Good Reads: What it means to be the "other" in America

This week's better long form stories help us make sense of the deeper cultural issues behind Sunday's Sikh Temple shooting, as well as the immigrant experience in America.

Between two worlds

The shooting at a Sikh Temple in the Wisconsin town of Oak Creek last Sunday revealed an ugly side to America’s pluralistic society. In a country of immigrants, there are still people who hate or fear those they see as “outsiders,” and when those people have access to semi-automatic weapons, they can put their fear and hatred into action.

The shooter, a former US Army soldier named Wade Michael Page, was a white supremacist, and before he was gunned down by a police officer, Page managed to kill six of the temple’s worshipers and to wound another police officer.

The incident is being treated as a domestic terror incident, with Page’s embrace of the “racial holy war” rhetoric of the far right making this more than just another case of American mass murder. But the shock of the event also hit many Americans at another level. Here, the terrorist was white, and a former US soldier. His victims were Asian. The terrorist’s ideology, white supremacy, was every bit as hateful and destructive as the religious holy war (jihad) of the men who hijacked the planes on Sept. 11.

Sept. 11, of course, is the day that changed America forever. Many Americans began to view the outside world (and particularly the Islamic world) as a threat. But what about those Americans who were themselves Asian or Muslim? Jaswinder Bolina addresses this question beautifully in an essay, “Empathy with the devil,” in The State, a print journal based in Dubai. As an American of Asian descent, Mr. Bolina finds himself torn between two worlds, and while he shares no actual sympathy for the goals of radical extremists, he understands implicitly what those goals are and where the motivations come from.

Recalling a conversation with an immigrant, shortly after 9/11, Bolina writes, “He knows that he and I better resemble photographs of the hijackers than photographs of the firefighters. And when he says, ‘they treated us like dogs,’ us means the Indian conflated with the Pakistani, the Pakistani mistaken for the Afghan, the Afghan called an Arab, the Arab indistinguishable from the Persian and the Turk, the Shia and the Sunni and the Sikh all taken for one bearded and turbaned body.”

The American dream

Shervin Malekzadeh, an Iranian-American immigrant and visiting assistant professor at Swarthmore College, makes a different point about an immigrant’s life in America. In an article in the Atlantic, marking the recent death of actor Sherman Helmsley, Mr. Malekzadeh, television was the tool for learning about America, and the 1970s comedy hit, “The Jeffersons” was the show that came closest to identifying the challenges of being an immigrant.

Making it in America, making it in terms of the American dream, was compromised for George and Louise by their loss, and it was here that The Jeffersons showed us where the American and immigrant experiences converged. Because of who they were, and where they came from, the Jeffersons could never feel like they fully belonged in tony Upper East Side, or what my father liked to refer to as Grey Poupon society. The past pulled on them, and although neither ever forgot where they came from, the longer George and Louise stayed away from the old neighborhood the less they knew of their old selves.

The role of religion

If the 9/11 attacks and the Sikh Temple shootings have taught us, it is that we don’t generally understand each other’s religious outlooks and world views very well. On television talk shows, one hears the notion that America is a nation founded on Judeo-Christian values, which presumably means those are the only values worth knowing about, and outsiders should be the ones doing the studying and accommodating.

But Scott Atran, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan and author of Talking to the Enemy and In Gods We Trust, writes in this week’s Foreign Policy magazine that knowledge of another person’s faith can have a profound effect on how different societies interact. In short, studying another person’s faith doesn’t mean that one must adopt it, or abandon one’s own beliefs, but it can improve “the human condition, including a lessening of cultural conflict and war.”

Time and again, countries go to war without understanding the transcendent drives and dreams of adversaries who see a very different world. Yet we needn't fly blindly into the storm.

Science can help us understand religion and the sacred just as it can help us understand the genome or the structure of the universe. This, in turn, can make policy better informed.

Iran, explained

Iran seems to be the big bogeyman these days, with its theocracy, questions about its nuclear program, its threats to cut off the Persian Gulf, its support for the embattled Syrian regime, and its continued support for radical militant groups like Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

But the West’s conflict with Iran has been brewing for decades, dating back to the early days of World War I, when British colonial officers arrived in the Persian oilfields to secure fuel for their military fleet. From that day onward, Britain, the United States, and Iran’s ruling elites were locked in a love-hate relationship that leaned heavily on hate.

In a review of Christopher de Bellaigue's biography of former Iranian prime minister Muhammad Mossadegh – a man toppled by America’s CIA in 1953 – Roger Cohen writes in the New York Review of Books that the West not only put Iran into a democratic death-spiral that led to the rise of theocratic rule. It also set a precedent that it clings to today, by overthrowing “troublemakers” and tolerating tyrants who keep the flow of oil to the West. And it is this tendency in US foreign policy that accounts for much of the hostility that fuels leaders like Iran’s current President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and others.

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