The recent criminal tragedy has brought the American nation together. It has, however, also brought the world closer to further death and destruction. The angry reaction of people is understandable, but it is important that voices of reason also be heard by our lawmakers and political leaders so they may exercise wisdom in their decisions.
It is difficult to find something good in the evil that took place a week ago. But we would lose our humanity if we did not strive exactly for such an objective. I would like to present two occasions for understanding how some good may come out of this tragedy, both for Muslims, as they recognize that they must stand up to extremism, and for Americans, as they are forced to confront the consequences of their country's foreign policies.
Countering Extremism in Islam
The problem of extremism within some elements who consider themselves "Muslim" is real; there is no gainsaying this stark reality. It might even be fair to say that this religion has not faced any problem as serious as this in the last 1,500 years of its existence. Ironically, the voices of the majority of Muslims, who are not extremists, have rarely been heard since most of the Muslim world, over the last half century, has been ruled by dictatorial regimes, whose sole concern has been the protection of their power, not the well-being of their people.
Without denying the seriousness of the challenge Islam faces in the form of extremism, we should remember that the problem of extremism is not unique to Islam. Other religions have tackled the same problem at some point in history. Four of the world's largest religions are represented within my immediate family: Christianity and Hinduism are two of them, and I would like to offer their examples.
The genocide of the European Jewish people in the middle of the last century was one of the greatest crimes committed against humanity. Yet it was carried out by ostensible Christians. Even in the United States today, most hate groups, such as the KKK or the Aryan Nation, use the Bible and its teachings to spread their hatred. But while burning the Cross may be their expression of hatred, that's not the message of true Christianity. The Reverend Jim Jones's suicide cult or the Branch Davidians at Waco are similar examples within Christianity.
Hinduism, another fundamentally peaceful and harmonious religion, is also currently facing a serious problem of extremism in its midst. This problem has been festering in India for quite some time, and now has assumed a rapid pace in that society. While the modus operandi of the extremists in various groups may differ, their objectives are not so far apart. And they all feed upon one another. Any such deviant dogma can only be condemned; it cannot define the value and principle it hijacks to further its malicious designs.
One good thing emerging from the recent tragedy might be that ordinary Muslims, especially those in the Western world, would finally realize that the so-called Muslim governments have neither the incentive nor the will to solve such problems that are damaging the very fabric of the Muslim identity. Thus the leadership will now have to be taken by ordinary Muslims of intellect and understanding. And there already are individuals and groups working on this problem; plenty of research has already been done to unearth the root causes and propagation mechanisms of this problem. My hope is that such individuals and groups will now join forces to move this work forward. My hope also is that our government will not further polarize the situation, which in effect would make it infinitely more difficult to tackle the real problem.
There should be no question in any reasonable person's mind: Islam is a religion of peace, kindness and compassion. I wouldn't be a Muslim today if it weren't. Fifteen hundred years ago, quite contrary to the prevalent misperception in this country, Islam offered a clear and practical concept of human equality without any differentiation based upon one's race, gender, creed, age or any such distinctions.
I, and millions of other Muslims, live in the United States based upon choice. Personally, I have made this country my home because it offers me the most suitable choice in terms of a social system. And there is a reason for that. This might stun some, but the values offered by the American social system (and some other Western democracies) are the closest to the ideals that are fundamental to true Islam. I am talking about values such as equality for all human beings without any distinction, freedom of expression, tolerance, justice, non-discrimination, representation in the affairs of the state, open-mindedness, peace and harmony. The list goes on.
The current acts of bigotry against Muslims and Arabs in this country further prove my point. While there were some who threw Molotov cocktails at mosques, there were many others who brought bouquets of flowers. The important thing to keep in mind is that those who have been expressing love far outnumber those who have expressed hatred. And that is the sign of a resilient and just society.
I am not saying we Americans are perfect, and I am not saying our system has always been, or will always be, just. All I am saying is that we do learn from our mistakes and have improved our society because of this quality. I merely wish I could say the same thing about the values in our foreign policy.
It is noteworthy that in January 1999, a spiritual leader of American Muslims gave a comprehensive briefing in the State Department, warning the government of a very real threat of the kind that we just witnessed. The threat of weapons of mass-destruction, including "suitcase nuclear devices," was also clearly communicated. This meeting was attended by various departments of the U.S. government, and even included media presence. It seemed at that time that this sincere attempt by a Muslim leader was brushed aside as a false alarm.
Those who commit violence against innocent people, under any pretext, are criminals without any moral bearing or religious identity. It is our duty as Arabs, Americans, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims (whatever sub-identities we humans wish to claim) to ensure that we don't allow criminals to hijack our identity and then commit crimes in our name. Our representative such extremists never were; our representative they never will be.
Instead of pointing fingers at others, Muslims should think about the root cause of our various failures, and the responsibility God has put on our shoulders: the responsibility of spreading compassion, kindness, love, fairness, justice and peace in this world. To discharge this responsibility, however, we would have to squarely face the problem of extremism within our ranks. The time has arrived for Muslims to take this duty seriously.
Understanding the Consequences of U.S. Foreign Policy
We Americans seem so surprised and clueless about why other people have a grudge against us. We talk about "mindless" terrorism and "crazy" people, yet we know that there is nothing mindless or crazy about something planned so meticulously by so many individuals over such a long time. It clearly was deliberate.
We hear from our politicians that "madmen" hold a grudge against us because we are the "brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity" to the world. But that is contrary to all logical reasoning, and once again relies upon the premise that the world has gone crazy. Freedom being an innate human instinct, our country's position as a beacon of freedom should make us a positively attractive destination. And it does. Given half a chance, most people living under repressive regimes would like nothing better than being in this country. (Isn't controlling illegal immigration a huge problem for our government?)
And those who "resent" and "hate" us don't necessarily have a common religion or ethnic background. In fact, they are scattered all over the world, and the "third world" in particular. Does it not make sense that such a diverse group of millions of citizens of this world would have a reason for not liking us? Hence, there has to be a more substantive cause for this resentment and hatred of Americans; billions can't all be innately evil or demented.
The reason for the grievance is simple: hundreds of millions of people in the world are convinced that they have suffered seriously at the hands of our foreign policy. For years and years, international diplomats, journalists and even some domestic visionaries have been advising our government to face and address this issue.
The September 13 special report "Terrorism in the USA" by the Guardian, a British newspaper, is just one example. "They can't see why they are hated: Americans cannot ignore what their government does abroad" is a revealing enough a subtitle for a special report by this globally respected newspaper.
How many times need we be told that the chickens are coming home to roost before we see the obvious? Kindly allow me to give a specific example. A few years ago, U.S. marines, along with other international peacekeepers were sent to Somalia during the civil war there. Some marines became casualties of the conflict and it understandably sent a shock wave in our society and the media. But few journalists and no government officials ever mentioned that both the U.S. and the then USSR, during the decades of the Cold War, had created the seeds of the problem in the first place, by supporting warring factions and providing them with huge quantities of armament and ammunition.
The hatred, in the minds and hearts of many Somalis, against us Americans had a simple and understandable reason. For a Somali American, however, to get up and bluntly make that assertion would have been imprudent, especially when what was presented to Americans via the media was images of Somalis dragging the dead bodies of Americans and dancing around those dead bodies. It would, however, have been helpful if known and respected figures, especially in the mainstream media, raised their voices of reason and provided background. But it did not happen. And we Americans failed to learn from this experience, missing another opportunity to put our international strategy on the right track.
There are many examples of international laws and treaties we dismissively violate, disregard or refuse to sign: from those against land mines to those in support of the international criminal court; from our abandonment of the Kyoto Treaty to our decision to violate the ABM Treaty. Our opposition to the rights of the child is ironic: Somalia is the only other country in the world that stands with us. What is our rationale for our disregard of international law? We are the only superpower in the world, so we can afford to do it!
And our propensity to erect and support tyrants is absolutely stunning. We decided in the early 1970s that Allende, the elected president of Chile, had to go. So we worked with General Pinochet, who ultimately overthrew and executed a respected statesman. We wanted the Shah of Iran to be our "policeman" in that part of the world. So we supported him wholeheartedly in repressing his people. We did not like Sukarno, the founder of contemporary Indonesia, for his socialist leanings. So we helped Suharto to rule and loot Indonesia for 30 years. We groomed Noriega, the Panamanian dictator, and then invaded the country to capture him when he became an inconvenience.
We looked the other way when General Yahya committed atrocities against his own people in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), even though our own officials in Dhaka kept pleading to us for some humane action. We were so cozy with Marcos even when we knew that the people of the Philippines hated him. The regime in Saudi Arabia, a purely dictatorial state, is also our close ally even though Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been writing volumes about human-rights violations by this state. We even supported Saddam Hussein when he decided to attack Iran.
But the most relevant situation is that of Afghanistan. In 1979, when a Soviet-sponsored coup toppled the government of King Zahir Shah, we decided to "liberate" the country. We spent billions of dollars to train and arm Afghanis with the help of the Pakistani government. The training exploited their religion and ethnicity in order to make them ferocious and fearless fighters against communism. When the Soviet Union decided to quit, we also decided to get out of Afghanistan, leaving various armed factions in a state of civil war, allowing them to bring death and destruction to their own society. Suddenly, somehow, "Mujahideen" had become "Terrorists." The training camps sponsored by us raised the Taliban. Above all, bin Laden himself is a direct product of our own design. That's a cold and undeniable fact to anyone who has analyzed the situation.
The sadness and grief of this tragedy at home should make us even more cognizant of the pain felt by other nations and peoples when tragedies like this hit them. In August 1998, American Tomahawk cruise missiles rained down on and around a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, killing innocent people. Our contention was that the plant was manufacturing contraband chemicals for warfare. We were wrong. The thousands of victims of that brutality deserved at least as much outpouring of grief as the victims of our tragedy. Instead, we made sure that international authorities conducted no investigation of this "collateral damage."
We are lucky in so far that only a small proportion of those who dislike us have resorted to violence against us. Things would be much more serious if even more in the third world become convinced that violence is the only way to deal with our foreign policies that are fundamentally unjust and exploitative of them.
One thing should by now be clear to all strategists: there is no "clash of civilizations" here. There is no clash of values between Islam and the Western society. The concept of "Jihad" does not even come within miles of the way some extremists and Western "experts" love to apply it. The clash created to achieve some narrow political agendas could only become a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it has no legs of its own to stand upon.
The West has nothing to fear from Islam, but it has everything to fear from the implications of our geopolitical power play, and the perception in the third world that the world is becoming more and more lopsided with every passing day. What makes us so certain that America can enrage large numbers of people by following foreign policies detrimental to billions of the world's inhabitants, but contain that rage forever through high-tech devices and weapons of mass destruction? Maybe it is time we applied our values in devising our foreign policy.
While much of the world knows about the crises U.S. foreign policies have created in the world, the American public is by and large unaware of its depth, since any such discussion is de-facto unpatriotic in our political arena. How many innocent lives need we waste before our government officials and reporters realize that saying something extremely unpopular for the sake of one's nation and country is the most patriotic thing they can do? Being an open-minded society, maybe it is time we get rid of this final taboo to our most fundamental value: freedom of speech.
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. conveyed so eloquently every human being's right to a dream. Mine is that the rudders of two great institutions, Islam and the State Department, would be reclaimed for the benefit of humanity. Perhaps a tragedy on this scale could provide the driving force for such a recovery.
Azam Saeed is a former air force pilot from Pakistan, who holds degrees in physics and business and now lives in Farmington, CT.