I was born and raised in the United States, and as such I am an American first and foremost. My parents, who were born, raised, and spent most of their formative years in Iran, represent the first generation of each other's families to come to America and begin their lives. So, its not surprising to most that although I am a proud American, I cling tightly to the cultural heritage and ethnic background that I have had the pleasure of being raised in. It is from this point of view that I share my reflections on this tragedy and what its impacts on Middle Eastern and Muslim immigrants in the United States.
In light of the events that took place a week ago, I'm sure I need not describe the immediate shock and despair that came along with the unprecedented, horrific act of terrorism that occurred. Somehow, each of us wanted to find a way to get to New York or Washington, D.C., to help move the rubble or try to comfort those in pain. But in the end, it was only our wishes and prayers that we could send.
In the aftermath of this tragedy, it seems that each phase we enter as Americans, the bitter taste of pain begs us to wash it away with feelings of anger and animosity. And though I am an unapologetic advocate of nonviolence, it seems our current Administration has made one thing clear: Someone must pay the price. And in that embarrassingly short phrase, the fears and anxieties begin to flow in the minds of millions of people in this world of Middle Eastern and Islamic background.
Personally, I wonder if the majority of my family that lives in Iran might be in danger, or maybe that I may never be able to visit the landscape of cultures which nourished my parents and their ancestors again. Worse yet, what if innocent people in the countries of the region become a casualty in the “War on Terrorism”? What if we lose more innocent people in fighting an invisible enemy whose root causes cannot be eradicated by bombs and missiles? This is the arduous road that faces many Middle Easterners, and that will only become harder and harder as time goes on. But it has real consequences for people like us here and today. For me, the first thing that comes to mind is what I would term “loss of identity”.
As an Iranian-American, I embrace and cling to all the facets of American culture, while still taking joy in learning about my heritage. Then, as our society reacts to the awful events, a transition occurs. Suddenly, a culture that you embraced begins to view you as a foreigner and a non-related entity. Where do we go in this situation? Naturally, the answer is your family or where you come from. We are forced to identify with an ethnic culture that we have never experienced first hand or really understand the intricacies of.
We, second-generation Iranians born and raised in the United States, reach a point at which we feel loss — a loss of identity. A loss which can make many feel lonely, scared, and betrayed. But questions on identity go farther. They force us to ask ourselves, what does it mean to be American? People often find it particularly odd or amusing that many immigrants, who are either already US citizens or could indeed be fully naturalized citizens of the United States, don't know the basic rules of baseball or have little interest in American pop-culture. As if they seem wholly, un-American. Yet, people often come to them and ask questions like “Why do Muslims hate Americans?” or “Is there a reason that someone hates us so much?”
These questions, which clearly articulate a serious unfamiliarity with the consequences of U.S. foreign policy, make me wonder whether understanding the U.S.'s various roles in the world isn't necessarily more important than knowing what a first-down is. And so I ask, what does being a good American mean?
In looking at our lives and the future awaiting us, there is one aspect that we cannot control in others: Ignorance. Luckily, being in college tends to alleviate my fears a bit, but ignorance still exists in many ways and among many of us. Is it not our ignorance that because some of these criminals were Arab and Muslim, now we intimidate our Arab, Muslim, or Middle Eastern immigrants living in our midst? Isn't it ignorance to equate Islam with a few Muslims, Middle East with a few Middle Easterners, and all Arabs with a few Arabs?
This is not a conflict of Islam and Christianity. The perpetrators of this heinous crime were not any more Muslim than Timothy McVeigh was Christian. Moreover, it would seem odd for us to consider David Duke, or even for that matter Jerry Farwell, as representations of Christianity or Christians. Yet often times, our minds act in peculiar ways. Our ignorance of other cultures, religions, and people will lead us to further dehumanization of people.
We may avoid disasters, if only we educate ourselves about people whom we have accepted as our own – people who live and work in America. We should not only provide safe spaces for each of these immigrants, but also promote learning and understanding between us. An intellectual exchange that help us as Americans relate to people not only outside of our borders, but also inside of our own country.
In the coming months, anger, fear, and blame will most likely be the theme of media both in the U.S. and abroad. Realize that with each second that passes by, we endeavor deeper and deeper into a situation that has no precedent, and no predictable course. The only controllable constant is the compassion and moral energy that each of us possesses, and the mindset with which we approach each situation. Let us see to it that our actions are guided by understanding, knowledge, and dialogue rather than by anger fear, and a sense of animosity.
Behrad Mahdi is a sophomore at Oberlin College, Ohio. These comments were made in a public forum discussing last week's events.