I can’t stop thinking about Sunando Sen. Two weeks before Mr. Sen was pushed into the elevated tracks at 40th-Lowery St, I stood on that platform, fresh from an evening with a good friend. I love the rhythm and rhyme of that part of Sunnyside. Perhaps Mr. Sen also walked past the Sunnyside mural and admired its beauty, went shopping at that interesting bodega on Queens Boulevard bursting with reasonably priced produce, or perhaps he, too, had a wonderful group of friends to look forward to seeing every time he walked down from the elevated platform.
Until December 27, 2012, 40th-Lowery Street station held a positive place in the development of my spiritual journey, but after that day, I can only think of Sunando Sen. On that day, Mr. Sen experienced what every New Yorker fears: he was pushed into the train tracks. Two days later, the NYPD arrested Erika Melendez for this heinous crime. When questioned of her motive, the New York Times quotes Ms. Menendez as saying, “I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers I’ve been beating them up”. Mr Sen, a Hindu, was unfairly pushed to death for “looking Muslim”. The first time I read Ms. Menendez’ words my heart sank. How long must this go on?
In her 2004 article for Social Text, Sarah Ahmed explains that visceral feelings such as fear and hatred are stuck to visual signs such as “blackness” and often remain throughout history . September 11th has integrated the fear and hatred embodied in racial “otherness” with visual embodiments of “Muslim-ness”. Skin color (“brownness”) and ethno-cultural signs of religious expression such as the Sikh turban and Muslim hijab have become signs of danger, terrorism, and separateness. Earlier this year, a white supremacist engaged in a mass shooting of a Sikh Gurudwara in Oak Creek, WI, for similar motives.
Multiple times this past year Pamela Geller of American Freedom Defense Initiative and “Ground Zero Mosque” fame, has purchased subway ads with visually striking depictions of 9/11 with quotes tying this terrorist attack to all of Islam. The recent ads that went up last month featured a picture of the exploding World Trade Center with a quote from the Qur’an. While I don’t want to suggest they had a direct effect on Ms. Menendez’s actions, these certainly don’t help in the fight against discrimination. As I mentioned in a previous piece for Religious Freedom USA, these advertisements add to the already crippling bias that Muslims and those who “look Muslim” have faced post-9/11. Islam has been “stuck” to embodied visual “otherness”. From the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi on September 15th, 2001, to Representative Peter King ‘s congressional hearings on Islamic radicalization, to the NYPD’s spying on innocent Muslim-American citizens, when is enough enough?
Now, I sometimes stand on the subway platform and think about Sunando Sen. Was he just going to work? Was he visiting a friend like my wonderful friend in Sunnyside? Why did he have to die for “looking Muslim”? What if he had been one of my Hindu or Muslim friends? We live in the most diverse city in the world. Who is to stop someone from pushing me into the subway tracks for looking different? For being a woman? It is time we reassess our conversations about diversity, about religious literacy, and about September 11th. Eleven years have passed and September 11th is still taking lives. Killing innocent people just because they look like the extremists who flew those planes is not the way to honor those who died.
40th-Lowery St station has been a significant place of personal spiritual growth for me in the last three years, and now I add one more spiritual lesson to the list. This is the place where the people of my beloved New York City failed to protect one of their own because he was different. It is in Sunando Sen’s memory that my own journey to expand religious literacy and interfaith dialogue continues on. No one should ever have to fear being a New Yorker because they are different. That is the very definition of being a New Yorker. Embracing this diversity is how we continue to heal the wounds of September 11th.