ON March 21, 2012, Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year-old Iraqi woman, was fatally beaten with a tire iron in Southern California. A note found near her said, “This is my country. Go back to yours, terrorist.” The investigators asserted that it was an isolated incident and that other Iraqis need not worry. Lumping disparate peoples into threats and describing violence against them as “isolated incidents” works in tandem. The former justifies sustained violence and the latter diverts our attention from the systemic nature of this violence. What we see instead are exceptional events — “isolated incidents” of violence suspended outside the broader societal context and exigencies of the national security state. We don’t see them as the latest in a long chain of violence on a particular group of people or an episode in the nation’s deep history of violence and dispossession.
Alia Malek’s work of oral history, Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice, gives the lie to the frame — isolated incident — that holds within it the image of the idyllic American society as it effaces its systematic injustices.
By including the violated as victims of isolated crimes, this frame excludes the chorus of their voices. It shuts out the stories of unrelenting violence: of racial terrors such as beatings and violent deaths; of legal terrors such as incarcerations, detentions, and deportations; of routine, everyday violence such as bullying at school, employment discrimination, travelling made arduous, racist jibes and sneers. In Malek’s words, “the personal stories and lived experiences of these realities remain excluded from the general understanding of the American experience, as well as the mainstream narrative about 9/11 and the War on Terror.” In Patriot Acts that chorus pushes at the constricting margins of the frame and enables us to see the lives damaged and the families shattered by America’s domestic war on terror.
Walking back home with an Indian co-worker on the day of 9/11, Malek noticed that it wasn’t her but her non-Muslim, non-Arab, Indian friend who was getting nasty stares and sneers. “Ironically,” Malek writes, “I, as a fair-skinned Arab, look the part much less, given how Arabs and Muslims are visualised in the American imagination.” This is a fundamental insight.
Racism, tied intimately to nationalism and empire, doesn’t make studied and careful distinctions. Its essential distinctions are centered on itself: they are not us. The construction of enemies, of majorities and minorities, is the constitutive violence of the nation. It labels and targets particular kinds of ‘Others’ at a given historic juncture, and especially those perceived to be cosmopolitan, people of suspect loyalties with links with the enemy without. Minorities are the foil against which the unity of the nation is constituted and injustices obscured. That foil for present day America is the racialised figure of the terrorist, the Muslim: Dark skinned, bearded and beturbaned, or behijabed, looking Middle Eastern, and/or having Middle Eastern sounding name. And the violence arrayed against it targets immigrants in general.
In Patriot Acts, Rana Sodhi describes how he and his brothers fled the anti-Sikh violence and prejudice in India in the 1980’s and came to the US “for freedom, a safer place, and a better life.” The post 9/11 backlash turned that American dream into a nightmare. Rana says that “Every time there’s a new event — the Iraq war, the London bombings, the Madrid bombings, […] — there is a resurgence of racism, and Sikhs are often the first target.” A couple of days after 9/11, a friend of Rana called him, and expressing concern at the rising attacks against Sikhs, said that “they are showing bin Laden’s picture on the TV, and he looks like a Sardar.” Tragedy struck on September 15, 2001, when Rana’s brother, Balbir Sodhi, was gunned down in front of his gas station in Mesa, Arizona. That was the first reported post 9/11 hate-murder. (Almost a year later, another of his brothers, a taxi driver, was shot dead in San Francisco. It was not deemed a hate crime, but Rana disagrees.)
Such episodes of direct violence are merely the tip of the iceberg of everyday violence, what historian Gyannendra Pandey calls “routine violence.” It is violence normalised and thus hardly noticed (except by those subjected to it). But it is there in administrative practices of “random profiling” at airports, and in police surveillance of ethnic neighborhoods, in the distortions in history books, in media biases and cinematic representations, in sneers and taunts, and in the dehumanising assumptions held and opinions expressed by common folk in bars, coffee shops and workplaces. Malek cites the Sikh Coalition’s survey, conducted in 2006, involving 439 Sikh students under 18 years of age in New York City. A whopping half of them reported being bullied and “for every three out of five students who wear a turban, harassment occurs daily.”
In Patriot Acts, 18-year-old college student Gurwinder Singh describes how being constantly jeered and taunted with questions like “Are you related to Osama bin Laden?” “Is Osama bin Laden your uncle?” getting his patka pulled off his hair on a school bus, and being beaten up had been an everyday experience for him: “Half the time, they picked on me for the way I looked. The rest of the time, they picked on me because of my religion. It really hurt. When I was attacked, I was angry. But when they called me names, I felt lonely. They would just get away with things, and I felt so helpless.”
Surveys have also shown a lack of response from teachers and school administration. Sometimes, as in the case of Rima Qamri’s daughters, the teachers and the school administration even join in the harassment initiated by other kids’ parents. Before her daughter’s troubles at school exploded into a full-blown disaster, the family had already been subjected to violence. On the first anniversary of 9/11, the windshield of Rima’s minivan was smashed and a note stuck to it that said, “Get the fuck out of this country, you sandniggers.” The police, of course, did not treat it as a hate crime. On the second anniversary of 9/11, her daughter Sana’s teacher told the students that Palestinians are the enemies of America, Muslims are responsible for 9/11, the Quran teaches Muslims to hate the Christians, and that Muslims bomb Christians any chance they can get, prompting other kids in the class to name-call Sana. On Qamri’s inquiry, she found out that the teacher taught from a book ordered by Delaware district for the year and which was taught in every school of that district. Qamri’s letters to the district, the principal and the teacher remained unanswered, and Sana’s torments continued. Seeing Sana’s travails, “brought back the trauma [her father, Ali] had gone through in Palestine,” says Qamri. “He kept equating what was happening to us to what Israelis do to Palestinians.”
Ali’s breakdown brought their business down. Scraping together the resources, they relocated to get their kids into a different school, but the teachers at this new “liberal school” proved to be no better. One of them had been teaching a 9/11 lesson for several years that framed it as the culmination of religious wars originating with Abraham’s sons. When Qamri confronted him, he told her that “your prophet is a killer and marauder.” The heart-wrenching downward spiral of this family continued, and bit by bit the family came apart. Ali left for Palestine in 2005, but Qamri and their children could not move and settle there since Israeli immigration laws would not allow it. Qamri ended up home-schooling her kids for the rest of the year. High school went better, but then the girls had grown to expect the abuse. Qamri says that, “it still hurts.”
“Dehumanising, or in this case, de-Americanising, individuals is often the first step toward justifying policies, laws, and treatment that would otherwise offend our sensibilities,” writes Malek. This de-Americanisation and its attendant routine and racist violence stemmed from the state itself as xenophobia was institutionalised, for instance, in the marriage of immigration services and national security that goes by the name of Department of Homeland Security. Patriot Acts tells many stories of detention based on spurious, baseless charges as part of the US government’s dragnet that targeted immigrants. Adama Bah, a 16-year-old Muslim girl, was picked up by the FBI from her home on suspicion that she was a potential suicide bomber for which no evidence was ever produced. She was subjected to humiliated strip searches during her six-week-long detention and her family was not told where she was held. Later on, her father was deported back to Guinea. Anser Mahmood, an immigrant from Karachi, owned a trucking company but his business visa had expired. He was detained based on suspicion, and locked up in solitary confinement — widely accepted (but not by the US government) as a form of torture — for four months. Mahmood describes the cell as “a twelve-by-six [that was] video monitored at all times… There were guards outside my cell. At the beginning, they didn’t let me sleep… I wasn’t allowed to see anybody else or know who else was there. I wasn’t even allowed to make a sound, let alone talk to people.” Mahmood was eventually deported and his family followed him back to Karachi.
The dragnet widened from criminalising immigration violations as part of national security to a clampdown on Muslim charitable donations. This was done by prosecution of large Muslim charitable organisations, such as the Holy Land Foundation (HLF), on the charges of providing material support to terrorism. HLF’s founder, Ghassan Elahi, is serving a 65-year-sentence in one of the many maximum security prisons in the United States, called the Communications Management Unit (CMU), a domestic Gitmo housing mostly Muslim terrorism-related detainees. With communications severely curtailed, this solitary confinement is Elahi’s entombment. Fifteen-year-old Sara Jayousi, whose father is also serving time in a CMU on material support charges, describes how during their visits a Plexiglas wall separates her from her father. “I have not touched my father since December 2007… All you see at the end of our visits are the handprints on the glass,” she says. “I wanna break that Plexiglas wall.” In Malek’s words, “Together, these stories weave a portrait of how the fabric of everyday life has irrevocably changed for so many in this country.”
Given that Malek is a civil rights lawyer, it is understandable that Patriot Acts is primarily focused on the deterioration in civil liberties in America, the brunt of which is felt largely, and most acutely, by immigrants from the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa, and American Muslims. This focus, while important, is limiting in taking a holistic and global measure of the destruction the ‘war on terror’ has wrought. What Muslim Americans and the aforementioned immigrants have been subjected to within the heart of empire is writ large on the people of the ever-increasing theaters of America’s imperial wars: the tire iron with which Shaima Alawadi was tomahawked is the shadow of the Tomahawk missile falling on a Baghdadi roof.
Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice
By Alia Malek
McSweeney’s, San Francisco