When Will We Stop the Scapegoating?

December 6, 2011, 4:24 PM


As the 2012 presidential election approaches, it has been difficult for me to listen to the political scapegoating of Muslims and those perceived to be Muslims. A decade ago, as an attorney at the Department of Justice, I worked with colleagues in the civil rights division to address the unprecedented backlash in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. We investigated complaints of brutal hate crimes in neighborhoods, vandalism at places of worship, bullying at schools, and discrimination in the workplace aimed primarily at those who traced their origins to South Asia and the Middle East, or those who practiced Islam, Sikhism and Hinduism.

After leaving government service, I joined a community of advocates who have been working to reaffirm our country’s ideals of inclusion and respect for people of all backgrounds. As an immigrant from India who grew up in a Hindu household in Kentucky, my choice to participate in this work after 9/11 was clear. I believed then as I do now that our country would overcome the bigotry and xenophobia that followed the 9/11 attacks.  At my current position at South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), which includes individuals of various South Asian backgrounds and religious faiths, we have seen progress on many levels.  But when it comes to the level of political discourse, it is discouraging that even though a decade has passed, our communities are still seen as disloyal, foreign, automatically suspect and un-American.

Some seem to think that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the “war on terror” give them free rein to indulge in biased and discriminatory speech directed at American Muslims and Americans of South Asian and Arab heritage. This openly bigoted speech reached a fever pitch with the Park51 controversy last year, with elected leaders from both parties playing a role in exacerbating Islamophobic sentiment. The ongoing congressional hearings on Muslims in America organized by Representative Peter King and the misguided attempts to ban Shariah law in several states have also contributed to this national climate.

Ali Merali, 9, raised the American flag at a candlelight vigil on Murray and Church street, near the proposed Park 51 mosque, in New York, N.Y., on Sept. 10, 2010.
Marcus Yam/The New York TimesAli Merali, 9, raised the American flag at a candlelight vigil on Murray and Church streets, near the proposed Park 51 mosque, in New York, N.Y., on Sept. 10, 2010.

The FP Top 100 Global Thinkers: The Revolutionaries


The 14 brave individuals who tied for the top spot on our 2011 Global Thinkers list.


The world cheered when peaceful pro-democracy movements overthrew autocratic governments in Tunisia and Egypt this year, but old fears that long-banned Islamist movements in both countries would rise to prominence, endangering the rights of women and minorities and fostering violent extremism, quickly resurfaced. So too, however, did leaders of those movements who seem determined to say all the right things when it comes to Islamism and democracy.

“We have continuously defended the right of women and men to choose their own lifestyle, and we are against the imposition of the headscarf in the name of Islam,” said Rached Ghannouchi, the 70-year-old former socialist turned Islamist leader of Tunisia’s al-Nahda (Renaissance) party who returned home in January after 22 years of exile in London, where he’d fled after a decade of torture and imprisonment in his home country. After winning a plurality of 40 percent in Tunisia’s first-ever democratic elections, Ghannouchi’s party is a major power broker in the new government.

Khairat El Shater, the top financier of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, spent a dozen years in prison under Hosni Mubarak before being released after the revolution. He also sought to reassure the West, writing in the Guardian, “The success of the Muslim Brotherhood should not frighten anybody: we respect the rights of all religious and political groups.” The leadership of the now-legal Muslim Brotherhood is very much up for grabs, and Shater is seen as a leading candidate to head the party and perhaps, one day, the country: a media-savvy engineer who became prosperous as a textile and furniture trader, developing a knack for working with foreign investors.

Given the audiences these leaders command, there’s little hope for democracy unless they are on board. So far, they seem to be playing a mostly productive role. Let’s hope it stays that way.


Stimulus or austerity? Stimulus.

Arab Spring or Arab Winter? Arab Spring.

Reading list: Borj Roumi, by Samir Sassi; History of Tunisia, by Hedi Timoumi.


Amid the Loin’s Grit, Tastes of the Subcontinent Bloom


Shalimar Restaurant in San Francisco's Tenderloin district.
Sarah Khan

Shalimar Restaurant in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.

“There ain’t nothin’ tenduh ‘bout the Tenderloin,” Wajahat Ali declares with a smirk as he welcomes me to San Francisco’s red-light district.

A Bay Area playwright, humorist, and lawyer, Mr. Ali, 31, also happens to be a consummate foodie. He is a self-styled expert on the best chai, fish masala, and gulabjamun in town, and if his taste buds are to be believed, this godforsaken stretch is where to find them: within a two-block radius in this notoriously seedy neighborhood, I spot five Indian-Pakistani establishments, each overflowing with hungry customers. In fact, many now call it the Tandoori-loin.

As I glance around what’s possibly San Francisco’s last bastion against gentrification, his spin on comedian David Chappelle’s old quote reverberates in my head.

The candy-coated gloss of nearby Union Square has given way to squalid single-occupancy hotels and sketchy massage parlors. The city’s signature Victorian architecture acquires a patina of dust and grime as the blocks become progressively more run-down, aided by boarded-up windows and graffiti-tagged walls. A man in a tattered orange sweatshirt materializes, offering unsolicited parking assistance — for a tip, of course, which Mr. Ali deftly negotiates. A woman in a sparkly dress showcasing ample cleavage — it’s 2 p.m., for the record — murmurs to a man in a three-piece suit who might easily be her pimp.

Tender it is not.

But Mr. Ali has not brought me here to navigate the thriving drug-retail scene; we are, instead, on an unlikely quest for good kababs. Our first stop is the area’s desi pioneer. Opened in 1994, Shalimar now boasts three locations and a mammoth sign declaring it one of America’s top 50 restaurants — a lofty claim for a nondescript eatery with fluorescent lighting and an alarming profusion of flies. Mr. Ali fondly recalls late-night treks being a rite of passage when he was a student at Berkeley. “The first time, we were like, ‘Why are you taking us to this hellhole?’” It quickly became a case of baptism by chai for him; today he’s a regular, walking straight to the counter, warmly greeting the staff, and grabbing a cup as casually as if this were his neighborhood Starbucks. Continue reading

My Own Private Bollywood : Sarah Khan


After the Slumdog boom, Bollywood has become more Hollywood—and looks like it’s in America to stay. What does that mean for people who grew up with it?
khan_bollywood reuters 615.jpg

Priyanka Chopra performs during the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards show in Toronto June 25, 2011. (Reuters/Mark Blinch)

“So, your last name’s Khan, huh?” a guy at work asked out of the blue one day. Though we’d always smiled and waved in the hallways, until that particular afternoon, our interactions hadn’t progressed far beyond perfunctory assessments of the weather. I nodded and got ready to give him my standard spiel, mastered through years of repetition: “Yes, but K-H-A-N like Genghis or Chaka, not K-A-H-N like the hot dog.””That’s Indian, right?” he continued before I opened my mouth. “Like Shah Rukh?”

Colin, a blond-haired, blue-eyed, rugby-shirt-clad, Nordic-god type—who’d fit in more at a polo match in the Hamptons than among comb-overed, potbellied uncles half his height in line for the latest from India’s movie-making industry—went on breathlessly to extol the musical merits of the chart-buster “Rock ‘n’ Roll Sohniye” and profess his love for sultry siren Rani Mukherjee.

The secret was out, I realized that morning. Bollywood is no longer just my cup of chai.

The Bollywood of my childhood would be virtually unrecognizable

In the time since Colin revealed himself to me as a closet Bollywood buff, Slumdog Millionaire turned the Oscars into a song-and-dance spectacular and all things Indian have now been deemed hot. When Lady Gaga descended on Delhi to perform at an F1 gala earlier this month, she tweeted a pic of herself partying with Bollywood royalty, including Shah Rukh himself. “Screw Hollywood,” she declared. “It’s all about Bollywood.” Hey, if Gaga says it, it must be true. Continue reading