When U.S. troops marched into Iraq in 2003, I, like many Americans, was outraged at what I considered a senseless and unjustified military action. As I spoke to my mother about it on the phone, I noticed that the angrier I got, the more uncomfortable she became.
At first I thought perhaps she disagreed with me, that her awkward silences on the other end of the line resulted from her biting her tongue. Had she, like many of her fellow Americans, bought into the claim that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were simply opposite sides of the same al-Qaeda nickel?
When I pressed her on this, she quietly replied, “Perhaps we should not discuss this over the phone.”
What do you mean? I said. Why on earth not?
Because, she answered, “You never know who is listening to us.”
The fear in my mother’s hushed voice marked a passage to a new America. This was not the land of opportunity and freedom that my parents had sacrificed everything to be part of in 1982, when we arrived from the north of England after selling all our possessions: our home, our car, my clock radio. (We even said goodbye to our cat, Genie, whom we gave to a neighbor.)
My parents were quintessential Americans -- immigrants who filled with pride as they waved the star-spangled banner every Fourth of July. Suddenly, however, we inhabited a newly fearful and suspicious America, an America that for my mother had lost its head and its humanity.
For Muslims in America, everything changed after Sept. 11. Personally, I had been a relatively secular sort. I didn’t attend a mosque and, for the most part, didn’t find much identification with the faith I had been born into. I was raised on Western pop culture and hot dogs (though I never really learned to play baseball). The only time I was reminded of my Muslim-ness was when my grandparents visited and we would sit and read the Koran, or on the occasions when I was chased home from the bus stop by a group of white kids who for some reason had decided I would be better suited riding a camel instead of a bus.
After Sept. 11, as misinformation and Islamophobia spread across the American news media and into American communities, I suddenly began defending an identity to which I had a tenuous relationship at best. I found myself shouting at pundits who had no idea what they were talking about, including a radio jock who found deep meaning in the fact that the Muslim holiday of EID, spelled backward, is DIE. I could not believe what I was hearing. When President George W. Bush called people from Pakistan “Pakis,” it seemed my entire heritage was getting lost in translation.
U.S. soldiers are now leaving Iraq, but here at home the fear has not receded. There are protests against mosques all over the country, including the one proposed in downtown Manhattan. Flying While Muslim remains a hazard because too many Americans can’t, or won’t, distinguish terrorists from imams. After Sept. 11, apart from the foolishness of TV pundits, it seemed a useful conversation was taking shape -- a conversation that might lead to understanding, to bridges across divides.
Now, 10 years later, it appears that the band of TV pundits and politicians who set out to exploit the tragedy has won. Fear and mistrust have trumped courage and unity. That moment when the world came together and shared a grief that transcended faith, nationality and politics is undone.
I’ve never forgotten my conversation with my mother. For me, it represents the very essence of fear, the aftershock of a senseless act of mass murder that still reverberates. What I hope for in the next 10 years is a War against Fear. Then I can go back to being a so-so Muslim, and a typical American, though I really ought to learn to play baseball.
(Aasif Mandvi is a comedian, actor and correspondent for The Daily Show on Comedy Central. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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