It amused me that the profundity of a Bollywood film’s impassioned plea for the world to stop seeing Islam as a violent religion was in the cheesy line: “My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist.” “My main problem with this,” I said to a friend on the subway back to campus after watching the film, “is that it’s so irrelevant to the U.S. today.”
It’s obvious now how I could be so wrong to think racism had come under control in the nine years since Sept. 11, 2001—I hadn’t lived in the States for 10 years, and during the 10 months in which I had been here for my first year of college, I had been nestled in a hub of diversity on a campus that boasted students from just about every country in the world. I couldn’t take a class without encountering a new culture or go a week without meeting someone whose accent I had to try to figure out.
Even in the heart of Manhattan, where tolerance came hand in hand with living amongst people of different races and religions, where I never felt degraded for or embarrassed of wearing a hijab, I was cushioned from the real New York I’ve never known. This is a city in which 70 percent of inhabitants oppose the construction of a Muslim community center close to Ground Zero.
I found myself on the lookout for any news relating to Park51. I was pleased to find support for the practice of our freedoms from religious leaders of different faiths, and to hear from bloggers who understood the difference between the masterminds behind Sept. 11 and the typical American Muslim. Furthermore, I was moved by Mayor Bloomberg’s eloquent speech on interfaith tolerance. In other parts of the media spectrum, Jon Stewart could be found mocking the insane levels of fear mongering, while Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich were “refudiating” this project as an “unnecessary provocation” and a work of “radical Islamists” seeking to subjugate America.
What was more difficult to ignore was what I’d read after I scrolled down to the comments section of each of these web pages—the masses of opinions of plumbers, teachers, lawyers Joe and Jane, whose possible outrage was reflected in adverts of the World Trade Center.
What stands out amongst the hordes of comments is the idea that Muslims subscribe to an “imperialist/racist ideology, that should not even have the right to be called a religion,” seeking to ‘‘wage a war against the civilized world.” That’s an interesting thought—considering that the best memories I’ve had at college this past year came from debating with students of the Hillel Association about the Israeli wall and making friends in the process, catching the school’s Shakespeare troupe’s late night springtime performance of “Measure for Measure,” and running cartwheels down the lawn in front of our library. Hardly the stuff world-domination is made of—although I’m willing to bet that’s what you could expect to see in 11 out of the 13 stories of Park51, devoted to providing space for swimming pools, a performing arts theater, and a gymnasium. The slight doesn’t just come from the baseless accusations, but from their implications.
In the times soon after Sept. 11, when a passerby called my father Osama bin Laden, her eyes first sweeping over the topi on his head and then over his beard, I couldn’t help but read her anger as an elaborate form of the kind of racism my father quietly endured. I find myself wondering: What comes next? Will the cloth I wear on my head, the color of my skin, the way my “i’s and t’s” sometimes roll off my tongue differently, all rouse images and emotions that make it too painful to bear to be around me?
And why should that be? Why must I be associated with a group of terrorists who practiced a radical distortion of the religion I practice? I respect the pain of those who were in any way touched by the Sept. 11 attacks, but shouldn’t the insult I feel on hearing that my faith is a “provocation” be considered, and my sensitivities as an American citizen respected in return?
That’s where I start to think, sadly, that maybe Bollywood actually got it right. If people are still terrified that we’re going to transform this community center into a vortex of terror, maybe we haven’t come as far since Sept. 11 as I’d thought we had. Maybe it’s about time Muslims responded to the refrain in the thoughts: “Why do we only hear non-Muslim leaders defending this place? Why don’t the moderate Muslims stand up?” That’s a good question, one that I hope each Muslim will take the initiative to answer.
Here’s my own.
My name is Sameea Butt. I’m a college sophomore, hoping to help to save millions back in Pakistan from the throes of poverty and illiteracy. I believe in God, that He’s kind and merciful, that neither He nor the Prophet Muhammad [peace be upon him] would condone the events of Sept. 11. I would love to run cartwheels up and down a gym in a Muslim community center, where I could make new Muslim and Non-Muslim friends, where interfaith tolerance could help to heal the wounds that the ill-fated day nine years ago seared into our lives. And I am most definitely not a terrorist.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore. She is a member of the Organization of Pakistani Students and Representatives-at-Large.