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October 22, 2001

Hundreds attend community discussion of race and Sept. 11

By Jennifer McNulty

The specter of internment looms large for Muslims in the United States.

That grim assessment underscored a public discussion of "Race and the Crisis" last week that attracted an overflow crowd of nearly 500 people. UCSC faculty members Angela Davis and Manuel Pastor were joined by Muslim community activist Maha ElGenaidi for the two-hour event on October 17.

"I feel more insecure than ever living in the United States," said ElGenaidi, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Islamic Networks Group in Santa Clara County, which teaches about Islam in schools, corporations, hospitals, and law-enforcement agencies.

"I believe Muslims in this country are generally reviled by most Americans," she said. "There is widespread ignorance of Islam in the United States and throughout the Christian world."

ElGenaidi fears Muslims could be interned as Japanese Americans were following the attack on Pearl Harbor. But she also reported feeling encouraged that Muslims in the United States are responding to the current crisis by building coalitions, doing outreach, "trying out our political muscles," and working with law enforcement "despite our tremendous fear of police and the FBI."

"We are tackling the issue of terrorism and condemning terrorism of all kinds anywhere--although that isn't being reported," said ElGenaidi. "And we are actually seeing ourselves as American. That's new. That's a change in our place in society."

The evening's discussion of race touched on matters of identity, patriotism, U.S. foreign policy, and militarism. Pastor, a professor of Latin American and Latino studies and director of the Center for Justice, Tolerance, and Community (CJTC), which cosponsored the event, described several recent hate crimes against people of color that have occurred since September 11, as well as a wave of leaflets attacking blacks, Jews, and others that have been posted in Santa Cruz.

"Race matters. It's unpatriotic to say that race matters, but it does," said Pastor. "As my colleague (associate professor of sociology) Dana Takagi said to me earlier today, racism is bound to come out. It's like a virus. It's harbored in us, and in times of fear and tension, it comes out. We need to be vigilant."

Calling for a "hard analysis" of events in the wake of September 11, Pastor also spoke of the need to "honor the people in the towers and the fear of postal workers and people working in the Senate.

"We must speak to people's grief, fear, and insecurity," he said. "We must speak with compassion, not righteousness. We must speak with love, not haughtiness, and we must come together."

ElGenaidi also noted the support she and the Islamic Networks Group have received in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Although they received 16 hate calls and e-mails in the wake of the attacks, the group also received 60 calls of support and solidarity and is fielding "hundreds of requests for information about Islam," she said.

The forces of racism and ignorance are at play even as Muslims in the United States are "being embraced by Americans and embracing being American," she said.

"Where do we go from here? We could be interned, locked up, and lose our identity," she said. "Or we could become a vibrant, productive force that helps change society culturally, spiritually, and in terms of U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East."

Then, referring to the diversity of California and the San Francisco Bay Area, ElGenaidi ended her remarks, which drew a standing ovation, by saying, "If it's possible to change, it's going to happen here."

Davis, a longtime political activist and a professor of history of consciousness, wondered aloud about the process by which the United States has moved "from a profound sense of mourning to this ubiquitous flag-waving nationalism."

She mourned the loss of "hundreds of undocumented workers" who died in the World Trade Center attacks and whose survivors dared not search for their loved ones for fear of being deported. "Why are we being called upon to consolidate as a nation that hatefully excludes those who are not citizens or appear to be noncitizens?" she asked.

Critiquing pronouncements that "things will never be the same," Davis said that although the United States can no longer assume it is invulnerable, the terrorist attacks "do not annul the history of U.S. militarism, the internment of Japanese Americans, the meaning of the Vietnam war, and the U.S. contribution to the violence that led to September 11."

"We must distinguish between the innocent people who died (in the September 11 attacks) and the government and institutions that control this country," said Davis.

"We must turn our gaze away from Washington and toward the people who don't want another Gulf War, another Vietnam War," she said. "We must say to President Bush, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell and those who would bring us more violence: This war will not be conducted in our names. Not in our names."

Sociology professor John Brown Childs, who opened the evening with a reading from his Iroquois ancestors, fielded a question about the "retractability of American identity for people of color during times of crisis." Childs recalled his three uncles who "fought against the Nazis during World War II" and fought for civil rights in their native New England.

"They believed in the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and they also fought against racism," said Childs. "When they were demonstrating in Alabama, they were carrying the flag, but they were not saying, 'Everything is fine.' They were saying, 'Things need to change.'"

Earlier in the day, history professor Edmund "Terry" Burke addressed a group of more than 50 people who turned out at Cowell College to hear him discuss "Justice and Peace in Islam."

Burke, who studies social movements, described the history of "injustice, anger, and lashing out" that has unfolded for hundreds of years in the Islamic world and the tensions underlying the current crisis. "Christianity, Judaism, and Islam share a deep ambivalence about the place of the state in religion," he said.

"Modernity is a shipwreck for all religions. It's been tough," said Burke, citing "criticism on the deepest level" of religious preconceptions, as well as culture wars within the United States--and even within churches.

"It's tough to live in a secular state while trying to remain in touch with one's religious heritage," said Burke. "For Muslims, it's the same thing, with one important exception, which is the ways colonialism happens--and keeps happening."

The United States, through covert actions and overt colonial wars such as those in Vietnam, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, keeps trying to "stop history and make sure things turn out the way we want them to," said Burke, a critic of the militarism of U.S. foreign policy.

The September 11 attacks by "Islamic fanatics" play into "media-hyped stereotypes" and present a challenge to Americans, who fall back on the "legacy of the Crusades." But Americans must educate themselves about Islam and the grievances of Muslims, which revolve around injustice, corruption, and foreign domination.

"If we blame the messenger, we miss the message, which is, 'Get off my back,'" said Burke.

Burke's talk was sponsored by the Lutheran Campus Ministry. The public forum on race, which was moderated by Dana Takagi, was sponsored by the Ad Hoc Faculty Working Group on Current Events, the Institute for Humanities Research, the Center for Cultural Studies, the Center for Global, International and Regional Studies, the CJTC, the Divisions of Humanities and Social Sciences, College Nine, and the Office of the Chancellor. Partial funding came from the September 11 Community Dialogue Fund of the California Council for the Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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