If only we educate ourselves
By Behrad Mahdi
September 27, 2001
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
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
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
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
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.