December 6, 2011, 4:24 PMBy DEEPA IYER
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.