By Farooq A. Kperogi
While on a visit to a friend’s house a few days after Abdul-Mutallab’s treacherous misadventure, I saw a man here who looked manifestly Nigerian. In these moments of national trauma, especially for diasporan Nigerians, I thought it would be nice to say hello to a compatriot and share common worries about the discomfortingly piercing scrutiny of Nigeria and Nigerians in the American news media.
So I said hello to him. But he didn’t respond. He just waved his right hand nervously. I nonetheless proceeded to ask if he was Nigerian. He shook his head hesitantly from side to side to indicate that he wasn’t. He was afraid to even utter the word “no” lest his accent should betray his Nigerian identity! And in a twinkling, he was gone. I couldn’t help laughing out boisterously. It was a much-needed comic relief in these times of anguish.
Many Nigerians living abroad are now practically running away from their own literal and symbolic shadows. And this was before the officially sanctioned national, racial and religious profiling of Nigerians and nationals of 13 other countries by the U.S. government.
That is the tragedy that a psychoneurotic zealot has visited on a whole nation and its diaspora. But what is happening to Nigerians is often the fate of all minorities in periods like this: they always have to bear the vicarious moral and psychological burdens of the transgressions of people with whom they accidentally share national, religious or other kind of identity.
Umar Farouk Abdul-Mutallab
This is what Arabs have endured in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and in the wake of the Nov. 5, 2009 Fort Hood mass murders.
And it is what South Koreans and their American diaspora suffered on April 16, 2007 when one of them killed 32 people at Virginia Tech and later committed suicide in what has been called “the deadliest peacetime shooting incident by a single gunman in United States history, on or off a school campus.”
People from privileged, “invisible,” and “normative” racial/national identities don’t always have to worry about the burden of courtesy stigmas when one of them transgresses the bounds of the law. The infamous British “shoe bomber” Richard Reid hasn’t caused the British or, for that matter, native-born British Muslim converts, to be exposed to any form of racial, religious or national profiling. In fact, in a recent online discussion on body scanners, a British citizen instructively commented thusly: “no way on Earth do I ever have to prove my Innocence as I am English and as such ‘Presumed’ to be Innocent until proven otherwise in a Court of Law. END OF STORY! NO SCANNER FOR ME EVER!” Interesting, not so?
Similarly, when Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people in the deadliest act of terrorism within the United States prior to September 11, right-wing white American males of Irish Catholic descent (McVeigh’s heritage) were not stereotyped as potential terrorists. And rightly so.
Other mass murder-suicides in the United States since 2007 by Americans that were treated as the transgressions of lone psychopaths include: the April 3, 2009 brutal murder of 14 newly arrived immigrants in Binghamton, New York by a shooter who later committed suicide; the Dec. 5 2007 slaying of eight people in Omaha, Nebraska by a deranged guy named Robert Hawkins who committed suicide; the Dec. 10, 2007 murder of 5 Americans at a church in Colorado by 24-year-old Mathew Murray, son of a prominent surgeon, who said he “hated Christians”; the Feb. 7, 2008 murder of 6 innocent souls during a council meeting in Kirkwood, Missouri, by a Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton ; and the Feb. 14, 2009 murder of 6 people (including the gunman, identified as Stephen P. Kazmierczak ) at Northern Illinois University.
In the reportage of and commentaries on these deadly shootings, there was never a mention of, much less an obsession with, the nationality, racial heritage, or religious persuasions of the perpetrators. Which is actually in the spirit of America’s time-honored laws.
In the America I thought I knew, people who committed crimes were held responsible for their actions; their crimes were not prejudicially externalized to the innocent members of the communities they happen to come from. That is why, although the 911 Commission Report said 15 of the 19 terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center were from Saudi Arabia, the country was not on the list of “terrorist” nations—well, until 9 years later after a homicidal sociopath who happens to be Nigerian attempted to blow up a plane on Dec. 25.
This is, however, no time for self-pitying lamentation. Calling attention to the all-too-obvious fact that minorities would always have to bear the onus of the transgressions of members of their communities won’t change anything. What we need to do, as many Nigerians are doing now, is to let the world know that politically- or religiously-motivated murder-suicide is alien to all Nigerian cultures.
Abdul-Mutallab’s condemnable act is an outlier. That was why when news of the attempted terror plot first filtered through, many Nigerians (Christians and Muslims alike) initially swore that Abdul-Mutallab wasn’t Nigerian. We couldn’t come to terms with the fact that one of us would even contemplate committing this heinous transnational murder-suicide of innocents.
But when it emerged that Abdul-Mutallab’s radicalization actually took place between London, Dubai and Yemen—and that he hardly grew up in Nigeria—our initial incredulity turned out to have some basis in truth. In fact, a recent Reuters report quoted Abdul-Mutallab’s Yemeni Arabic language teacher as saying that when the would-be bomber first arrived in Yemen, he was “closer to being secular” and that he only became religious “during his visit last year.”
So we don’t belong in that execrable list of 14 terrorist nations!