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Updated: November 7, 2012 00:16 IST

The lost audacity of hope

Zahir Janmohamed
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BELIEVING IN AMERICA? The president boasts about drone strikes in Pakistan and has deported more people than George Bush. Even today, immigrants get asked if they are really American.
AP BELIEVING IN AMERICA? The president boasts about drone strikes in Pakistan and has deported more people than George Bush. Even today, immigrants get asked if they are really American.

In 2008, as news of Obama’s win spread, racial tensions seemed as distant as that momentous night. But now, the magic is gone

I had the following items in my soccer ball-shaped backpack that day in June 2010 at JFK airport: a vuvuzela, an envelope full of ticket stubs from the matches I attended in South Africa, and a stack of books about the history of the World Cup.

The last question I expected to be asked by the New York airport security agent was this: “What were you doing there?”

I was naive — hopeful we called ourselves — because I thought the election of Barack Obama might end these indignities that I — and many other South Asians — face upon entering the United States.

I should have known better.

“What were you really doing there?”

I wanted to point to the U.S. soccer jersey that my brother Munir was wearing. I wanted to tell the security officer that my brother and I, Indian Americans born and raised in the U.S., had planned our trip to South Africa for years, that we scoured for weeks to find tickets to the U.S. games, that we cheered from the fourth row when the U.S. scored its last minute miraculous goal against Algeria.

But the questions continued: “Whom were you rooting for?”

I wanted to take out my identification badge issued by the United States House of Representatives, the one with my photo imprinted on it, the card that verified I was a senior foreign policy aide in the U.S. Congress.

But I could not get myself to say these things. I was tired and my stomach tensed up, as it always does when I feel humiliated, and suddenly all I could say was this: “I have become very sick in South Africa. Can I use the bathroom?”

“No,” the officer said. “We cannot allow that. Security reasons.” He pointed to the side and made us stand. We waited there next to Arabs, South Asians and Latinos, with the odd white guy thrown in to make this process look random.

My brother, a cardiologist in San Francisco, pleaded with the security guard to let me use the bathroom, lest my stomach problem worsen.

The guard stood firm. “No.”

I remember the night of November 4, 2008 so well. I had invited a dozen friends over to my Washington DC apartment to watch the election returns. One of my friends even made cupcakes in the shape of the Obama logo.

The screams from the street were so loud that every time Obama won a state we could hear them eight floors above. When Obama was proclaimed president, we poured on to the streets and stood at the centre of the intersection of 14th and U Streets. It was at that exact spot that race riots broke out after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. But those racial tensions seemed so distant that night.

White people hugged black people. Gay and straight people danced together. No one cared or asked, as they do on so many other days, if you were a foreigner.

Throughout the campaign, the Obama slogan was “Yes we can” but we edited it that night.

“Yes we did,” we shouted.

We were foolish but why not? We had just endured eight years of George W. Bush — an administration that brought two wars, a further sullied U.S. image abroad, and a determination to target anyone who was perceived to be Muslim.

How could Obama be any worse, we thought, as we danced the night away.

I wonder what has changed. We have a president who boasts about drone strikes in Pakistan (which have largely targeted civilians), a president who has deported more people than Bush, and a president who is yet to roll back legislation that curtails basic civil rights. This is, after all, the same president who did not show up when seven Sikhs were gunned down this past August in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, but decided to appear at a movie theatre when a gunman fired at moviegoers.

Indeed, Obama is not worse than Bush. Bush set the bar so low that it’s sort of like that Eddie Murphy joke: when you are used to stale biscuits, even a wilted piece of bread will taste good. But America needs more right now.

Before I came to Ahmedabad a few weeks ago, I went to the polls in California and checked off Obama’s name on my ballot. On the drive to the polling station, I told myself all things I needed to do to justify this decision: he is better than Romney, he has tried to improve the U.S. health-care system, he is solidly pro-gay rights, he respects a woman’s right to chose what happens to her body, he knows that daal is a dish and not a country.

As I stood in the voting booth, I kept thinking about that moment at the airport and the questions far too many Americans still ask of me: are you really an American? Really?

When I was in South Africa at the U.S.-Algeria game, an African-American pulled out a massive American flag and spread it over the entire cheering section. He did not care who was under the flag. It was big enough, he told us, for all.

I had that feeling when I voted for Obama in 2008. I loved that feeling. I miss it.

But now I know better: it is gone.

(Zahir Janmohamed is a freelance writer living in and writing about Juhapura, the Muslim neighbourhood of Ahmedabad. He previously served as the Advocacy Director for Amnesty International and Senior Foreign Policy Aide in the U.S. Congress. Follow him on Twitter @zahirj)

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Very sad to read what happened to you at the airport. Perhaps your
name triggered such obnoxious treatment. Many Muslims told me such
treatment happened to them, whether US citizens or not. Also, many
other Muslims (all US citizens) told me such treatment NEVER happened
to them since 9/11/2001. So, I am very confused why some Muslims are
treated very badly, not others. Obama is not responsible for this, I
believe. Yes, he uses drones to kill known terrorists, who all most
always hide among innocent people. Yes, there is collateral damages.
Obama is a phenomenon in the US political and social life: a solid
example of how fast US Society has changed since the days of Martin
Luther King Jr. His election in 2008 and re-election in 2012 is a
testament to the changing attitude and the romanticism of American
Progressives against the Old Conservatism of the Republican Party -
which now appears to be the Party of Old White Males of the
Confederate South and the Mountains. Let Barack succeed.

from:  Yamaka
Posted on: Nov 8, 2012 at 08:50 IST

How is this ordeal of the author (being cordoned off at the immigration for questioning) to be blamed on Mr. Obama? This connection doesn't seem natural or obvious and the article doesn't explain much either.

The Hindu will do better by thinking about its editorial standards of the past. Looks like, the acceptance of this article to Hindu's Opinion pages is as equivalent to this author being picked on at the US immigration (based on the name!)

from:  maya
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 17:25 IST

How different were the two elections, both elected Obama.The former gave
us hope, but this time we know what to expect "nothing will change"

from:  Dileep
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 15:38 IST

I found this article more abour injustice to Muslims than a discussion about Obama's performance which I would have found more in line with your pedigree and standing Sir. I find it fair that US immigration takes a closer look at people of Asian or Islamic origin, considering the nature of terror attacks on that country in the last decade. And yes, I am a fellow South Asian, an Indian citizen. I have been submitted to separate questioning, pulled aside INSIDE aircraft aerobridges while boarding to return to India AFTER customs and immigration and been subjected to random spot inspections on entering the US AFTER customs and immigration. I could be offended like you for being racially profiled as a fit, young Asian male and travelling alone. Instead, I chose to turn the other cheek and allow the immigration/police officer, customs agent and/or Federal agent to just do their job without taking it personally.

from:  Rohit Biddappa
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 11:19 IST

It is very sad to hear what happend to you in airport.Renowed Indian politicians to less known Khans,no one escaped from that type of treatment. Beacuse America or any other nation can no longer admit people with strange names or look without double checking. No American president can order to remove those prejudice in prevailing circumstances.In America racism still exist in many polymorphic forms, Obama's ascedance to power is a result of so many forces that prevailed 4 years back, but those atmosphere not exist now as American's are more comfortable and ready to elect a Mormon than a colored man.When they were afraid about tomorrow and desperate about their future more than now, they would have elected any other alternate candidate, not necessarily Obama. Obama was in right place at right time. Even my taxi driver was saying he should be send back to Kenya! he may be just echoing what Romney's son told other day. Now I wish Obama should not be elected again for good!God Bless USA

from:  Rajesh
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 07:46 IST

What you feel now is the cold light of reality -- as did Obama when he realized that
there was no way in hell he could turn the tide of paranoid nationalism that followed
in the wake of 9/11. What you went through is unfortunate, but it has nothing to do
with Obama. It's more symptomatic of America's institutionalized post 9/11
xenophobia that gleefully took root here -- with total complicity of the citizenry --
once Bush/Cheney began their destructive march.

from:  Jay Antani
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 04:02 IST

Bush gets too much criticism that is not deserved. After all, the biggest terrorist strike of all time took place basically right after he came to power. The biggest natural devastation, Katrina, in a long time happened during his time. He is not responsible for those but the first set in motion a great change in the economic climate and industries started to decline one after another. The subprime bust happened in his time too but he alone cannot be blamed. The seeds were sown for the subprime bubble back in Clinton's Predidency. ABout the only thing Bush could have done is increase the interest rates to cool down the housing market a little bit but then he was facing huge post-9/11 decline which forced the issue. Taking Iraq to war I would say is the worse thing that Bush did. we could have averted that war if not for him.

I would argue that Obama is worse than Bush. After all, he didnt accomplish anything of importance and still chanting Hope and Change slogans four years after.

from:  Sena
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 02:05 IST

All that hardship was single handedly attributed to as Obama's fault?

from:  Ramarao
Posted on: Nov 7, 2012 at 01:24 IST
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