Afghan American fears for safety
By Fariba Nawa
September 13, 2001
Pacific News Service
EDITOR’S NOTE: This commentary is the widest circulating piece Fariba Nawa wrote, running in dozens of newspapers and websites such as MSNBC and Boston Globe, and attracting broadcast media attention from BBC World News to NBC and CBS televsion news programs. She gave more than a dozen interviews to American and European news outlets in response.
I’m hiding in my house in the heart of an Arab neighborhood in Brooklyn, four miles from the terror that struck Manhattan. As an Afghan American, I fear the retaliation in the aftermath of the tragedy. If this “act of war” is like Pearl Harbor, will Arabs and Afghans living in America become targets of hate as Japanese Americans did during World War II?
From the roof of my brownstone home, I watched the billowing smoke darken the sky above the World Trade Center. I heard the sirens, the screams of victims falling to their death on television, and the rage that New Yorkers expressed afterwards. Americans are angry — rightly so — and want someone to blame and attack. But I shudder thinking of the innocent Muslims who could be the victims of this fury.
On New York radio stations, callers shouted slurs against Afghans and Arabs, demanded they be killed and called for war against Afghanistan, whose rulers are suspected perpetrators of the attack. I turned off the radio and in a daze walked to the Promenade where people stood looking at the disaster across the East River. Some held any extra fabric over their mouths to block the fumes and stench of burning steel. A man appearing to be in his twenties said to a friend, “These damn Islamic people in this country should be under surveillance. They’re getting away with too much.”
In bars where patrons crowded to watch TV, men and women clapped as President Bush swore to seek revenge.
I paced back home with my two Muslim friends, locked the door and sat still in shock. I hoped no one on our street knew that Muslims live in the house. Ever since the Taliban seized my birthplace, Afghanistan and Afghans have become the butt of slurs, jokes and ridicule. But stereotyping and verbal attacks are not my fear anymore. The magnitude of this tragedy may provoke violence against Muslim and especially Afghan communities in this country. Few listen to the warnings by the media that Americans should not convict any group without proof.
I think back to the Gulf War, when Americans unleashed their anger on Muslims. Then in high school, I was a dumbfounded teenager when we were called camel jockey and Maddas lover — Saddam Hussein’s first name spelled backwards. Now, I am more scared knowing how vicious the usually tolerant American can become in times of crises.
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani deployed more police officers to Muslim neighborhoods, which makes me feel safer. But for how long? As the story unravels, Osama bin Laden is at the top of the suspect list and Americans’ call to bomb his residence Afghanistan gets louder. I quietly weep when I think of the fate of hapless Afghan civilians who will suffer the consequences if the accusations against bin Laden are true.
I wonder if Americans know that the rage they are feeling today is what Palestinians and Muslims across the world feel everyday against the American government. Every time there has been an attack against Americans, the government focuses on retribution and prevention, but pays little attention to changing its policies such as indifference to the loss of Palestinian lives.
There is no justification for Tuesday’s terrorist attacks, but increasing security at airports and catching the culprits are short-term band-aids that will probably not stop these disasters. Reconsidering American policies and creating a consistent and fair approach to deal with other nations is a long-term solution.
As a hybrid of Afghanistan and the United States, I am angry not with a nationality or group, but with fanaticism and the injustice of hegemony. I hope that the American people will be more tolerant than their government toward Muslims, inside and outside America.