Take time to listen to the voices of the oppressed and minorities, a recent speaker implored his audience.
“If you listen to dissident voices, you hear new stories, new challenges,” Robert Azzi said. “That may help us heal and move forward.”
Azzi, a journalist, photojournalist and public speaker, presented his talk “Telling the Stories of the Other: Reclaiming Authentic Voices” at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center on Sept. 26. As a man of the Muslim faith, Azzi presented the perspective of a minority stigmatized because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“There’s not just one history,” Azzi said. “If you appreciate (history), you need to recognize it.”
A key element to Azzi’s speech was sharing examples of intersectionality in America. Intersectionality is the concept of groups defined by race, class and gender, and the disadvantages and discrimination they face.
“Today in America, we’re witnessing the mobilization, the intersectionality of oppressed people demanding freedom and liberation,” Azzi said. “If you deny them space you deny them the promise of America.”
He said imperialism and colonialism are alive and well in the country.
Azzi brought up the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwest South Dakota, home to one the of the lowest life expectancies in the United States and 80 percent unemployment.
“Some of the founding fathers wouldn’t reconcile or couldn’t reconcile the difference between freedom and liberty by the understanding that all men are created free and equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights,” Azzi said. “The reality of what came to be in America, where some people often deem themselves superior to others. A reality that has persisted for generations, a reality that persists to this day.”
Critical of President Donald Trump in many ways, Azzi also was bothered by the fact Trump put a portrait of President Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office. Jackson is considered by many to have decimated the Native American population, specifically because of the policies he enacted during the Indian Wars in the 1800s.
“That is terrorism,” Azzi said.
Azzi also wants to bring attention to the civil war occurring in Yemen that is currently considered the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with thousands killed including 85,000 children under the age of 5 who may have starved to death, and millions displaced. Saudi Arabia is significantly involved in the war and supported by the U.S., a point Azzi finds serious fault with.
“That civil war is being prosecuted on the Yemen government by Saudi Arabia using arms, aircraft, guidance and training by the United States of America in our name,” Azzi said.
Azzi has been personally affected by Saudi Arabian actions. His friend and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed by Saudi agents about one year ago.
Azzi also discussed Trump’s travel ban on immigrants from five Muslim-majority countries and found similarity to this and 937 Jews who attempted to enter the U.S. during World War II from Germany, were denied and ending up dying in Adolph Hitler’s gas chambers.
In 2015 in Gillette, the creation of Wyoming’s first mosque set off outrage from some residents who organized a “Stop Islam in Gillette” Facebook group. However, the family who started the worship center had roots in Wyoming dating back to the early 1900s, when Zarif Khan or “Hot Tamale Louie” became famous for his tamale restaurant in Sheridan.
“America is not just Mount Rushmore,” Azzi said. “But it’s also in a hole in the wall store on the corner of Grinnell Street and around the corner from Sheridan Avenue.”
In 2018, representatives from the mosque and hate group came together and found common ground.
“We can challenge evil,” Azzi said. “What’s worse than evil itself is not speaking up against it, because that only serves to maintain its power.”
Azzi was greatly disturbed when former Trump cabinet member Carl Higbie said in 2016 the internment of Japanese during WWII set a positive precedent for governmental actions in response to supposed security threats. Former Japanese internees rose up against his remarks, calling them hateful and discriminatory. Azzi considers the discrimination those two groups have faced one in the same.
He discussed how instances like these are not uncommon when the oppressed become more sensitive to other groups also facing stigmatization. After the 9/11 attacks, hate crimes against Muslim skyrocketed, and in response, former internees and other Japanese Americans rose in their defense with protests and other movements.
Mary Keller spoke to this issue at the presentation. She recalled seeing a Confederate flag displayed in the back of a student’s truck parked in the Cody High School parking lot.
“I did not know what to do,” Keller said. “I knew I wanted to be someone who does something, but I didn’t know how to.”
She was encouraged by Azzi and those in the audience to approach school staff about the issue.
More than anything, Azzi wants people to consider the other side of thought because no issue is ever black or white.
“I’ve learned to listen,” Azzi said. “I’ve learned that people should never be judged on the color of their skin, the foreignness of their language and accents, or in spiritual views or world beliefs often beyond the comprehension of imagination for most white people.”
The event was brought together by The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation and Wyoming Rising.
“This is what Wyoming Rising does,” Harriet Bloom said, a co-chair for Wyoming Rising. “We also have these other opportunities for what we’re calling community conversations.”