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My favorite reaction to the NYPD interventions into the lives of Muslims in the greater NYC area was at the website Gawker. The website decided to read the NYPD dossier on Newark, NJ for restaurant suggestions. Amin’s Halal Restaurant, on Williams Avenue, gets a good rating on Yelp. The NYPD is more sophisticated. It tells us that the Restaurant is located “above the former Muhammads Mosque (now closed,” and that it is “owned and operated by Muslims of Chinese descent.” More sinister yet, “During visit 3 African Muslim males and an Egyptian male customer were observed dining within.” The NYPD report notes that the informant then went and talked to the Egyptian, who told him that the mosque above is closed. It belonged to the Nation of Islam, but “he further stated that the Nation of Islam are not Muslims and have nothing to do with Islam and their practices.” Unanimity among those under surveillance is not the norm.
On Raymond Boulevard, the informant enters “American Halal Meat,” which is owned by a “Brazilian male named Omar Mady, who is of Palestinian descent.” Of such diversity is American Islam comprised: there are Bangladeshis and Trinidadians, Egyptians and Indonesians, shopkeepers and vagrants. And some seem to be rather ordinary, such as the Afghans who own the Kansas Fried Chicken. They serve “fried chicken, pizza and cold drinks.” No Mantu, no Qorma.
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The NYPD report on the Muslim Students Association tells us that the informants and their police handlers needed to do more than spy on the college students. They need to return to college. Getting a bit carried away with their report on a talk by Imam Zaid Shakir, a professor at Zaytuna College, the police officer writes that he was once a politics professor at Southern Connecticut State University in “New Heaven” and that he served “as Imam at al-Islam mosque in New Heaven.” One step closer to the Muslim Students is one step closer to Heaven.
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More fearful than the NYPD are the Republican political candidates. In July 2010, Newt Gingrich put down his marker against Islam, running away from at least a decade of trying to make nice to the Muslim American community. He told a crowd at the reliably bilious American Enterprise Institute, “I believe Shariah is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it.” It has gone downhill from there. When the US army and the president apologized for their bonfire of religious books (including the Koran) in Afghanistan, Gingrich said, “There seems to be nothing that radical Islamists can do to get Barack Obama’s attention in a negative way and he is consistently apologising to people who do not deserve the apology.” In fact, the Speaker-in-Chief wanted Afghan president Hamid Karzai to apologize to the American people.
Santorum is on record as saying that the Koran is written in “Islamic.” Unlike Gingrich, Santorum is devout enough to recognize that the burning of someone’s religious book is hurtful. But, like Gingrich, he was angry that the president apologized for the auto-da-fé. “Sharia law is incompatible with American jurisprudence and our Constitution,” said Santorum apropos of nothing since there is no move to introduce it into the United States. It would take a Santorum to come out in defense of the medieval Crusades, “The idea that the Crusades and the fight of Christendom against Islam is somehow an aggression on our part is absolutely anti-historical. And that is what the perception is by the American left who hates Christendom. What I’m talking about is onward American soldiers. What we’re talking about are core American values.”
Onward American soldiers into war against Islam. That’s the message. It certainly does not bode well for the “soft power” campaigns in West Asia and North Africa, nor among American Muslims who will have to tolerate the harsh racist backlash that comes with such civilizational imperialism.
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As solace, I’ve been reading Daisy Rockwell’s picture book, The Little Book of Terror(Foxhead Books, 2012). The book is the NYPD dossier through the looking glass. The granddaughter of Norman Rockwell, with a Ph. D. from the University of Chicago in Hindi literature, Daisy spent the past ten years painting portraits of terrorists and terrorist suspects. As the writer Amitava Kumar put it in his foreword, Daisy, like Norman before her, paints “extraordinary pictures of ordinary people.” These are lush paintings that try to uncover the ordinariness of the terrorist, whose humanity vanishes in the government’s WANTED posters and the capture videos. In those they either look smug or uneasy (since these are frequently passport photographs), or they look unshaven for being on the lam.
Here, Daisy who paints under the name Lapata (Urdu for Missing), offers the idiosyncrasies of the terrorists and the suspects. Mohamed Mahmood Alessa of North Bergen, NJ, was arrested at JFK en route to join al-Shabab in Somalia. The US Attorney Paul Fishman admitted that Alessa and his friend Carlos Eduardo “Omar” Almonte from Elmwood Park were an unlikely duo, more Harold and Kumar Goes to Somalia than John Updike’s Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy. “Sophistication is not a measure of danger,” said Fishman at their first court appearance. “Their intentions were described pretty clearly. They were watching certain videos and interested in what certain people were saying and advocating.” Alessa’s mother, channeling Life of Brian, said, “He’s not a terrorist. He’s just a stupid kid.”
Daisy paints Alessa lying on his bed, looking straight at us, cuddling his cat.
Tuna Princess by Lapata.
Daisy writes, “His mother has said that he wanted to take his cat, Tuna Princess, with him, but she did not allow it and they argued. Eventually he left instead with a large bag full of candy from his parents’ deli. The candy was seized by the FBI.” The NYPD does not Zagat their deli.
There is now a shelf-full of books on the over-zealous FBI and police departments, sending in informants to rile up suspects with tales of the misdeeds of the United States. They don’t need to work too hard: there are ample pictures of the detritus of US bombs, and scandalous numbers of war dead (in the hundreds of thousands, many more than have fallen to the guns of the Syrian dictator). Dina Temple-Raston unravels the Buffalo police’s berserk techniques – overhearing Mukhtar al-Bakri talk about his “wedding” in 2002, they assumed that he meant a terrorist attack and busted him (this is in Temple-Raston’s The Jihad Next Door: The Lackawanna Six and Rough Justice in an Age of Terror, 2007). Amitava Kumar follows the story of Shahwar Matin Siraj, a young Pakistani American, who was entrapped by smart police informants. Siraj was upset by the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, and was manipulated into a plot to blow up a subway station in New York. He did not want to kill anybody, just make a statement. In fact, he was not sure of the statement either (“Allah doesn’t see those situations as accidents,” he said in light of the possibility that someone might get hurt by his bomb). Kumar’s elegant A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb, 2010, goes behind the headlines and introduces us to a confused and rattled young man. These, Kumar and Temple-Raston seem to be saying, are the terrorists.
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Early into 2012, I joked with friends that I had made a call to general booking at Guantanamo. I’ve always believed in making plans, and making reservations. I said that I’d settled for a suite with a view of the Ocean. It is better that way. I don’t want to be stuck in an open-air steel-cage room.
One of my friends wrote, “Vijay! Don’t even joke about it.”
Who is to know who is listening, and what they’d make of a joke, a critique, a word like “wedding”?
At the end of 2011, the president signed the National Defense Authorization Act. Even those with the protection of US citizenship can now be hauled off to indefinite detention, and stripped of all their protections. When Obama signed the NDAA, he said he did so “with reservations.” Is that enough for American liberalism, to be neo-conservatives with reservations? Essentially Obama pardoned the Bush agenda. It is now the official policy of the two parties. There is no official dissent.
Even a US national can be denied habeas corpus.
Even the US military can operate within the US and violate posse comitatus.
All these Latin barriers to our bodies fell away.
Next stop Guantanamo.
On March 11 Daisy Rockwell has an opening for an exhibition (“Bathroom Politics”) at this remarkable Loo Gallery in Becket, Mass.
VIJAY PRASHAD is Professor and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. This Spring he will publish two books, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press) and Uncle Swami: Being South Asian in America (New Press). He is the author of Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (New Press), which won the 2009 Muzaffar Ahmed Book Prize.