Last weekend, I attended, along with some friends of mine, an Indian Raas dance competition being put on at the Michigan Theater. It was beautiful. There were dance teams from schools around the nation including Georgetown, George Washington, Ohio State, Washington University, Michigan State and of course the University of Michigan. Many of the dances were very well done and in the end the Wolverines were victorious, although it seemed a bit rigged. But that”s not what was important.
The singing of the national anthems of India and America kicked off the show. The American national anthem was promptly followed by a moment of silence for all the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. This is all harmless on the surface, but it seemed to me a bit misguided.
There is nothing wrong of course with invoking the memory of innocent victims, no matter what tragedy they were victims of. But the blatant patriotism of the event made me feel a bit uncomfortable, not because I am not patriotic, but rather because the American values I am patriotic of are not the American values our government is currently embracing and sharing.
As I looked around the packed theater, I noticed that just about everyone there was a person of color: Indians, blacks, Latinos, Asians and some Arabs (I can account for myself and my friends that I attended with). It was a wonder to me as to how this event, which had nothing to do with American culture and almost everything to do with invoking Indian culture, could carry such a political message. Many perhaps saw the singing of the national anthem as something normal, something passing. For me, however, it was like watching a flock of sheep being guided to recite the important language of our national anthem without thinking of what it really means in our day and age.
In this time when our government has incarcerated hundreds of men with no charge simply because they have Arab and/or Muslim heritage, detained hundreds of prisoners in Cuba while blatantly violating international law and heightening its support for many dictatorial regimes throughout the world in the name of fighting terrorism, we must each define for ourselves what it means to be an American.
To me, it should mean not giving in to the temptation to curtail civil liberties at times of crisis. It should mean living in a global community and not simply acting unilaterally when international opinion does not suit us. It should mean acting more morally than those regimes throughout the world that we criticize for doing many of the same things of which we are currently guilty. It should mean our government informing the public of why it has detained hundreds of people in its “war against terror.” It should mean our president being honest with us, treating us like intelligent citizens and not throwing rhetorical terms at us like the “axis of evil.”
It should mean our attorney general being held responsible when he says that “Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you.” It should mean not lobbying to turn Olympic Games into a forum to send a political message by walking our tattered World Trade Center flag into the Olympics stadium during opening ceremonies (this was asked to be done against the wishes of International Olympic Committee).
It should mean understanding what the roots of dislike for our country are around the world and working to analyze and address them in constructive ways. It should mean preaching the same ideals of democracy in the places where we have so much influence that we claim to practice right here at home.
So hearing the national anthem stirred up many emotions. I and I imagine many others like me have struggled with re-defining myself as an American citizen since Sept. 11. My struggle lies in finding a definition that includes values inherent in freedom, self-determination, human rights and a global vision that realizes that while we live in the greatest nation, we have much to achieve and much to learn. I consider these values to be very American. But my struggle also lies in a rich cultural heritage that has its roots halfway across the world, in a country where our government has misbehaved, in a place where I have no civic connection, in a land where my emotions run deep and my heart bleeds.
Is there room in what it means to be an American for me? Unfortunately, now I feel as if there is not. So I left the room when they sang, still not sure as to how to react. But now it seems clear. I am an American like any other, but until our government realizes that too, our anthem and our flag create a sour taste for me. So sing the national anthem, raise the flag, but I cannot stand and sing with you until I feel that they have returned to being my anthem and flag as well.
Amer G. Zahr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.