According to a USA Today report [12/10/2002], one of the effects of post-9/11 war on terrorism is a significant rise in the membership of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a controversial organization that defends civil rights in many cases, popular and unpopular. It has been a one year surge of 22%, an unprecedented rise in the organization’s 82 year history. While terrorism has been a global reality, with which the rest of the world more or less is all too familiar with, United States has been quite successful as well as fortunate in keeping terrorism off its shore. While its streets might have plenty of crime and violence, news of terrorism was primarily heard in the context of other continents, including major countries of Europe, such as United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and so on. We in America have enjoyed a prolonged period of domestic security, save for its thugs, gangs and criminals.
9/11 was a watershed event, robbing the country of its sacred sense of domestic security. Thus, the reaction of those in charge of policing and security is quite understandable. However, we all know that extremism in any such respect does not yield any positive result.
Before delving into the issue of reactive extremism, let us also highlight another aspect of American and global reality. Just this month, a truckful of illegal immigrants were found dead in Texas, who were seeking a fresh life in America, but died probably gasping for the last breath of air. Other illegal persons jumping ships and boats near America’s coasts is an all too familiar a scene to America and the world.
Admittedly, this country is the land of immigrants. While many other countries in the West have seen significant migration to their countries, no other country, like America, has been such a melting pot of people from around the world and continues to attract people in droves on a regular basis. This steady attempt to come and become a part of the legendary American dream does pose serious legal, economic, political, demographic and security-related challenges. However, failure to properly understand or appreciate this attraction, especially by the American leaders, policy makers and administrators, is bound to undermine this country’s special disposition and heritage of immigration and civil liberties.
People want to come to America for various reasons, a primary one of which is economic prosperity. But to define or describe this attraction in terms of wealth and prosperity would be underestimating as well as devaluing the aspirations that bring these people to the shores of America. America attracts professionals and academics as it offers them opportunities to seek to realize their full potential. It attracts refugees and other persecuted people, who seek an overall better life away from persecution and suffering. Working people come here to get a share of the American pie of unprecedented wealth and prosperity. The reality is that, whether it is acknowledged or not by the immigrants, most of them come here for more than just economic reasons. They like the general peace and security of life, rule of law, civil liberties, democratic environment and institution. Yes, in each of these categories, there can be serious criticisms about shortcomings of America and the life in this society. But the fact remains that despite these shortcomings, it has something unique and precious to offer that continues to attract people from around the world, the magnitude of the stream of which is unique and unparalleled.
In a more reductionist terms, civil liberties, rule of law and economic prosperity/opportunity are the pivotal attractions of America and that’s what the founding fathers of this country dreamed of and toiled for.
9/11 poses special challenge to America, because much of the political and military violence around the world to which America is, directly or indirectly, a key contributor, so far largely has been outside America. Since the World War II, whether in the context of Korean War, Vietnam War, or Gulf War, no bombs or missiles fell on America. Modern media and communication technology allows the people of America to watch the horror of wars as well as the prowess of American military, but American people and its land are far removed from that reality. Thus, like they watch through the windows of TV or computer screen, the reality of horror, violence and suffering to them is, in some sense, no more than just virtual reality, to which their emotions and conscience are not functionally connected.
For reasons that are good or bad, right or wrong, those who dislike America, its foreign policy and it role in the global context, they now seem to have come to the understanding that in pursuit of their agenda, they must bring the reality directly to America and take away the precious sense of domestic security, from which vast majority of the world’s population are deprived.
The challenge of 9/11 is special because America can’t take domestic security as business as usual any longer. The fringe extremists, who hate America, have already made their message known; loud and clear. However, if the pursuit of security itself becomes hostage of America’s own extremity in regard to its precious civil liberties, then the attackers have scored another crucial victory.
In this regard, a self-critical approach is a must. There are many in the Muslim world, including Muslims in America, who seem to see and define all their problems in terms of external factors. It is all too common human tendency to find someone or something else to blame, rather than ourselves. The tendency is quite typical of both the powerful and the powerless.
Since 9/11 became tied with a number of extremist Muslims, scrutinizing the pertinent issues from an Islamic perspective is very important. An important milestone in the decline of the Islamic civilization was the dismemberment of the last ceremonial/institutional chord of unity, the Ottoman Caliphate (btw, the use of the word Caliphate/Khilafah in this case is inappropriate). Since then the Muslim world was colonized aggressively and brutally, and it disintegrated into 42+ nation states, often only as nominally independent countries. The Muslim countries aspire for a more functional and dynamic society, where the common aspirations of people can be successfully and effectively pursued. However, both for internal and external factors, the Muslim world is currently dysfunctional, disoriented and also entrapped in a very divisive struggle. The sense of helplessness and frustration is emboldening and empowering the fringe extremism. The existing political powers, often implanted, patronized and even protected by the West, are at odd with the interest of their own people.
Unless the Muslim mass organize themselves to rejuvenate their lives in a positive manner in accordance with their faith as well as the demands of our contemporary modern times, the tension and conflict will only widen and worsen. One of the real problems and obstacles for the Muslim world is that the global corridors of power, led by the sole surviving superpower of the world, is afraid of democracy in the Muslim countries, as the experience has shown that the real and immediate beneficiaries of democratic change in the Muslim world are the Islamic voices.
This has created a serious rift and disconnect between the USA and the West on one hand and the Muslim world on the other, because the west, the supposed champion of democracy, is unwilling to let democracy evolve and function in the Muslim world. Well, isn’t this an example of finding someone else to blame? Partly, that is true. While countries, such as USA, is playing an adversarial role in this context, a conscientious and self-critical approach warrants that Muslims recognize that they have serious problems that are internal to themselves and rooted within, which goes back even long before the west surfaced as the dominant civilization. Those who want to see solutions to their problems in the Muslim world by merely blaming the West and targeting them for all their disappointment, frustration and anger are simply deluding themselves in thinking that it would bring any meaningful or fundamental change in their own society. Therefore, while external factors responsible for the maladies of the Muslim world must be identified, recognized and dealt with, it is critically important that Muslims first examine their problems in their internal context. They must remember that whatever the external factors are, a positive and determined pursuit for liberty, justice and prosperity can’t be suppressed or thwarted by others permanently. Americans themselves could have heaped all the blames on the British colonial power, but their committed pursuit of freedom and liberty did finally overpowered the GREAT Britain. The start of the solution lies within, not outside.
Whether there is an evolving clash or dialog between the West and Islam at the civilizational level, or whether we actually desire and facilitate such clash or dialog to be realized, the future of the West and Islam have become integrally related. The West can’t simply ignore or suppress Islam in an Islam-o-phobic fashion. Nor the Muslim world can ignore the West in a West-o-phobic manner. Either try to establish mutual common grounds for the sake of the humanity or the path of confrontation would be a foregone conclusion.
In this context, the role of the American Muslim community remains critically important. Recognizing this role, even the US government is trying to project to the Muslim world the presence of Muslims in this pluralistic society, especially in an attempt to show that the Muslims in America are doing quite well, like the rest of the society. Like many in the Muslim world, many Muslims in America might also have a love/hate relationship with America. They like the economic prosperity here, and they are both beneficiaries of and contributors to that prosperity in America. But more importantly they also like and enjoy the freedom and civil liberties in general in this country. Yet, it is not uncommon for Muslims in America to disagree with and even detest the role of the United States in the global arena, especially as it affects the Muslim world.
As Muslims must approach these issues in a self-critical manner in regard to themselves and their internal problems, they must not also be West-o-phobic and the same should apply to their attitude toward the United States. This is especially because there isn’t really one America. Rather, there are “two Americas”, as in the words of the late U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright. In his highly acclaimed and deeply insightful book, The Arrogance of Power, he writes: “THERE ARE TWO AMERICAS. One is the America of Lincoln and Adlai Stevenson; the other is the America of Teddy Roosevelt and the modern superpatriots.” [p. 245; the emphasis is by Sen. Fulbright]
While this essay’s rather limited scope can’t deal with the overall issue of power and arrogance, the thoughts and analysis of Sen. Fulbright are truly valuable for better understanding an ongoing struggle within America herself. If Muslims themselves don’t recognize and understand the nature of this struggle, then in a West-o-phobic manner chanting marg bar amrika (Death to America, in Farsi) and then seeing some misguided, fringe groups–riding on that anger in the Muslim world–delivering death to the doorsteps of America, especially to the innocent people, should not be unexpected. There is another reciprocity in regard to West-o-phobia: Islam-o-phobia. One phobia mutually feeds the other.
Sen. Fulbright’s perspective on “the two Americas” is quite illuminating. In his view, “One is generous and humane, the other narrowly egotistical; one is self-critical, the other self-righteous; one is sensible, the other romantic; one is good-humored, the other solemn; one is inquiring, the other pontificating; one is moderate, the other filled with passionate intensity; one is judicious and the other arrogant in the use of great power.” [p.245]
Just like the West can’t lump Muslims and Islam into one monolithic entity, except to its own detriment of alienating and frustrating those vast majority of Muslims who endear prosperity, freedom, justice and decency, Muslims can’t also treat America as a monolithic entity. If they do, then they are also dismissing and alienating that America, which is generous and humane, self-critical, sensible, good-humored, inquiring, moderate and judicious. This is the America that most people love. This is the America that has drawn and continues to draw people, including the immigrant Muslim community here, from around the world.
If there is any problem, it is with the other America. The America of Super-patriotism, which in Sen. Fulbright’s view is “narrowly egotistical; … self-righteous; … romantic; … solemn; … pontificating; … filled with passionate intensity; arrogant in the use of great power.” There are great many Americans–the conscientious and self-critical ones–including persons such as Sen. Fulbright, who do not like this America. This is the America that is also repudiated and hated around the world.
In the context of the War against terrorism and the Operation Iraqi Liberation (OIL; rumored as the originally proposed acronym, but not adopted as the OIL connection would have been too obvious), if the word “crusade” slipped through the mouth of President Bush, which was quickly corrected and never to be uttered by him again, it was no coincidence. More than 30 years ago, Sen. Fulbright pointed out: “The inconstancy of American foreign policy is not an accident but an expression of two distinct sides of the American character. Both are characterized by a kind of moralism, but one is the morality of decent instincts tempered by the knowledge of human imperfection and the other is the morality of absolute self-assurance fired by the crusading spirit. … The crusading puritan spirit has had a great deal to do with some of the regrettable and tragic events of American history. It led us into needless and costly adventures and victories that crumbled in our hands.” [p.245/p.251]
More importantly, “America, in the words of John Quincy Adams, should be ‘the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all'”, Sen. Fulbright, continues [p.258]. But the reality is that not only that America, the super-patriot one, has not been the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all, but also it has been systematically and actively subverting democracy and democratic spirit in many parts of the world.
This other America of super-patriots is a war-mongering one. In his book, Pentagon Propaganda Machine, Sen. Fulbright writes: “It seems to me we have grown distressingly used to war. For more than fourteen of the past twenty-eight years we have been fighting somewhere, and we have been ready to fight almost anywhere for the other fourteen. War and the military have become a part of our environment, like pollution.” [p.11]
This super-patriotism also goes with an incessant propaganda as America as a victim. The rest of the world is jealous of its success and glory! The Barbaric other knows and understands only one language: the force, mighty force! It is this kind of attitude and perspective–reminiscent of McCarthyism–where the zeal to fight authoritarianism or communism manifests itself as a ghost of its opponent, to suppress dissent for the sake of national security–the holy cow. This other America doesn’t quite seek a solution to problems; rather, in the guise and name of trying to solve a problem, it attempts to extract further mileage for its agenda and mission of superpatriotism.
Sen. Fulbright wrote in the context of the Vietnam war, more than three decades ago. What he dubbed as super-patriotism has reached super-pitch, as demonstrated in the unilateral, preemptive war to remove America’s former bedfellow Saddam Hussein and his monstrous regime. The world was given the excuse that Saddam regime was a threat to the United States, as it has weapons of mass destruction, which might be made available to those terrorists that might target America and/or Americans. That no weapons of mass destruction were found in the post-war Iraq should not come as a surprise.
During the months before the war against Iraq, as David Albright, the director of ISIS and a scientist with first-hand experience of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program as a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspection team, disclosed that there was a debate within the US scientific community about the government’s claims but added that the Bush administration had clamped down on such discussion.
Terrorism, especially that indiscriminately targets innocents to advance its agenda, is an affront to the humanity and there should be a global compact against such acts and agendas. However, there is also a misplaced emphasis on the part of the United States. As much resources and energy as are being allocated against the acts of fringe extremists, there is disproportionate negligence to building bridges with the vast majority of Muslims, who themselves should be and are needed to be at the forefront of containing the fringe elements. As Graham Fuller, a former senior political scientist with Rand and a former Vice Chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, and co-author Ian Lesser point out in A Sense of Siege: The Geopolitics of Islam and the West that there is a sense of siege on the part of the Muslim world, which is important for the West in general and the United States in particular to recognize and understand. It is a fact that “Many more Muslims have died at Western hands over the past century than westerners have ever died at Muslim hands.” [p. 43; emphasis added] This is even truer in the case of the United States. Consequently, as Muslims should be called upon to be objective and engaging in their attitude toward the West and USA, the same goes for the West toward the Muslim world as well. As “Most Muslims are convinced that Western policies are consciously dedicated to weakening Muslim power wherever it arises” [p. 43], the West too needs to do better to convince the Muslim world otherwise, not through clever rhetoric and powerful media manipulations, but through actions. If “The West is seen to be comfortable only with a supine Muslim world,” [p.43] the Muslim world can’t be expected to settle for such expectation and desire of the West.
The overreaching profiling of Muslims and Arabs, the indiscriminate closure of Muslim charities, the Patriot Act that immensely broadens the power of the law enforcement agencies to get the nation Ashcrofted are all indicative of the super-patriotism that is militaristic on its foreign front and overly-protective in the domestic front. Sen. Fulbright warned several decades ago: “This militarism that has crept up on us is bringing about profound changes in the character of our society and government-changes that are slowly undermining democratic procedure and values.” [p.11]
In 1947, Einstein expressed his deep concern about this military mentality, particularly of the United States, in The American Scholar. According to him, America had a transformation of its mentality in the aftermath of the World War II. “The characteristic feature of the mentality is that people place the importance of what Bertrand Russell so tellingly terms ‘naked power’ far above all other factors which affect the relation between peoples. … I must frankly confess that the foreign policy of the United States since the termination of hostilities has reminded me, sometimes irresistibly, of the attitude of Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II, and I know that, independent of me, this analogy has most painfully occurred to others as well. … In our time the military mentality is still more dangerous than formerly because the offensive weapons have become much more powerful than the defensive ones.”
Well, these thoughts of Einstein are more than half-a-century old, but they are only ever more relevant to our challenging times. This Patriot Act, a clear manifestation of super-patriotism of the other America, is being called by many “Constitution Shredding Act” or “Ashcroft out of control Act”, because without meaningfully adding to the ability of law enforcement or intelligence to bring terrorists to justice, its provisions do much to undermine the Constitution and violate the rights and civil liberties of both immigrants and American citizens alike. Karen Schneider, a columnist of American Libraries, described The Patriot Act as “the last refuge of a scoundrel”. As a librarian, she is concerned about the pernicious scope of this Act that also covers the libraries and their usage.
Indeed, the super-charged Ashcrofting of America, in keeping with the McCarthy era, might be pushing the country toward a false and counterproductive trade-off, as argued by David Cole, professor of Constitutional Law at Georgetown University. In “Trading Liberty for Security after September 11, he comments: “… many have argued that we may need to sacrifice some of our liberty in order to purchase greater security. But for the most part what we have done since September 11 is not to make the hard choice of choosing which of our liberties we are willing to forego, but rather to sacrifice their liberties-those of immigrants, and especially of Arab and Muslim immigrants-for the purported security of the rest of us. This double standard is an all too tempting way to strike the balance-it allows citizens to enjoy a sense of security without sacrificing their own liberty, but it is an illegitimate trade-off. It is likely to be counterproductive, as it will alienate the very communities that we most need to work with as we fight the war on terrorism. And in the end, it is a false trade-off, because what we do to immigrants today often creates a precedent for what we do to U.S. citizens tomorrow.” [Foreign Policy in Focus, September 2002; emphasis added]
According a Boston Globe report [Nov. 24, 2002], an Iraqi professor at the University of Massachussetts at Amherst was interrogated by FBI for not any report of any threat posed by the professor, but a report that he held anti-American views. Since when harboring anti-American views has become a crime, asked 75 members of UM faculty, who vehemently protested this incident, and characterized the involvement of the University administration as violation of academic freedom and vowed to vigorously pursue this matter further. Harassing people for their views, without any evidence or even credible threat, is undermining the very America itself, and it would add to the alienated pool of immigrants among Muslims and Arabs in particular.
Just like Muslims have an internal struggle to clear themselves from tendency and agenda of the extremist fringe, the voice of which is more boisterous than the vast majority of Muslims, the two Americas are having their own struggle. These two struggles are not quite unrelated. All those people who have become members of ACLU in recent years are not merely Muslims, Arabs or immigrants. Many other Americans, who are better informed or increasingly more concerned about the erosion of democratic values and spirit of America and the rise of super-patriotism, are also finding it very important to stand up for the America that Sen. Fulbright describes as America of Lincoln and Adlai Stevenson–the America that is supposed to be ‘the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all’.
Writing about “Terror at the Crossroad” on MSNBC.com [May 20, 2003] and sharing some examples of some moderate Islamic voices, columnist Ira Rifkin posed the question: “Will Muslim moderates finally speak out against extremists?” But the question can also be turned around and it can be asked: Is the U.S. media establishment doing its due share in reciprocating the positive and constructive effort of mainstream Muslims in USA and elsewhere to get their messages across? Such people are often brought to the media outlets, primarily to elicit repudiation of the extreme trends, but there is hardly any opportunity given to them to articulate their views on a myriad of contemporary issues, whether those are palatable to the U.S. government or not.
The U.S. government policies, especially of the super-patriot line, continues to neglect, undermine, stifle and alienate the Islamic voices of conscience and enlightenment both in the United States and elsewhere. The same is done by the U.S. media that disproportionately highlights the extreme fringe, while ignoring the mainstream voices that can make a positive difference. Islam of the fringe, as Fuller and Lesser argue, ” is only strengthened when it is referred to repeatedly and publicly by top officials as a major threat” [p. 173].
In valuing and seeking freedom and independence of ALL and forging mutually respectful and cooperative partnership toward that goal might be the common ground on the basis of which all conscientious and conscious people can attempt to build bridges for a better future. That is also the spirit behind the following verses of the Qur’an: “..help (cooperate) one another in matters of Birr (virtue and goodness) and Taqwa; and do not help (cooperate) in Ithm (sin) and transgression….” [5/al-Maida/3] “To each is a goal to which Allah turns him; then strive together (as in a race) towards all that is good.” [2/al-Baqara/148]
The world wishes and hopes that the struggle of the two Americas resolve in favor of the Lincolnian one. That is a struggle of the Americans in general. American Muslim community also has a positive role to play in this regard. Self-critical Muslims, everywhere, should ponder and consider: instead of “Death to …” this or that, can we chant and adopt a message, program and principled position of mutual help and cooperation in all that is good?