I worked at a British company in Jakarta right off college. Once, during a watercooler chat that somehow arrived at the Oscar-winning performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in In The Name of the Father, an expat told me that when he was growing up in London whenever a bomb went off his Irish mother would pray that it wasn’t the IRA. As the aforementioned movie perfectly showed, back in those confusing years any chaos in the UK could easily be attributed to IRA’s actions and, ultimately, just made life harder for any Irish folk in the vicinity.
A few years later in the US, while I was trying to build my career in the good old Corporate America, Osama bin Laden decided to strike the Twin Towers. All hell broke loose. Suddenly my last name could mean longer questions by visa officer at certain embassies, or separate check in certain airports. Now whenever a bomb went off anywhere in the world, I found myself doing exactly what the expat’s mom did, silently praying that it wasn’t one of ‘us’.
And I’m not alone in this. When bombs rocked Boston a few days ago a presumably Libyan lady tweeted “Please don’t (let it) be a ‘Muslim’.” That tweet was retweeted by a Dubai-based journalist before got picked up by Washington Post. And while the tweet was virally circling the globe and Obama carefully didn’t utter ‘terrorism’ on his immediate statement, guess what went on in Boston? An injured spectator, fleeing the scene like anybody else, was overtaken by a bystander, handed in to the police, questioned by the police and had his apartment searched, plus profiled in major media– mainly because he looked Arab and was found to be a Saudi national. Yabba, yabba do.
What kind of world ours has become? I first thought that Internet and 24/7 news cycle would get us closer as dwellers of a global village, or at least made us better informed. Turns out we haven’t exactly been better acquainted with each other. From Indonesian scholars to jobless European working class to NYPD top brass who ordered surveillance on any Arab or Muslim students last year, prejudice roams pretty wild.
To be fair, prejudice, be it tinged with race or religion, doesn’t only flourish from frequently listening to hate speeches. I’m guessing most of prejudice or bigotry comes from witnessing violent acts or unfair situations that use a certain group as raison d’etre or shield of excuse.
Some have argued that as long as terrorists commit their acts while shouting “Allahu Akbar” any Muslim, or Christian and Jewish Arabs with Arabic-sounding names for that matter, unfairly bears that stigma. Understandable, to a certain point. But that’s a slippery slope to “since early Shia followers had disagreements with Sunnis then all 21st century Shias must be deemed heathens” or “using Salem as reference, every long-haired woman who can mix potions and owns a black cat must be a witch.”
So, if our mind is not to be relied upon to constantly be prejudice-free, what is left but the letter of the law to prevent us from acting solely based on prejudices? Yet, is the law on our better side?
Even as the country had overwhelmingly elected their first African-American president, who had been partly raised by his Indonesian Muslim stepfather, the Cambridge professor and Trayvon Martin still became victims of racial profiling just as any Muslim or Arab students were put under surveillance, all by law enforcement. And where was the law to protect the rights of the young Saudi student that day in Boston—or was it the Patriot Act put into action, on the fateful Patriot Day I shall add, to turn him into a plausible suspect fancily dubbed as “person of interest”?
Let’s look closer to home. Even as our President Yudhoyono solemnly tweeted his condolences to President Obama, hundreds of Shias from Madura are forbidden to return to their rightful homes while dozens of Ahmadiyahs are sealed inside their mosque not far from Jakarta, all by law enforcement. Where is the law to protect these minorities from prejudice and persecutions?
I still remember the haunting words from Dr Neal Hall’s award-winning poetry book Nigger For Life, that “For black Americans, 9/11 is 24/7.” Dr Hall, whose acquaintance I gratefully made at Ubud Writers’ Festival last year, is an ophthalmologist who has found out in the hard way that not even his Harvard education could always spare him from racial prejudice.
While receiving journalism award from Arab American Institute Foundation two days after Boston bombings, Christiane Amanpour, one of CNN’s most distinguished journalists, bluntly said “…it was understandable for Muslims to hope beyond hope that this doesn’t turn out to be what it might be”. It pays to note that in the aftermath of Boston bombings, countless of organizations or communities in the US that are associated with Middle East or Islam raced to issue their public condemnation—partly from compassion, partly from fearing to receive a fresh round of prejudiced suspicion.
Apparently, as a bomb went off in any part of the world now, Muslims worldwide held their breath, for it might be 9/11 all over again. Hate begets hate, hands down. And for a woman whose maiden name will remain ‘Ibrahim’ regardless of whom I marry, it’s an increasingly lawless world out there.