Originally published in The Centre Daily Times, Sept 30, 2010
My family and I recently spent a difficult summer in India, dealing with the unexpected passing away of my father. Relatives, friends and strangers offered us incredible support during this long stay.
A few of them were curious about Americans, who they “knew” from Hollywood movies, TV shows and news media. They asked us about the “lack of family values” and “materialistic attitudes” among Americans.
We offered them counterexamples of Americans invested in families, of the sandwich generation creatively caring for children and parents and of those volunteering locally and globally.
Our anecdotes were received appreciatively with comments such as, “There is good and bad in all cultures, isn’t there?”
On coming back here, I found stereotypes thriving amid a turbulent global landscape dotted with fault lines at the intersections of different groups and sensitivities. The ground zero mosque controversy provided a fertile ground for creating anti-Muslim and anti-American sentiments.
I believe varied role models could provide anecdotal antidotes to negative perceptions and rebuild our post Sept. 11, 2001, empathy.
To those who want to destructively target Americans, I offer the counterexample of Greg Mortenson, of “Three Cups of Tea” fame. Mortenson, a U.S. veteran, discovered the lack of schools in remote areas of Pakistan after a 1993 climbing expedition to K2, the world’s second highest mountain peak.
He has since built 131 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Bill Clinton said Mortenson “is effective in an area where Americans are not popular, because he relates to people as human beings.”
Mortenson’s work may persuade others to treat Americans as individual human beings too.
To those who hate either Americans or Muslims, I suggest the work of Muslim American Fazlur Rahman Khan, considered the “father of the modern skyscraper.”
Khan was born in British India and educated in India and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). He immigrated to the U.S. in 1952 and earned a doctorate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
He was the structural engineer who built the John Hancock Tower and the Sears Tower by innovatively conceiving of the skyscraper as a hollow three-dimensional tube. He made the outer wall of this tube with closely spaced interconnected columns to provide support for the whole structure.
This concept, first executed in 1964, used less material and cost substantially less. It was used in all modern skyscrapers, including the World Trade Center and the tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. Consider these realities.
A Muslim American’s idea was used to build the World Trade Center, which later was destroyed by Muslim terrorists.
An American builds schools in Islamic countries, while some Americans attack U.S. mosques.
Obviously, there are Muslims and Americans who are creative, hard working and compassionate, just as there are some who commit acts of violence or intolerance.
Acknowledging diverse role models in peaceful times can prevent blind hatred during a crisis and allow us to reach solutions through dialogue.
We Americans, with our incredible diversity, can take the lead in acknowledging that stereotyping is a losing proposition. We can stand against specific actions without hating a whole group.
Fazlur Khan versus the Sept. 11 terrorists is a great way to counter the negative stereotyping of Muslims. And with Khan and Mortenson as examples, the world may stop stereotyping Americans, too.