Four days after the September 11 terrorist attacks by radical Islamists from the Middle East, a self-proclaimed American “patriot” retaliated by murdering an Arizona gas station owner—a native of India whose Sikh religion required him to wear a turban. Although the victim was a stranger to then 20-year-old Valarie Kaur, she shared his religion, and the senseless murder so shook her that she spent the next four days holed up in her room, escaping in the world of Harry Potter. But on the fifth day, Kaur decided that she needed to respond, and she wound up spending the next eight years completing a documentary.
On Friday, on Sept. 23, Kaur came to St. Mary’s to share her work, “Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath of 9/11,” and to lead a discussion about fear and religious tolerance in the decade since the towers fell.
The film explored the hate crimes and discrimination against both Muslims and those mistakenly perceived to be Muslims that swept the U.S. in the wake of 9/11. In the seven days following 9/11, there were 1,000 hate crimes and 19 murders of Arab and ‘Arab looking’ people.
Kaur focuses especially on the hate directed towards Sikhs, the followers of an Indian religion that traditionally require male followers to wear long beards and turbans. Although the Sikh religion is focused on the brotherhood of man, the turbans and bears make them look, to many Americans, like the Muslim radicals that have come to personify terrorism.
Kaur tells the stories of Sikhs living in the post 9/11 world as a means of exposing the way that the war on terror has constructed a view that equates being or looking Arab with being Muslim, and being Muslim with supporting terrorism.
On film, Kaur interviews law professors, Americans with ignorant and hateful views of Arabs, and those victimized by hatred. She chronicles the story of a white man stabbed for being with his Arab friend, a white woman who realized that she had been living with an irrational fear of Muslims, and a young Muslim boy who had been facing taunts that he was “Osama Bin Laden’s son.” One story that is widely discussed in the documentary is the murder of the gas station owner, Balbir Singh Sodhi, whose murder shook the Sikh community and Kaur herself.
The discussion and movie screening was organized by sophomore Pooja Taneja, who first saw the film in her Advanced Placement World History class in high school and fell in love with it. “I knew the stuff that was going on in my South Indian community but I didn’t know that it was to that extent. I had family friends that had experienced hate crimes, but I didn’t see it with my own eyes. But in the film she shows it, and it was really powerful.” She says that she had been surprised that so few people on campus knew what Sikhism was “and I thought, ‘they have to know’. They need to know what the religion is and what [the Sikhs] went through.”
After the movie screening, instead of a typical question and answer, Kaur led a powerful discussion about discrimination in America. The feeling in the room was incredible. Many students expressed shock at the level of hatred against Sikhs and Arabs that occurred, some expressed that they really related with the Sikhs in the film. Some were crying and many others expressed regret at their ignorance of Sikhism or their lack of outrage at the discrimination that was going on. Kaur led the discussion with grace and compassion, making sure that everybody got their chance to be heard and keeping careful record of what was being said and who was saying what.
Kaur then took the stage and gave a speech incorporating the questions that had been raised during the discussion. Among other things, she talked about how she learned to handle hearing about intense racism and discrimination on a regular basis without coming away jaded or feeling hatred in return. She admitted that as she traveled the country collecting stories, “Somewhere along the way… I had a really hard time not becoming angry and bitter.”
Sometimes she found it hard to continue the fight with compassion and love, but at some point she had a powerful realization: “I walked home from school and an African American kid was walking toward me in the street. And I crossed the street. And I pulled my bag close and I felt this knot in my stomach. And for the first time in my life I asked ‘why is my body reacting this way, when my mind isn’t saying a word? I realized that we all have done this in some way. That in a way we shouldn’t feel guilty. It’s not the first moment that we have responsibility over, it’s the second moment. Because in the second moment, we can decide to go along unthinkingly with the stereotypes that are in the air about how we should react. Or we can ask ourselves, ‘what has been wired into me? And what is the difference between protecting myself and harming another person?’” She argues that this recognition–that we have all been seen as outsiders as well as seen others as outsiders–is the beginning of addressing racism.
At the end of her speech, Kaur left the audience with one final message: “In college, many of you have the desire to do something good. To change the world in some way. When you leave college there are so many forces that will try to extinguish that flame. There’s a question of career, and marriage and economic hardship. All I ask is that you keep that flame alive…find the friends who nourish it, find the professors who nourish it, find the texts that nourish it. Keep those close to you… Because you’ll need those to keep that flame alive.”
Before the screening, Pooja said that she hoped that “this film will have an impact on [the students] as a community and that they will spread the word. That’s what Kaur’s mission is, to spread the word about what happened and to change people’s perspectives.” From the standing ovation that Valarie Kaur received after her talk, it seemed that that hope was realized.