In the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, I created a street poster widely distributed in Los Angeles titled, I Am Not The Enemy.
The poster was derived from an original pencil drawing of mine created in part as a reaction to the murder of a Sikh American man in Arizona, Balbir Singh Sodhi; the killing would be the first post-9/11 violent attack against an innocent civilian on U.S. soil thought to be “the enemy.”
Mr. Sodhi owned a gas station in Mesa, Arizona, and he was shot while arranging U.S. flags in front of his business. When arrested, his killer yelled, “I am a patriot!” and “I stand for America all the way!”
Mr. Sodhi’s murder was in the context of innocent Muslim Americans being blamed, abused, and assaulted all across the U.S. in revenge for 9/11.
When people are denied the right to worship freely, or are otherwise persecuted because of their faith, democracy is threatened. This principle is enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
Given the recent upsurge of racist attacks in the U.S. aimed at those perceived to be Muslims, I have decided to re-release my poster, making it available for free as a downloadable .PDF file that can be printed on any ink jet printer.
The black & white poster measures 11 x 17 inches, and it should be used in the spirit in which it was created, not for profit, but as a simple expression of human decency and solidarity. Further reasons for offering my poster as a free download are to be found in the remainder of this article.
On September 21, 2013, Dr. Prabhjot Singh, a professor from Columbia University, was strolling in New York’s Harlem district near the corner of 110th and Malcolm X Boulevard. He was confronted by a crowd of some 20 young men on bicycles, who yelled anti-Muslim slurs at him, shouting “Get Osama,” and “Terrorist” before launching a vicious physical attack. The gang pulled Singh’s beard, and repeatedly punched and kicked his head and body. Singh might have been killed had it not been for the three good Samaritans that came to his aid to help fight off the hoodlums. The professor’s jaw was broken, and he suffered an injury to his lip, multiple fractures, the loss of several teeth, and a puncture wound to his elbow.
Mainstream press reports mentioned that Singh is an adherent of the Sikh faith, and that his attackers had “misidentified” or “mistaken” him as a Muslim because of his beard and turban, as if the beating would have been acceptable had Singh actually been a Muslim. The press has variously described Singh’s attackers as “a group of young men,” “a mob,” or simply “assailants.” However, when pressed by a reporter in an interview on the Huffington Post, Singh reluctantly said of his tormentors, “it was dark, but it seemed like it was young African American men.” The Village Voice and BuzzFeed.com also reported that the attackers were African American. On Sept. 24, 2013 the NYPD released security video of the suspects leaving the scene of the crime, and asked for the public’s assistance in identifying those who took part in attacking Dr. Singh.
It is a great tragedy of history that on Malcolm X Boulevard, young blacks would assault a man they thought to be a Muslim; one of the most outspoken opponents of racial oppression in the U.S. during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Malcolm X was a Muslim. In 1964 he embraced Sunni Islam and traveled to Mecca to participate in the Islamic pilgrimage known as the Hajj. That experience led him to take the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. That same year he founded the political group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), which organized against the racism, colonialism, and imperialism of a capitalist “international power structure.”
Malcolm’s ideas were perhaps best articulated in his By Any Means Necessary speech given at Detroit’s Ford Auditorium on Feb. 14, 1965. The oratory contained the famous words: “We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence - by any means necessary.” A week later Malcolm was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom north of Harlem in New York on Feb. 21, 1965. Acknowledging his stature in the Black community, Lenox Avenue was renamed Malcolm X Boulevard by New York’s mayor in 1987.
While the involvement of young blacks in the attack against Singh underscores the tragic political and moral disorientation of a certain layer of black youth, the appalling incident points to a much larger problem in American society as a whole. Despite our being awash in information and early 21st century technology, the U.S. is not far removed from xenophobic hysteria and blind racism. These malevolent forces find expression amongst the disempowered and uneducated, which at the moment pretty much describes us all. When the economy is in the tank and the nation is at war - and yes dear shopper, the nation is at war - you can count on the flames of tribalism being fanned.
Those that attacked Dr. Singh did so out of distorted notions of patriotism, but where do these ideas emanate from? Twelve years after the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center, American society still produces individuals who ignorantly lash out at the innocent for the heinous crimes committed by others. Here, the words of Malcolm X come thundering in: “You’re not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who says it.”
Dr. Singh, an assistant professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and a practicing physician that specializes in community-based health care in East Harlem, told BuzzFeed.com: “This is my community, I live in Harlem, I see patients here, It’s not the side of Harlem I’ve come to know and not how I’ve been embraced.” In a press conference held after his release from the hospital, Dr. Singh said: “If I could speak to my attackers, I would ask them if they had any questions, if they knew what they were doing. Maybe invite them to the Gurudwara (Sikh temple) where we worship, get to know who we are, make sure they have an opportunity to move past this as well.”
But Dr. Prabhjot Singh’s ordeal was not an isolated incident. This past January, Mississippi Police accused a Sikh truck driver of being a “terrorist” for not complying with an order to remove his sacred Kirpan talisman; Sikhism requires male devotees to wear a Kirpan and a turban. When appearing in court Jagjeet Singh (all Sikh men carry the last name of Singh, which means Lion) was told by a County Judge that he would have to remove “that rag” from his head or leave the courtroom. Singh eventually pleaded guilty to the charge of “refusing to obey a command” and had to pay a fine. This is not an example of the American “Religious Tolerance” that U.S. citizens take so much pride in, but an instance of xenophobia and ignorance displayed by the state.
Singh and others of his faith have every reason to expect acceptance in the “Land of the Free,” Sikhs first came from India to the U.S. over 130 years ago. Because of the oppressive colonial practices of the British in India, thousands of Sikhs emigrated to the U.S., with most coming to California to labor as agricultural workers. The oldest Sikh temple in the U.S. was built in Stockton, California in 1912; Sikhs have been contributing to the American family ever since.
I have never been a fan of the Miss America contest, since I oppose the sexual objectification of women, but I must bring up the competition in the context of racial bigotry and the attack on Dr. Singh. On Sept. 15, 2013, Nina Davuluri won the Miss America crown at the pageant held in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Born in Syracuse, New York to parents who came from the Republic of India in South Asia, the 24-year-old Davuluri was beset with a torrent of xenophobic comments on social media immediately after her win. Online comments against Ms. Davuluri included the likes of: “Miss Arab wins Miss America,” “9/11 was 4 days ago and she gets Miss America,” “Miss America is a terrorist,” “Congratulations Al-Qaeda, our Miss America is one of you,” and “How the f**k does a foreigner win Miss America?” That Davuluri is an American citizen means nothing to such people.
U.S. history is replete with “nativist” individuals and organizations that favored “true Americans” over immigrants, and sadly, nativism continues to run through the fabric of American society. In the early 1800’s Irish immigrants in the U.S. were considered to be uneducated brutes, lazy, criminally minded, and hopeless alcoholics; the Irish were systematically denied employment and forced to live in slums and were in fact referred to as “white negroes” by those who detested them. Likewise, Italian immigrants in the U.S. also occupied the unenviable position bestowed upon the Irish. The largest mass lynching in U.S. history took place in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1891 when thousands of upright citizens broke into a prison to seize 9 Italian men just found not guilty in the murder of the city’s Police Chief. The Italians were beaten and shot, and dragged into the streets where they were lynched. Two additional Italians imprisoned on unrelated charges were taken from the prison and hanged for good measure.
After Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese Americans suffered through a wave of humiliating and violent racist hysteria that culminated in all people of Japanese ancestry on the West coast of the U.S. being rounded up by presidential order and forcibly shipped to isolated concentration camps. These U.S. citizens were stripped of their possessions, homes, and businesses simply because of their skin color.
On Sept. 9, 2010, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR), and the Japanese American National Museum of Los Angeles conducted a candlelight vigil against the scapegoating of Muslim Americans. I participated in that vigil of some 200 souls on the steps of the museum, and I was honored that copies of my poster, I Am Not The Enemy, were unreservedly and fervently utilized as statements against racist bigotry, religious intolerance, and national chauvinism. I hope that my current offering will be used in the same manner.