On MLK Weekend, It’s Time to Heed A Wake Up Call 14 Years in the Making

This Martin Luther King Jr. weekend has been marked by powerful protests led by the movement for Black lives - and an act of violence against a Muslim man who was beaten by a group of people yelling “Isis, Isis” as he took a walk in a New York City neighborhood with his young niece.

For many Americans, the past three months have been wake-up calls, not just about the threat of global terrorism, but about the pervasiveness of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. I hear this firsthand at events around the nation where I have been sharing the stories and themes in my book about South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh immigrants in post 9/11 America. During our community conversations, students, activists, parents and teachers of various races and faiths alarmingly expressed their concerns about the xenophobic and divisive rhetoric, backlash, and policies targeting Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim. It seemed that the drumbeat of xenophobia and Islamophobia that has been building in our nation over the decade and a half since 9/11 had finally become loud enough to awaken more of us from our 14-year national slumber.

But will we heed the call this time around? Will the “fierce urgency of now”, that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described 52 years ago prompt us to take action? At the 1963 March on Washington, Dr. King reminded Americans: [i]n this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

As a nation, we have been woefully late in forcefully and effectively addressing the crises affecting South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh communities in post 9/11 America. We have had many opportunities over the past 14 years, which have been replete with racial flashpoints, discriminatory government policies and unchecked xenophobic political rhetoric.

Indeed, today’s climate of xenophobia and Islamophobia has tried and tested historical counterparts and antecedents. Donald Trump’s plan to impose identification cards on Muslims, for example, is reminiscent of the Department of Justice’s little-known program implemented in 2002 known as special registration, which required non-immigrant men who were 16 years and older from 25 Muslim-majority countries to report to local immigration offices. Special registration may have flown under the public’s radar, but it resulted in the deportation of nearly 13,000 men and the devastation of immigrant neighborhoods and small businesses around the nation.

For a decade and a half, policymakers, media outlets, and government agencies have been cultivating a palatable vocabulary of national security justifications that has led to the surveillance, interrogations and deportations of thousands of Muslims, South Asians and Arabs. That is why today’s calls to monitor Muslim communities using immigration and national security measures do not result in more moral indignation. Americans have already become used to programs implemented over the past 14 years, from Attorney General Ashcroft’s Alien Absconder Initiative to the Obama Administration’s “countering violent extremism” program to the New York Police Department’s surveillance of mosques, Muslim students associations, cricket and soccer games in public parks, and Arab and South Asian restaurants.

And, the divisive political rhetoric that has shocked so many Americans of late can be traced to similar remarks made since 9/11 that sanction racial and religious profiling of Muslims, Arabs and South Asians. Think back to former Congressman John Cooksey (R-LA) who said in the days after 9/11, “[i]f I see someone [who] comes in that’s got a diaper on his head and a fan belt wrapped around the diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over” (Cooksey later apologized) or to the congressional hearings on the extent of radicalization in the American Muslim community by Rep. Peter King, the Chair of the Committee on Homeland Security in 2011, or to more recent statements from former U.S. congressman Joe Walsh (R-IL) who said, “When it comes to our immigration, we need to begin profiling who our enemy is in this war: young Muslim men.” This type of racist and hostile rhetoric, unchecked and unrestrained, has paved the way for what we are hearing today, such as the reprehensible invocations of the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans as precedent for how the U.S. should treat refugees from Syria.

That’s not all. By the ten year anniversary of 9/11, we witnessed the needless introduction of anti-Sharia legislation in 33 states, and the public pushback over the construction of 53 mosques and Islamic community centers fueled in part by a cottage industry of spokespersons and organizations perpetuating anti-Muslim narratives. And between 2001 and 2007, the Department of Justice had already investigated 800 reported incidents of violence, threats of violence, or arson perpetrated against South Asian, Arab, Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh communities. Racial flashpoints such as the controversy over the Park51 community center in Lower Manhattan (2010), the attack on the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin (2012), and the anti-Islam rallies that took place outside mosques (2015), should have served as stark reminders of the racial anxiety, Islamophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment permeating our nation. Indeed, as 2015 ended, even more racial flashpoints occurred on a weekly basis. Examples include the vandalism of the Islamic Center of Pfugerville, where members found torn pages of the Quran, smeared with feces; the removal of Arab, Muslim and South Asian passengers off domestic flights; and the assault of an elderly Sikh man in Fresno.

In response to the “fierce urgency” in our communities for the past decade and a half, South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh organizers, spokespersons and activists have been fully awake and vigilant - by creating new organizations, litigating discriminatory government policies, conducting community-based research, and disrupting misleading media narratives. Most important, South Asian, Arab, and Muslim activists are now looking to today’s powerful social change movements of Black Lives Matter and undocumented youth, and are being inspired to organize — on the streets, in legislature halls, on campuses, and in immigrant neighborhoods — in order to build power.

But the struggle to eliminate xenophobia and Islamophobia cannot fall solely upon the shoulders of the communities who have been most directly affected. While South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh communities are experiencing the brunt of xenophobia and Islamophobia, the urgency of this moment should concern all of us who seek to create an inclusive democracy in America. We must all take “vigorous and positive action” in the words of Dr. King.

For example, federal and local government agencies must reaffirm that they will preserve and protect the civil rights of Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities, and follow the example of the Department of Education’s guidance released this month to school administrators. The guidance reads in part: “[W]e … urge you to anticipate the potential challenges that may be faced by students who are especially at risk of harassment — including those who are, or are perceived to be, Syrian, Muslim, Middle Eastern, or Arab, as well as those who are Sikh, Jewish, or students of color. For example, classroom discussions and other school activities should be structured to help students grapple with current events and conflicting viewpoints in constructive ways, and not in ways that result in the targeting of particular students for harassment or blame.” Why couldn’t more federal and state level civil rights agencies and human relations commissions release similar statements that provide clear guidance and explicitly refer to the communities that are under scrutiny in today’s environment in order to prevent bullying, harassment, profiling and discrimination?

In addition, the heads of agencies and institutions must regularly and frequently make public statements that reinforce the values of our nation, as President Obama did in his state of the union address last week. He said: “When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad or our fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong.” These statements are important because they hold us to higher standards and create a climate of political accountability. Those in leadership - from campus presidents and corporate leaders - can articulate values of empathy and respect, following the vein of Satya Nadella, the CEO of Google, who wrote recently about how fear should not compromise our values. In addition, city councils could enact affirmative resolutions that welcome immigrants and refugees as the City of Seattle already has. Small businesses can demonstrate their values by displaying posters saying “Hate has no Biz here” — an initiative of the Main Street Alliance. All of us need to amplify our voices in order to drown out the tide of xenophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Of course, rhetoric must be accompanied by policy. The impact of positive and welcoming messages from political leaders means little in the face of the government’s surveillance programs that foster an environment of fear and suspicion, or the lack of robust campus and corporate policies that prevent discrimination and bullying. It’s not enough for leaders to take up the mic and articulate values of equality and justice. We must demand accountability and follow-up in terms of structural and institutional policies.

As a nation, we did not do enough to stop the juggernaut of harmful narratives, rhetoric and policies in the 14 years after 9/11. Now that the alarm bells are ringing again, we must stay awake, speak out, and change direction. Whether and how we course correct now will not only determine our future, but also reflect the depth and scope of our individual and collective commitments to creating a safer, inclusive, welcoming democracy.

Deepa Iyer is currently a Senior Fellow at The Center for Social Inclusion and the former director of South Asian Americans Leading Together for a decade. Her first book is We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future.