What I learned living in a majority Muslim country
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The same irrational fear that drove my evacuation from Indonesia in 2001 is driving the current political climate.

I was living in the largest Muslim country on a two-year fellowship at the time of the 9/11 attacks. I remember well the general panic, fear and confusion that followed from family, friends and countrymen. Would America “retaliate”? Was I “safe” as a young American woman living in Indonesia? 

How surreal it was to hear these fearful voices from across the world as I went about my daily life in Yogyakarta, spending time with my Indonesian friends and teaching English to young lecturers at Gadjah Mada University, who hoped to study abroad for their Ph.D.s. 

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I remember, too, the confusion, concern and sadness from these friends and students when they learned that my fellowship had been suspended, and that I was being flown home to America “for my own safety.” Safe from whom, we wondered?

 

My fellowship had been sending college graduates to Indonesia for decades, and simultaneously bringing Indonesian scholars to America to support mutual understanding and respect through educational and cultural exchanges. Living on the predominantly Muslim island of Java, we fellows had grown used to the rhythm of life in Yogyakarta. Hearing the sound of call to prayer multiple times a day became a familiar backdrop to our daily lives (as opposed to an evocative signal of danger as in shows like “24” and “Homeland”). I learned to avoid eating and drinking in front of friends who were fasting for Ramadan, and enjoyed breaking fast with them at the end of the day.

I also saw with great clarity that Islam is not monolithic. I had Indonesian friends who wore the jilbab (hijab), and others whose style belonged on the cover of Vogue. I had Muslim friends and colleagues who were traditional and conservative, and others who volunteered with the Indonesian chapter of Planned Parenthood, supported LGTB communities and led communist art collectives. There was no singular view of Islam, but toward me there was friendship, kindness and a curiosity to learn more about America’s culture and values.

Both during my fellowship and in later years when I returned to Indonesia, I had the opportunity to share in and learn about meaningful exchanges that shaped the way that my Muslim friends and colleagues perceived America. These experiences were sometimes humorous — watching friends delight in the latest terrible American movie to open in Yogyakarta, or throwing Halloween parties for my Indonesian students. They were sometime uplifting — giving birth to my daughter in Indonesia or hearing about a colleague’s happy years in Boston while earning a Ph.D. at Harvard. And they were sometimes tragic — losing a smart young researcher in a motorcycle accident or seeing a friend fly halfway around the world to be part of an art exhibit in America, only to be refused entry and placed directly on a flight back to Indonesia. Each of these moments helped me to understand how powerful these moments can be in shaping understandings of one another.

The decision to evacuate me from Indonesia was the wrong decision. Removing me from my home in Yogyakarta closed doors to communication, empathy and understanding at a critical historical moment.

And our current administration’s desire to close our door to the Muslim world now is equally erroneous. With the latest executive order, we must acknowledge that damage continues to be done to America’s image and our national security, and we must consider constructive paths forward. Many experts have debated what leads individuals down the treacherous path to terrorist acts. And what we know is that there are certain social processes that are critical in a turn towards radicalization: isolation and marginalization.

Today’s travel ban, which attempts to block individuals from seven (now six) predominantly Muslim countries, has sent a clear message to Muslim populations overseas and also here in America: that America is not theirs and not for them. Such actions from our administration are not only un-American, they foster a sense of isolation among those who could be important allies overseas or contributing citizens here at home.

Similarly, the recent uptick in hate crimes against Muslims and other groups sends a clear message that these men, women and children are not welcome. Such exclusionary practices along with racist micro-aggressions and systematic discrimination serve to further marginalize individuals, and limit opportunities to help build a better and safer America for all.

It is time for Americans to reflect on our own actions, and to consider how we may be making America less safe. And we should also acknowledge that it isn’t too late. There are many small actions that we can make to send a very different message. A colleague, for example, has recently written about“seven kinds of kindness,” small actions that people are taking to help refugee populations feel more welcome in America.

From volunteering with organizations supporting reintegration efforts like the International Rescue Committee to engaging municipal leaders in creating “welcoming cities” to inviting a newly arrived family to your child’s birthday party, there are many small acts of kindness that may have untold rewards — not only in making America safe, but in helping us come together as a larger community of individuals who care for one and about one another.

In our increasingly divided America, we should also apply this same kindness to Americans who are similarly feeling isolated and marginalized. As I remember back to my times in Indonesia, both pre- and post-9/11, I know that had there been a threat to my safety, my biggest asset would have been my friendships. Though we didn’t share the same culture, religion or beliefs in many cases, my friends had my back. Today, I want to have theirs.

 

Lindsay Stark is an associate professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.


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