I am much more conscious of my identity when I travel these days. I am critically aware of the fact that I am a Muslim and that, much to my discomfort, I will evidently be asked to take my shawl or scarf off at airports. I know for sure that I will also be randomly chosen for an additional security check or questioning. I also know that my fellow passenger will judge me, right before take-off, when I say my prayers without which I feel doomed to a crash. I know I will be singled out as a Muslim. This is the exact feeling that pushes me to anonymity. This is the same insecurity that crafts the history of fear into my humanity.
Take for example, two incidents that I learnt of, right after I landed in Bangkok two weeks ago. While our Bangkok flight from Dhaka landed, the airport seemed to be in a flurry. An Aeroflot flight SU 271 bound for Moscow from Bangkok was grounded and a Turkish woman had just been detained for three hours at the Suvarnabhumi airport after a misunderstanding over a phone call that she had made. The 38-year old woman, Sefika Kanik, was taken to the Suvarnabhumi Police Station and questioned for three hours. Why had she caused this disruption? Truth was, a crew had suspected that Sefika said goodbye to someone she was speaking to over the phone and they had sounded like her “final words”. This mere suspicion had delayed the flight and caused havoc in air traffic control in Thailand that day. In reality, Sefika was speaking to her boyfriend on the phone and simply saying goodbye. The panic obviously was a reflection of the fear of Russia being targeted again, after 200 people were killed on-board an airline bound for Saint Petersburg from Syria.
The very next day, the Bangkok Post carried a story of one of four Syrians suspected of having links to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants. His name was Hagop Kassabian, who has had a decade-long connection to Thailand and runs a small trading company from the north-eastern province of Chaiyaphum and has appeared in commercials for ice-cream, yoghurt and a TV series. From Dec 6, 2015, Hagop has been all over Thai national media as one of the Syrians that Russia's state security agency had warned could have links to the terrorist organisation.
At a time like this, while our identities are subjected to microscopic assessment, it is incredibly important to aptly label our identities. Now...instead of a religious label, shall we dare to call ourselves South Asians and hashtag “OneSouthAsia”? Shall we? But then, can we? Specially at a time when in a major development on the case of a Hindu mob that killed a Muslim man in India over rumours that he butchered a cow, the Uttar Pradesh government's chief veterinary officer's report has just confirmed that the meat piece found in the man's refrigerator was mutton, not beef? The man, a blacksmith named Mohammad Akhlaq, was beaten to death by 200-strong mob barging into his house for having consumed “beef”. With instances of extreme religious intolerance on the rise, whom do we sync our identities with?
The answer may not be that simple. The alignment may not be tempting. But all of us must remember that when most of Asia today is being discussed for hosting pockets of religiosity, our choices are limited. At a time like this, we have fewer options other than crucially reminding ourselves that the little fences that run through our lands must not run through our minds and no one should be ever be allowed to divide a memory.
The writer is Managing Director of Bangladesh garment manufacturer Mohammadi Group.