Us and Them

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Following the deaths of thousands of people in New York and Washington, political leaders in the United States - quickly followed by their counterparts in Canada - began to rally the nation to get ready for battle with the enemy. With an eerie easiness, the enemy was described as “Arabic” and as “Muslim.” So began the vilification by Us of Them, which relies heavily on racist and nationalist rhetoric to sustain itself.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien told Canadians that the Western world had to react.

Mainstream media pundits readily agreed. Margaret Wente, columnist for The Globe and Mail, constructed the world as being made up of either an us - with a “common civilization” - or a them - who belonged “in the killers' world.” Our world, she stated, was a “tolerant and peaceable society.” Their society “advocates mass slaughter.” According to her, “we” believe in “human decency and the rule of law.” On the other hand, “they” believe in “blood revenge and sacred jihad.” Their war against us is “an evil that must be stopped.” Our war is “just and necessary.”

In case anyone started to ask questions about why anyone would carry out such a bloody attack (and many of us did), another Globe and Mail columnist, Marcus Gee, told us that to do so was naïve. He argued that while “people in the West” may look for rationales behind the terror of September 11, that this was an enormous waste of time. Unabashedly failing to acknowledge the sordid history of painting “the enemy” as a simple-minded evil force incapable of reason or thought, he stated that such terror is waged by those “with a disposition for unlimited violence.” Creating these false distinctions between Us and Them serves only one purpose - it makes it much easier to wage war on defenceless people in those places deemed to be beyond the pale. One U.S. official stated that “we would have to accept” that there would be a large loss of people's lives in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. Amidst the grieving for the loss of thousands of lives in the United States, there was no empathy for the lives of these people. Indeed, it would be unpatriotic, unthinkable, perhaps even uncivilized to not wage war on Them.

A New York Daily News columnist, Ann Coulter, stated that “this is no time to be precious about locating the exact individuals directly involved in this particular terrorist attack ... We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” A caller to a CBC show stated that it was necessary, not only to kill those responsible for the terror of September 11, but to wipe out the “gene pool” of the perpetrators to ensure that “these type of people” are exterminated once and for all.

For the many of us living in Canada and the U.S. with roots or even perceived ties to “the enemy,” the attacks against our bodies and our sense of security have been immediate and often brutal. Those of us from South Asia or the Middle East (or for that matter anywhere else where the G8 countries might turn their murderous intentions) - especially if we are Muslim or perceived as Muslim (whatever that means!) - have been deemed by many to be “the enemy within.”

Some of us, seduced by the purrs of multiculturalism awash in the corridors of power, had come to believe that Canada - or the U.S. - was our home. Now we have come to realize that, when the nation is under attack, we are regarded, as always, as outsiders - as always, foreigners.

In Canada, children attending Muslim schools have had to stay at home to avoid attacks. Across both countries, Islamic organizations and Palestinian organizations have been the targets of hate mail and life-threatening calls. In both places, mosques and other non-Christian places of worship have been vandalized.

  • In Chicago, 300 marchers, some carrying U.S. flags and crying “U.S.A.!, U.S.A.!” were bent on attacking a mosque.
  • In Hamilton, Ontario, a Hindu temple has been set ablaze.
  • In downtown Toronto, a Muslim woman waiting for her train home was told by a woman passing by that “If I had a gun, I would shoot you right now.”
  • In New York City, a Sikh man wearing a turban had to outrun three men chasing him down the street. In order to feel safe, he had to tear off his turban, stuff it into his briefcase and try to hide the fact that he was Sikh.
  • In Long Island, New York, a 75-year-old man tried to run down a young woman from Pakistan with his car. When she ran into a mall, it was ten minutes before anyone responded to her calls for help.

Simultaneous Shouts for us to “Go back to where you came from” and “Don't let them in” are being heard across Canada and the U.S. The result? The borders between Us and Them, between the Global North and the South, between the haves and the have-nots, have been further secured.

Regardless of who is responsible for the deaths in New York and Washington, the victors have been those within reactionary and religious fundamentalist forces the world over, including those within Canada and the U.S. As we try and formulate a response to another deadly war against humanity and diversity, Edward Said, a prominent intellectual and an exiled Palestinian living in New York City, perhaps sums it up best:

“Islam” and “the West” are simply inadequate as banners to follow blindly. Some will run behind them, but for future generations to condemn themselves to prolonged war and suffering without so much as a critical pause, without looking at interdependent histories of injustice and oppression, without trying for common emancipation and mutual enlightenment seems far more wilful than necessary. Demonisation of the Other is not a sufficient basis for any kind of decent politics, certainly not now when the roots of terror in injustice can be addressed ... It takes patience and education, but is more worth the investment than still greater levels of large-scale violence and suffering.

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