When blowback is proof the conversation is necessary

On Friday my OpEd ran in the San Jose Mercury News. It calls for South Asian unity against Trump’s Islamophobic bid for the presidency. And it particularly puts the onus on non-Muslim South Asians, in spite of historical tensions among us. 

I knew it would be controversial.

I expected that people would bring up All of the Reasons Why Muslims Deserve to Be Hated. I also figured people would insult my intelligence, my standing (my favorite was a reader who called me a self-hating Hindu. Is that even a thing?) etc. What I didn’t expect was that almost every comment would be like this. Almost. Every. Single. One.

Ugh. 

But it did prove to me how important it is to be creating spaces for this kind of conversation. I know from my conversations with people that we are capable of being nuanced on this topic. But online, it’s like some people reserve their most binary, lizard-brained thinking for the comments sections on blogs. 

But what is also surprising is seeing the divide between first and second generation Americans. I was born in the US to immigrant parents. The people commenting appeared (based on their use of English, and their points of reference) to mostly be born/raised in South Asia. I know from talking to members of my family that we have a hard time understanding each other on this issue (though the mutual respect and lack of name-calling does help), and this again illuminated that for me. 

It’s true, I don’t understand what it’s like for Indians who grew up in the midst of communal violence. And I’m lucky to not have that understanding, and that is a privilege of being American. I don’t understand how mistrust can run so deep that many people seem blinded to the basic humanity of the other group. I say this not as a rhetorical jab, where I paraphrase an opponent’s argument just to point out the flaws. I really don’t get it, I get that I don’t get it, and clearly, I am missing something here, because a lot of people I love and respect feel this way. 

I’d like to get it. Partly because I’d like to be more skilled at communicating within this context. 

And there is something that I was trying to communicate that seemed lost on the commenters. These extreme divisions hurt all of us. And not just because the occasional dumbass racist will accidentally beat up a Hindu, thinking they are Muslim. 

This hate is toxic to all of us. It eats at us. The fundamentalism we are fighting against creeps into our own hearts, once we start imagining the world would be better if someone just put the people we fear on an island and blow them up. 

It also affects our ability to fully own our place here in this country. If our standing as Americans rests on our ability to, as one commenter suggested, define ourselves as the not-Muslims, we’re not doing very well. It’s a weird extension of the model-minority myth. We’re the good brown people. We’re the ones who study hard, pay our taxes, don’t get in trouble with the law, and don’t blow things up. 

It’s like if someone asks you not to think of an elephant, you can’t help but think of an elephant. “We’re Hindus. We are definitely, most certainly, not terrorists.” 

And the efforts we expend on defending ourselves by rejecting others becomes an intrinsic part of who we are. We become harder, more closed off. The most extreme examples of this are the South Asians who have inexplicably run off and started pro-Trump PACs. They are small and politically insignificant, but they are also showing us the fundamentalism that arises from extreme communal divides. 

I get that most of us are not ready to hold hands and sing kumbaya. We may never be. Many commenters raised doubts about my understanding of history. I do know the history. And many seemed to argue that the violence has been one-sided, all coming from Muslims. But it wasn't, and there has been bad shneesh on both sides. (My one regret is that I brought up India's Independence Day in the closing, because that time, understandably, brings to mind more memories of division and violence, then the unity and organizing that I was referring to. But I still stand by the message of the piece.)

But I'm not asking anyone to forgive and forget.

Instead, how do we remember our history, while not repeating it? How do we honor our past while moving beyond it? 

The questions I am raising are not even about right vs. wrong, who started it, or who bears more responsibility. That's kind of binary thinking just keeps us stuck. What I'm asking is more pragmatic: How is all of this working for us? Does it help, all the hate? Do we think this will lead someplace good? Someplace more peaceful and safe? Or are we just feeding into an unending cycle of violence? 

A lot of commenters seemed to be saying that Muslims need to be the ones to step up and take responsibility for building bridges, apologizing, ending the violence. What I'm saying is that we are all empowered to do something. We don't lack responsibility to act in service of something better, just because we believe we are righteous, or weren't born Muslim. It's in our power to reach out in peace, love, and respect, to help change the dynamic, regardless of who you think is right and wrong. 

I don’t expect any of this would sway the folks commenting on my OpEd. But it’s where I’m coming from, and I’d love to continue the conversation.