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Why must I pay for the crimes of others?: Racial backlash after terrorist attacks

27 Nov 2005
Right after 9/11, a friend told me about a co-worker of his girlfriend’s, a young Muslim woman who worked at a downtown museum. Apparently, a man entered the museum and followed the woman, who wears a hijab, around the ground floor until she was in an area less populated with museum visitors. He then backslapped the woman, knocking her to the ground in front of a couple of her co-workers and a security guard.

While her co-workers rushed to assist her, one of them yelled at the security guard to call the police. The man continued to explore the museum. The guard apparently refused not only to call the police nor kick the man out of the museum, saying that it was a “public space.”

In Toronto , the newspapers reported incidents of Mosques and Muslim – owned stores being vandalized. Discussions about tightening immigration laws started and people from ethnic backgrounds were treated with suspicion at border points.

Nobody, especially the media seemed to differentiate between the small faction of extremists that were responsible for the attacks in the U.S and the large community of Muslims and Arabs, mostly Canadian and American citizens who just wanted to practice their religion that preaches peace, rather than hate and destruction. To most people, it seemed that anyone who looked ‘different’ was a potential terrorist.

And let us remember the angry letters written to our major newspapers about the Asian communities after the SARS saga in Toronto . All the business lost in Chinatown , as people felt unsafe eating in restaurants and buying fresh produce. People who probably would not have previously voiced their prejudices suddenly spouted ignorance about the whole Asian community.

With the recent terrorist attacks in L ondon , people are afraid again. But this time, the complaints are coming from members of the Muslim and Arab communities, fearing for their safety and begging people to stop blaming them for acts that neither they, nor their communities had anything to do with.

The title of this article came from a frustrated Torontonian, whom among other things, stated that “emotion, double standard and hypocrisy dominate when a crime is thought to have been committed by an Arab or a Muslim.”

Did the American soldiers who tortured civilians in Iraq get treated with the same hostility and contempt as the innocent Arabs and Muslims? Did minorities burn down houses and vandalize property when Paul Bernardo was charged with multiple counts of rape and the murders of three innocent teenagers?

No.

While Londoners are handling the recent attacks in a calm and resigned manner (Americans, take note), the recent news reports that the suicide bombers were born in London came as a shock. This can no longer be blamed on foreigners infiltrating their country.

This was the result of four angry, perhaps confused young men who were looking for something to validate their feelings of frustrations.

Now, the most pertinent question is, why?

As a citizen in any country, you have the legal right to reap the benefits allowed to everyone. You can get an education and hopefully get a good job and pay your taxes.

But imagine if you did everything your society expected of a ‘good citizen’ and yet you were still discriminated against by people, whom regardless of your birthright in that country treat you like a second-class citizen because of the color of your skin. The opportunities that others take for granted are not privy to you. If you speak too loudly, those who will say, “stop complaining” will silence you. “Don’t you have it better here than back home?” Even though this is the only home you know. And sometimes you will also be silenced by members of your own communities, people who have endured decades of injustice but have compensated by keeping quiet for fear of retribution.

While their crimes are unforgivable, perhaps this recent attack will conjure some dialogue about why citizens in a country felt compelled to lash out against their own. While CNN reporters seem confused why these men of color would be frustrated enough to do this, I can see it plain as day. ‘Cause they pissed off, son’.

We need to take our heads out of the sand – or our asses, whatever is more appropriate for you. These were young men, who perhaps saw a version of the outside world and people with their posh cars and fancy houses and knew that they would never obtain the riches so freely given to others. Perhaps struggling with needless racism everyday made them look for a community in which they could find answers that the larger society refused to give them.

In reality, we will never really know what they were thinking.

But maybe with a bit of brutal honesty and dialogue, we could potentially stop another incident like this from happening. It will take all people from all cultural and ethnic backgrounds to be honest, to educate themselves about the world outside their own private enclaves, and most importantly, to listen.

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