The Lessons of History

I spent Thursday night glued to my phone, refreshing Google News every five minutes. News of an active shooter on the Umpqua Community College campus in Oregon had hit Thursday afternoon, and by early evening, the shooter’s identity was still unclear. At the end of the workday, I shifted from monitoring Google News on my laptop to monitoring it on my phone. Tap, refresh. Tap, refresh.

My work – creating communications capacity on key issue areas, including combatting Islamophobia and rapid response in crises – keeps me on top of stories like these. But on a deeply personal level, I remain invested. If the shooter’s identity matches mine in any way – if he is Muslim or brown-skinned – the anxiety begins. Fears for the safety of my hijab-wearing mother and my brown-skinned father. Worries about retribution and retaliation. The identity of the man who killed ten people and wounded more than twenty others on the other side of the country can inform my personal life and my work life for weeks to come.

Only once the shooter’s name was released – Chris Harper Mercer, a non-descript man of few words, according to reports – could I allow myself feelings I had suppressed out of fear. Pain for the families mourning in Oregon. Sadness at this unnecessary loss of life. Outrage at the policies that keep guns in the hands of reckless people, and at the inherent media bias that twists the narrative when a mass murderer isn’t Muslim. Only once I knew who this man was could I process my feelings, both as an American and as a human being.

Psychologically speaking, this is devastating for our community. That we begin with fear and are only then allowed grief and sympathy is damaging to our collective psyche. It compounds what has already been a mentally and emotionally taxing year for American-Muslims, and for minorities in general in the United States. Maybe you haven’t been reading all the news this year, I can tell you I have – it’s my job. The articles about the three Muslim college students shot assassination style in their own home. Or the stories about Sikh and Hindu Americans brutally beaten because they’re mistaken for being Muslim. That church shooting in Charleston where nine people lost their lives because of the color of their skin. What about the armed biker rally in front of an Arizona mosque back in May, or the twenty similar rallies now planned for October 10th. State officials who rise in their political parties when blatantly discriminating against their Muslim constituents. The numerous acts of arson and vandalism at mosques, temples, and Islamic schools across the country. What if we looked just at this past month: a 14-year-old Muslim boy arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school; not one but two Presidential candidates making demeaning and at times dangerous remarks about Muslims in America, and Eid prayers at an Ohio mosque disrupted by a man with a hatchet.

The country is facing a dangerous combination: when policies and public rhetoric dehumanize an entire subset of people, a callous disregard for their civil liberties – and even their lives – follows, often to devastating effect. Conversely, when a community feels the effects of this dehumanization, the repression of free speech and the fear to practice one’s religion freely has reverberating psychological impacts that can last for generations.

Even when the perpetrator is not Muslim – as was the case on Thursday at UCC – media outlets often display a distinct lack of responsibility in their reporting. The very language changes, buzzwords are different: “lone wolf” instead of “terrorist,” “mentally ill” replaces “Islamist” or “radical Muslim.” Chris Harper Mercer is not identified by his religion or his ethnic background. The right wing conspires to create some connection with Islam, while neutral and more left-leaning outlets paint a more nuanced portrait of a “disturbed” individual who grappled with feelings of isolation. Such nuance is a luxury not afforded to mentally-disturbed individuals committing heinous acts who also happen to identify as Muslim. The liberal and progressive factions’ discomfort with raising their voices to combat Islamophobia is just as troubling at the right’s vilification.

In the wake of the UCC shooting, multiple articles make the pertinent comparison between the number of American deaths by terrorism vs. gun-related violence. Similar articles in the wake of the Charleston shooting posited that Americans have more to fear from “white supremacists, anti-government fanatics, and non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims.” And yet these numbers are completely disproportionate when correlated with a recent poll in which the fear of Islamic fundamentalism is at its highest point since 9/11. Instead of gun control, the White House is seeking to implement problematic CVE measures to monitor “extremists” – namely Muslim-Americans – further exacerbating abuses of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian Americans’ civil liberties.

Every few decades, America forgets the lessons of its own history. It forgets slavery – an egregious chapter in our history that compels us to hang our heads in shame. We forget the genocide of Native Americans, the internment of Japanese Americans, the blacklisting of those with opposing political views during the Red Scare, lives ruined by COINTELPRO during the civil rights battle, rampant anti-Semitism pre WWII, and the fact that we are the only nation to have ever used a nuclear bomb on civilians. The post-traumatic stress of these events in our history still affects these communities’ descendants today.

We forget. The cycle repeats. And when the dust settles, when we realize what monsters we have been, we atone. We decry the blind hatred and ignorance of our predecessors. But what if for once, we pause mid-vilification and rethink what we’re doing? What if we stopped to recognize ourselves and change course? For once, let us preemptively decide whether books that are yet to be written will put us on the right or wrong side of history.

Zainab Chaudary works in PR and advocacy communications by day, and is a writer and geek by night. Her blog, The Memorist, ruminates upon travel, religion, science, relationships, and the past, present, and future experiences that make up a life. She tweets @TheMemorist and @chaudary_zainab

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