[Reviewed by David A. L. Brown]
In my relatively short lifetime, I have seen first-hand the worst of man’s inhumanity towards man. I have witnessed the sexual slave trade in Bangkok—women trotted out in glass cages like merchandise, sold by barmen to indiscriminating foreigners. I have heard the Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, mercifully drowning out the shrieks of women and children, and trying desperately to fill the voids created and punctuated by gunfire. I have seen young men murdered and dying, smelled the iron of their blood, and have heard the screams of the fearful falter and give way to silence. Yet, as I stood on the precipice of all of this darkness, I felt secure in the comfort of knowing that there was a place untouched by so much hatred, mistrust, and inhumanity. A place I was fortunate enough to call home. However, Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice takes the same righteous focus the Voice of Witness series is quickly becoming known for, and casts it against the United States’ own government actions, state policies, and the pervasive culture of fear borne in the wake of national tragedy. Whereas the events I described above affected my perception of the world in which I live, author Alia Malek has constructed a work that shook my very identity as an American.
The book is presented well, in a professional hardback cover with a stylish accompanying graphic half-wrap that I’m beginning to recognize as the visual trademark of the brand. As a non-profit literary series, Voice of Witness produces a high-quality product worth much more than its monetary cost. That’s not to say the book is perfect; it could stand to benefit from one more pass across the copy-editor’s desk, but the general structure and integrity of the work is fully intact. As in other Voice of Witness works, Ms. Malek allows the voices of those who have suffered to take center stage, limiting her input to only a brief introductory paragraph relating each narrator’s background.
The book takes a penetrating look into racial and religious discrimination at nearly every level of American society, from true stories of illegal workplace practices to unjustified arrests to racially-motivated murder. Each account is a testimonial to the severe and permanent nature of emotional and psychological scars. One particularly jarring story is that of 20-year old Hani Khan, who was unjustly terminated from her job at Hollister for wearing a hijab—not because of a single customer complaint during her four-month employment, but because the district manager felt her religious observation “didn’t conform to [Hollister’s] dress code.” However, author Alia Malek makes apparent effort to demonstrate the strength of character and the resiliency of each victim; although Khan regularly receives hate mail and death threats, and is haunted in job interviews when asked about her limited job experience, she maintains that the ordeal has “made [her] identity stronger,” and has given her direction for her future career path—helping people, not corporations, as a lawyer.
But Patriot Acts goes beyond merely collecting these stories; the book itself is a narrative that presents every ripple in the pond of American society, showing the effects of injustice in the lives of people further and further from the center of American-Arab mistrust. As the work progresses, the reader is shown how American racial and ethnic paranoia afflicts more than just the domestic Muslim population: American Sikhs are drawn into the conflict, non-U.S. citizens have their lives thrown into disarray, and even a 19-year old white college student is illegally detained by TSA agents at an airport for studying Arabic flashcards for his Arabic language class. Malek makes it apparent that injustice cannot be contained or compartmentalized, and if allowed to persist, will spread to every facet of society. That is, unless Americans can renounce the all-too-common politics of fear and hatred that make books like Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice an unfortunate necessity.