As the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks approaches, war, technology and culture expert Priya Satia, '95, a Stanford associate professor of history and an American of Indian descent, reflects on the effects of the attacks, the importance of understanding others' historical experiences, and how 9/11 affects her own small children.
By Karen Springen, '83
Your 3-year-old son is on a Department of Homeland Security blacklist because of his name, Kabir, which is Arabic for "great." Can you get him off the list?
He can't be completely taken off the blacklist. The burden of proof is on me to call up the Department of Homeland Security and prove his innocence. He will be removed from that watch list and placed on a different watch list. He will be given a number, like a pin code, that he has to use every time he travels.
How did you learn he was on the list?
We went to New Delhi, and there was no problem. But after three weeks in India, at the [airport] check-in counter, they were unable to issue my son’s boarding pass. My own view is that reasonable suspicion ends when you see the person is a 3-year-old. In Delhi, fortunately, after making a few calls, they were able to issue a boarding pass. But in Singapore and Hong Kong, common sense did not prevail. They made him undergo extra screening before issuing his pass.
What’s the problem with his name?
Kabir is a very common Indian name. It’s a name you find in all religions, and I love that universalism. It was easy to pronounce, and it had a great meaning. The name has a special significance on the Indian subcontinent, where it refers to a medieval mystic poet beloved by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Alas, the Department of Homeland Security is deaf, dumb and blind to such cultural subtleties. My 5-year-old daughter’s name is Amann, which means peace. These are names that have really positive meanings. There must be someone out there with exactly the same name as my son who did something bad or is suspected of doing something bad. [It is] a waste of resources, screening a 3 year old. Sure, 3-year-olds are a nightmare on an airplane, but they’re not that bad!
You have talked about “those old demons of economic inequality and political exclusion.” Is that what leads to terrorist acts such as September 11?
I wouldn’t say that. Those two old demons I was citing explain the wave of social and political protests we’ve seen in the Middle East recently—Egypt, Syria, Israel even, India, Iran. September 11th is much more about a political conflict. It’s not usually socioeconomic, that really poor people become terrorists. It’s people who are experiencing an extreme sense of injustice and disempowerment. Of course, plenty of people feel an extreme sense of injustice and don’t become terrorists. When we commemorate 9/11, I don’t think we should forget the politics being expressed. The way George Bush put it is, this conflict is all about preserving America’s commitment to freedom—“they hate our freedoms.” But actually, people hate America’s actions. A lot of people hate America’s actions even more after 9/11. I don’t know how much recent events—the protests—had to do with 9/11 at all. If they had anything to do with 9/11 at all, it was people getting fed up with the United States continuing to support strong men in that part of the world. It’s a rejection of that. When the Egyptian revolution occurred, Barack Obama was very smart about keeping his distance. It’s the kiss of death if the United States approves any leader in that part of the world. It taints that politician. It looks like he’s just a puppet. The big concern in the Middle East is political legitimacy, having some sort of ruler who doesn’t look like he’s just a puppet. The experience of imperialism in the Middle East in the 20th century was one of nominally independent rulers, but everyone knew someone else was running the show from behind. Is this really our government, or is this just a U.S. puppet?
What should the United States do to prevent repeats of 9/11?
Pull out completely from the countries that it occupies, and that includes a sovereign air space. The drone surveillance has to stop. That is really offensive. It’s too much for anyone to swallow after centuries of western domination. Pull out completely. There’s this talk of withdrawal, but it’s so slow. There’s this sense that trainers will be left behind, drones will be left behind, helicopters will be left behind.
How does the death of Osama bin Laden affect everything?
I don’t know how to read that. I don’t think eliminating Osama bin Laden eliminates the terrorist threat. It could fuel anger for those of whom he was some sort of leader or inspiration, or it could inspire others to step into his shoes, or it could intimidate people. He definitely was a very bad man.
What should parents say to kids?
With my 5 year old, what I tell her is this really terrible thing happened. A lot of innocent people were killed, and bad people did that. But the United States didn’t respond to that in a good way, so it hurt a lot of people’s feelings.
It created a cycle of retribution and violence. After more than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflicts in the Middle East, I would think forgetting the initial incident is a little bit in order and forgiving is a little bit in order. Remember the lost loved ones. But forget the hatred and the paranoia, the garrison mentality, the fear of the Middle Eastern other. You know when that Norwegian incident happened [in July], and they found out it was a right-wing, anti-Muslim guy, everyone said, ‘Oh, it’s not a terrorist after all.’ It’s still a terrorist. It just doesn’t look like the kind of terrorist we’re used to associating with that word.
What do think about the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site?
I love that they have put everyone’s name on there. I’m not sure I agree with the sentiments in the actual words of the memorial that invokes this is all about protecting America’s freedom. It’s too political, and it echoes George Bush’s words too much. Most people should become aware now that this wasn’t people hating us for our freedom. It was about people hating us for our actions in the world.
Where were you on September 11, 2001?
I was in the British library in London. I had a fellowship there in the maps room. The gentleman in charge knew I was an American. He came up and said, “I have some very bad news for you.” There was some idea that the Golden Gate Bridge was at risk and London itself was at risk. I watched TV for the next 24 hours and just was stunned and terrified and worried about my family at home. I was doing research for my book [Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain's Covert Empire in the Middle East] on British surveillance and paranoia in the Middle East. It just felt like I had anticipated something that became really timely.
Did September 11 lead to the demonizing of Muslims?
I was raised in a Hindu Punjabi family. My name doesn’t sound Muslim at all, but people often mistake me as someone from the Middle East. I haven’t experienced any prejudice against myself. I do think a major outcome of these events has been a tendency to demonize Muslims or anyone people mistake as Muslims—turbaned Sikhs, for instance. People just assume if you have a turban, you’re a Muslim. They suffered a lot from that as well. It’s a big loss to the United States—that loss of acceptance of Islam.
What are the historical echoes in what’s going on today?
As much as this seems new and very 21st century, it has happened before—when the British occupied the Middle East in the 20th century. We did forget about it, and that’s why it’s happened again. The British government invented aerial surveillance in Iraq in the 1920s and 1930s.
Was it over oil?
No. Oil became increasingly important, but a lot of it was strategic because of the route to India. That historical experience did leave a bitter taste in the mouths of Iraqis. You can see that in the rhetoric of leaders who refer to the 1920s. I don’t think people are aware of how that affects the Iraqi understanding of what we are doing there. No matter how much we protest that we’re not here because we want your oil and your wealth, it’s hard to swallow that.
What do you think about the decision to invade Iraq?
I think that was a mistake. It was just a concocted set of reasons. Bush had his own agenda. There’s more confusion about Afghanistan and whether that was the right thing to do. A lot of people who were supportive of the Iraq war now eat humble pie.
How much do Stanford students give you hope for the future?
Many of them are so interested in humanitarianism and conservation and take it for granted that their attitude toward the world should be open and empathetic. I do wish they had more of a historical consciousness about things like humanitarianism so they could grasp how even well-intentioned efforts can be perceived in a negative light. The more wise they are to other people’s historical experience, the better it will be for the success of the wonderful things they want to do. They’re optimistic, and they’re hopeful, and they really want to do something good.
Read more from Priya Satia in our 2009 story "Lessons of War."
Have an idea for us? Email email@example.com.
- You must log in to comment.
Thank you professor Satia. You voice what I take to be the underlying truth, and in so calm a voice I can only wonder more that we, Americans, have for so long after 9-11 allowed ourselves to be run off the rails by emotional, reactive rhetoric.
Posted by Mr. Robert R. Tyson on Sep 19, 2011 12:39 PM
The mystic poet Kabir's message is of great relevance to people of all nationalities and religious backgrounds, especially in the light of 9/11. The American farmer-poet William Berry has translated his works into English, and so has the Stanford Professor Linda Hess (of the Dept of Religious Studies). If only Americans become familiar with his wonderful message which is the opposite of religious extremism, that name will get removed from any 'watch list'. Professor Satia has chosen a wonderful name for his son!
Posted by Mr. Tarakad S. Ananthu on Sep 19, 2011 6:27 PM