From despair of 9/11 aftermath, American prof sees hope for change

SINGAPORE – As the live, shaky shots of the collapsing World Trade Center towers streamed through his television on Sept 11, 2001, Professor Itty Abraham was thinking back to 1979.

It was the start of the Iran hostage crisis, which saw American citizens at the United States Embassy in Teheran held captive by local militants for over a year. A Sikh friend of Prof Abraham’s, who had been in the US then, was attacked in public by Americans who thought his turban meant he was an Islamic leader.

And so with the chaotic aftermath of the 9/11 attacks unfolding just some 16km away, Prof Abraham, 60, an Indian native and permanent resident of the US at the time, stayed home in Upper Manhattan, and stayed out of the way.

“I figured that anyone who’s a person of colour could be equated as somebody who’s part of this larger plot,” he recalls. “Paranoia and fear of Americans who didn’t have a clue about the world outside were far more my concern than anything else.

“I didn’t go to places where I wasn’t known. I didn’t take the subway for a few days. It was about not wanting to be in a situation where somebody would react badly, because passions were high.”

When Prof Abraham stepped out for essentials, he found the neighbourhood grocery store and the ATM emptied by panicking locals.

In a note to friends and family penned in the days after, he wrote: “We all fear (the US) will also turn inward… I worry about the jingoism and race baiting that already can be heard. I hope the correct lessons will be drawn from this episode but I’m not optimistic.”

A Patriot Act was passed a month after the attacks, bringing anti-terror surveillance laws into force.

Prof Abraham, who saw that permanent residents were not adequately protected under the new Act, quickly applied for and secured US citizenship.

Soon after that, he came to Singapore, and currently heads the National University of Singapore’s South-east Asian Studies department.

With the heat of the 9/11 moment 20 years behind him, Prof Abraham has had the chance to step back and reassess his perspective of a country in which he spent most of his life.

“Now I feel I have an obligation and a sense of duty to be part of the US’ struggle towards positive change,” he says.

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Especially close to his heart are the race issues and debates gripping the US at present.

“I’m very heartened by the Black Lives Matter movement, but I also know the battle lines in the US are being drawn very clearly now. I feel this is also my battle; I want to be part of it and on the right side,” he says. “The US, with all its faults, still retains for me that hope and possibility,” he adds.

“Even as it seems to be reverting, pulling back, becoming more reactionary, it’s actually edging forward and towards a more genuinely multicultural society. It’s going to take a while, but the movement is in the right direction.”

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