Stark images of spectral men — their appearance in bright orange jumpsuits belied by legal invisibility — have been seared into the minds of many Muslims as an index of America’s anger.
But, for American Muslims, abuse and disappearance of detainees are not the defining features of the “war on terror.” Eyed by the national media with a mixture of fear, anxiety, and frustration, we face heated questions that implicitly place not just individual suspects but an entire community in the crosshairs.
The questions aimed at us fall into two broad categories: “Why aren’t more moderate Muslims condemning terrorism?” and “What is it about Islam that produces terrorists?”
As the latter question assumes an inherent relationship between Islam and terrorism, the best kind of “moderate” Muslim is apparently as far removed from Islam as Mecca is from Montana.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Anxious interviewers who press their Muslim American guests to inveigh against Islamist terrorism often appear flustered when these guests fail to utter the appropriate noises. The hapless targets sometimes forget their role in the script and fail to jump through pre-assigned verbal hoops.
But why should they? One does not, after all, apologize without having done something wrong, and one does not renounce something without having first belonged to it.
Nitpickers may protest that denouncing terrorism is not the same as renouncing or apologizing. But in a poisoned media atmosphere where the terms “Muslim” and “terrorism” are as inseparable as a bow and string, such a distinction flies off into irrelevance like an arrow without fletchings.
Applying this Muslim litmus test in a different setting demonstrates the point: If a white worker was assaulted in a black neighborhood, would he march into work the next day demanding his black colleagues “denounce” the attack?
The demand to denounce is, in short, a demand for an a priori admission of guilt.
American Muslims did not elect or appoint Islamist terrorists. Al-Qaeda is not a Muslim version of Congress.
Although the word al-Qaeda means “the base,” the label is more “aspirational” than operational, to borrow a phrase from the fine wordsmiths at the White House. The movement survives on the fringes and in the hinterlands, taking advantage of tribal customs of hospitality, preying on poverty and desperation, and terrorizing locals in lawless areas.
Indeed, the terrorist movement reviles Muslims who do not adhere to its impoverished idea of Islam and has spilt more than enough Muslim blood to prove it. So alienating is its ideology that even those Iraqis most opposed to the U.S. occupation ultimately turned to America’s help in killing al-Qaeda and away from al-Qaeda’s help in killing Americans.
Therefore, the questioners’ implicit lumping-in of Muslims anywhere and everywhere with Islamist terrorists is not only ignorant but ironic: they lend the terrorists a veneer of legitimacy not afforded them by the Muslim community in America or anywhere else.
Most perplexing, however, is that those prodding American Muslims to continually condemn violence are themselves least likely to condemn violence when it appears in a more virulent form. For while al-Qaeda killed almost 3,000 Americans on September 11th, the U.S. and its staunch ally Israel have killed tens of thousands and displaced millions in shattered communities across Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Palestine.
From the American Muslim viewpoint, this is a particularly curious oversight.
We are, after all, ceaselessly reminded that terrorists subscribe to totalitarianism whereas America upholds democracy. But it appears that our bumptious questioners think it is the other way around: why else do they press us to answer for the crimes of fanatics whom we never chose, while rarely questioning the ease with which many of our countrymen accepted the far deadlier decisions made by elected representatives?
It is precisely because Americans live in a democratic society that there is a genuine opportunity — one not available to Muslims vis-à-vis terrorists hiding in the mountains — to oppose serious injustices, such as torture, occupation, collective punishment, and disproportionate use of force.
A disturbingly consistent failure to exercise this opportunity leaves Muslims around the world — who sometimes develop the temerity to formulate questions of their own — wondering: “Where are the moderate Americans?”
The U.S. media also wonders aloud in a tone of feigned anguish what defects within Islam “cause” terrorism. Swirling their paintbrushes in palettes of their own prejudice, sundry pundits and preachers strip Islamic ideas out of context to depict the Muslim faith in sinister hues.
This line of condemnation via questioning is particularly unctuous because the “Islam” behind today’s terrorism was once sustained by the United States. The facts about this Cold War decision have been well-documented elsewhere and require no recounting here. Suffice it to say that by backing the most radical strains of Islam and suppressing the nationalist, socialist, and secular forces that were at work in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Palestine, Egypt, and elsewhere, the U.S. altered the political balance of forces in the Muslim world to disastrous effect.
It is also instructive to compare the trendy “what is wrong with Islam” approach with other examples from history.
The 20th century bore witness to unparalleled bloodshed and violence: the incineration of Japanese cities, widespread devastation of Vietnamese villages, systematic genocide of European Jews, and assaults unleashed against struggling colonies all come to mind.
If the death toll of Islamist terrorism was set against this backdrop, it would appear as but a droplet lost in the oceans, with the West’s fratricide against Jews and its depredations against ex-colonies comprising the Atlantic and Pacific of terror.
And yet, these millions of deaths did not spawn agonized questions about what is inherently “wrong” with Christianity — even though, for instance, the Nazis capitalized on anti-Semitism explicitly expressed by Martin Luther in his screed “On the Jews and Their Lies.” Rather, these conflicts were framed in terms of social and political circumstances.
Even in more recent cases where religious animosity has played a supporting role in atrocities, religion has been left untouched.
When Serbian forces massacred 8,000 Muslim Bosnian men and boys as the world idly stood by in 1995, or when Christian militia given a green light by the Israeli military killed 1,000 Palestinians in refugee camps during the 1982 Lebanon war, no media personalities pored over the Bible to see what scriptures “caused” these incidents.
When Israel, buoyed by Christian fundamentalists and internal hardliners, invokes religious concepts like the “promised land” and “chosen people” to justify what late Israeli historian Baruch Kimmerling aptly termed the “politicide” of Palestinians, no rhetorical questions about Christian or Jewish fundamentalism are splashed across American television screens. Indeed, the mere mention of the Palestinian plight is a taboo in American politics, prompting cries of anti-Semitism.
Only Islam, it appears, is on the dining menu, and it is cooked to order.
The chattering classes’ questioning recalls an often-invoked but rarely remembered truth: it is always easier to criticize the Other.
But this banal observation cannot suffice. In light of the vast gap in casualties and carnage, the insistence on grilling American Muslims can only be understood as a decoy, a way of avoiding uncomfortable questions about unseen others.
It is, in short, the extraordinary rendition of reality.
This is a painful but clear reminder to Muslims here and elsewhere that Muslim life does not occupy the same plane as American life: that if ten, twenty, or even one hundred Muslims die for every fallen American civilian, it is not sufficient cause for introspection; and that if a Muslim plays no role in attacks on Americans, he is still subject to a harsher judgment than an American who cheers policies that leave tens of thousands of Muslims dead.
Far from rising above the moment, the media has sunk beneath what should be expected of a free press. Its loaded questions, arrayed alongside other weapons of war, herald a new age of Guantanomized discourse — one in which the crucial difference between the interrogation inside the detention center and the one outside is that a person can be released but a people remain condemned.
M. Junaid Levesque-Alam is a Pakistani-American who blogs about America and Islam at Crossing the Crescent (www.crossingthecrescent.com). He writes about American Muslim identity for WireTap magazine and has been published in CounterPunch, Dissident Voice, The Nation (online), and The American Muslim. He works as a communications coordinator for an anti-domestic violence agency in the NYC area and obtained his undergraduate degree in journalism from Northeastern University. He can be reached at: junaidalam1 AT gmail.com.