Americans must keep our heads
The arrest of Faisal Shahzad, a 30-year-old US citizen of Pakistani descent, as the alleged driver of the vehicle used in the failed Times Square bombing represents an opportunity to respond effectively to a potential act of terrorism – instead of reacting with fear and hysteria that will inevitably be manipulated by extremist elements.
As of Tuesday morning, details are slowly emerging regarding the potential motives of suspect Shahzad, who was arrested at JFK airport as he planned to fly to Dubai, having recently returned from a five-month trip to Pakistan. Despite initial evidence and statements from law enforcement agencies suggesting this incident lacked the sophistication and planning of an international operation, the Pakistani Taliban has nonetheless claimed responsibility for this amateurish and failed attempt.
Regrettably, however, similar moments of tension – though isolated – have in the past been used cynically by bigoted ideological pundits in both non-Muslim American and Muslim communities to sow dissension and enmity. We saw this tendency recently, when a mentally unstable Army major, Nidal Hassan Malik, opened fire and killed 13 soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas. A Nigerian student, Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, forever known as the underwear bomber, tried to ignite himself on an airplane on Christmas Day after, staggeringly, getting past security despite having been previously flagged (an unacceptable internal administrative mistake, revealing a lack of communication between security agencies).
Five young American Muslims were arrested in Pakistan for attempting to join a terrorist group after the children’s parents and Muslim American community members proactively contacted the FBI and assisted in their investigation (although the five have since protested their innocence). And, most recently, two clowns known as “Revolution Muslim” made veiled threats towards the creators of South Park for making a cartoon mocking the Prophet Muhammad.
These incidents of violence or attempted terrorism by radicalised individuals in America – as well as the blank space in the New York skyline that was once graced by the World Trade Center towers – serve as unending fuel for the rightwing commentators. And those bellicose pundits will inevitably squeeze every drop of righteous anger and fear from this failed Times Square plot, in order to promote a dangerously inaccurate image of an Islamic monolith comprising 1.5 billion diverse individuals as having an innate homicidal aversion to “our freedoms”. Attacks will, no doubt, be made on Barack Obama’s efforts at conciliation and partnership with Muslim communities – as evidenced by his al-Arabiya interview, his historic speech to Muslims in Cairo, and his outreach to Muslim American organisations and leaders.
Sarah Palin and her ilk will argue passionately on Fox News to “profile away” evil-doers – in effect, advocating racial profiling of ethnic minorities, especially of Middle Easterners and South Asians. Anticipating public anxiety, Obama reacted to calls for “greater security” following the failed Christmas Day bombing by implementing catch-all measures – recently amended – to extend special pat-downs and heightened profiling to individuals returning from 14, mostly Muslim, countries.
Despite overwhelming evidence showing that racial profiling and the erosion of civil liberties and due process are counterproductive in fighting terrorism, I worry that fear and divisive rhetoric will be used to undermine the mutual trust and co-operation that has been painstakingly built over the past two years between American Muslims and law enforcement agencies.
Rightwing demagogues who proclaim the virtues of the west, and argue that terrorism is unique to the “Muslim world”, should be reminded of evidence to the contrary. The recent arrest of nine members of the Christian terrorist militant group, the Hutarees, for conspiring to kill police officers and wage war on the United States government has largely been labelled an anomaly. The suicide flight of disgruntled Joseph Stack into the IRS building in Texas, which killed an innocent public employee, has been overlooked, even as Tea Party-type anger at federal government institutions has been allowed to fester.
Islam, too, has its reckless demagogues. Radicalised Muslim elements manipulate asinine episodes such as satirical cartoon depictions of the Prophet as categorical proof that the “imperialist” west is perpetuating its war on all of Islam and Muslims. Recent violence and threats against those cartoonists who have depicted the Prophet in a disrespectful manner do not emerge from a vacuum, but rather they are symptomatic of a sustained belief in a skewed and simplistic narrative of the “war-mongering west” that finds its evidence in the Iraq war, US support for Israel, civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and cozy US relations with brutal Arab dictatorships. These thugs ultimately bear the greatest blame for betraying the legacy and spirit of their Prophet, who urged moderation and civility.
In the face of the threat from extremists, the greatest mistake Americans could make would be to revisit the rhetoric and security policies of George W Bush, which proved to be disastrous in curbing global terrorism but highly successful in eroding the US’s standing in world opinion, and which damaged co-operation with Muslim communities. Ultimately, the best defence is the very same values of freedom, liberty and democracy they wish to defend and protect.
The sad reality of modern, globalised 21st century existence is that the threat of terrorism and violence is a constant, yet manageable and containable, aspect of daily life. Reactionary posturing, rampant ethnic stereotyping, scapegoating of minorities, and provoking mistrust of Muslim Americans and allies have only ever exacerbated the risks. Recent history has shown that a reasoned and moderate perspective, along with sound security measures, vigilant policing, protection of civil liberties and mutual aid are our best hope.
As more evidence in this case emerges in coming days, let us hope this philosophy prevails.