story has been school bullying and profiling at airports. Gurwinder Singh spoke at a briefing during a National South Asian Summit in April about his experiences of bullying at the hands of his classmates, ranging from verbal taunts to serious violent attacks on his person.

One particular moving story is that of Talat Hamdani who also spoke at the briefing in April. Her son, Salam, was an EMT in training, who—like so many courageous first responders—died while saving others in downtown Manhattan. As the dust settled, some questioned whether he was actually involved in the attack. These personal attacks on her son’s character hurt the family beyond measure and led her to become a vocal advocate for not just honoring the memory of her son and the other victims of the attack but to defend the core American values that stand against smearing someone based on their religion or ethnicity.

A small part of Gurwinder Singh’s story is contained in the Congressional Record because it inspired legislation to help students being bullied. Yesterday, the New York Times posted a video of Talat Hamdani telling her story, and in the years after 2001 she has been outspoken about her experience.

Mou Khan also elaborated on the concept of post-9/11 backlash, its different elements and legacies.

E: You talk about the broader post 9/11 experience. What are these commonalities? As you document these stories, are there some that do not fit the larger narratives and that are surprising to you?

M: There are many different elements to post-9/11 backlash. Part of the challenge is to explain what we mean by that term to people who are not as familiar with it. To really draw together the different phenomena that we are describing—school bullying, harassment in the work place, hate crimes, government policies—to see the disparate elements as part of this whole concept of post-9/11 backlash.

Also, post-9/11 backlash has really shifted in a lot of ways. It’s now about different things like protests against building mosques or anti-Sharia laws. We are seeing younger and younger people perpetrating—and being the victims of—bullying who are further and further away from the 9/11 moment. It is incumbent upon us to build a lens and a worldview that makes sense of all of this. That can show how these changes are part of the same essential backlash and how we need to understand these new developments and develop news tools and partnerships to combat it.

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