Common Ground in the Register

Common Ground in the Register

We’re very pleased to land on the front page of today’s New Haven Register.  The reporter Mary O’Leary captured the spirit of our campaign.  Worth the full read:

Students’ New Campaign Fights Islamophobia

Mary O’Leary – September 13, 2010

NEW HAVEN — Valarie Kaur is an award-winning filmmaker who has fought racism for the past nine years, and still she found herself overwhelmed and paralyzed by the anti-Muslim sentiment flowing from controversy over the planned Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York.

A student at the Yale Law School, Kaur said the Islamophobia she first observed after the attacks of 9/11, which appeared to have subsided, has “now become mainstream, acceptable, normalized.”

Missing from the debate, however, are the voices of people interested in dialogue, particularly young people, whom Kaur is encouraging to come out from the shadows and honor the memory of those killed on 9/11, as well as victims of retaliatory crimes by addressing the fear that underlies that hatred.

“We were tired of hearing extremes dominate the debate,” said her friend and fellow law student, Matthew Matera. “People are really hungry for an opportunity to say they are looking for common ground and respectful dialogue. They want to find productive ways to talk to each other.”

To this end, they and several other friends have launched the Common Ground Campaign, where more than 300 people in 36 states have already signed onto its charter promoting an America that does not divide people into “us and them.” Eighty people are onboard as volunteers, and discussions are being planned only two days after it was first launched.

“We are a grass-roots movement with a sky-high vision: the renewal of religious freedom amid the beauty of blended communities,” the charter says in part.

Matera and Kaur said their generation is incredibly diverse across racial, ethic and religious lines, which gives them an important perspective. “We know it is possible to flourish, work alongside and love people who are different from us,” said Kaur, a third-generation Sikh-American from California.

Kaur was a 20-year-old undergraduate at Stanford University when the World Trade Center was attacked. When a Sikh man became the first post-9/11 hate-crime victim four days later, Kaur was scared.

She dealt with it by using a research grant she had been awarded to drive across America documenting violence targeting Sikhs, Muslims and Arab-Americans. The journey later evolved into an exploration of “who counts as American,” the film’s website says.

The documentary that emerged from that, “Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath,” had its premiere in September 2006 in Phoenix, to commemorate the five-year memorial of the killing of that hate-crime victim, Balbir Singh Sodhi, whom her family knew.

The film has since gone on an international tour, been shown in 150 American cities and won more than a dozen awards. When it was released on DVD in 2008, it was screened in 80 cities where dialogues were arranged on the topic of common ground.

In the meantime, Kaur finished her degree at Stanford in religious studies and international relations, earned a masters in theology at Harvard and co-founded the Discrimination and National Security Initiative at Harvard.

Kaur and Matera said what is primarily driving Islamophobia is not so much bigotry as fear — the same kind of fear that has emerged throughout American history and in other eras and has been directed against Catholics, Jews and Japanese-Americans. “This is just the latest chapter,” she said.

Matera said he remembers reading about protests that erupted in New Haven when St. Mary’s Church bought property on Hillhouse Avenue more than a century ago.

“It makes it really easy for me to imagine the fear and anger I would feel if that kind of anti-Catholic sentiment were in the mainstream now, as we’ve been unfortunately seeing anti-Islam sentiments becoming increasingly mainstream,” said Matera, who is Catholic.

Jonathan Smith, a public health graduate student at Yale, said he joined the group after getting disturbing feedback from friends back in rural Georgia on the proposed community center and mosque. Smith said they referred to the project as “inhumane and anti-American. I thought it is the opposite of anti-American.”

Chelsea Purvis, 27, has a unique perspective. As a Christian who is engaged to a Muslim man, she said she is experiencing “a terrible disconnect” as she plans her wedding celebration with her friends, both Muslim and non-Muslim, amid a growing atmosphere of Islamophobia.

“I’m afraid for how the two of us will be treated, especially how he will be treated and it made me want to do something practical … as an American, as a Christian to make sure that there was another voice that was being heard,” said Purvis, who is also at the law school.

She has worked on human rights issues in South Africa and lived in Southeast Asia when she was younger and has never been treated with anything but respect in that part of the world.

For this reason it is particularly difficult to watch the hatred for Muslims unfolding in New York. “It makes me very sad to see the kind of reception that they are getting from people who represent themselves as my people — white, Christian, American.” Purvis said.

Kaur said she was surprised to feel the same paralysis as she did immediately after 9/11. But in both instances she looked to family for guidance.

“For me, it was my grand-father’s teaching in the Sikh tradition, that in order to realize yourself, you have to act now and without fear. How strange we have to learn the same lesson all over again, but it shows we can really take strength from community,” Kaur said.

To find out more about the project and the film, which will be shown at 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Yale Law School auditorium, go to commongroundcampaign.org valariekaur.com and dwf-film.com.

Call Mary E. O’Leary at 203-789-5731.