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COMMENTARY: On the Hazards of Being a Muslim in the United States

c. 2003 Religion News Service (Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies and professor of international relations at American University in Washington, D.C., is author of “Discovering Islam: Making Sense of Muslim History and Society” published by Routledge.). (UNDATED) The White House was concerned enough about the manner in which the […]

c. 2003 Religion News Service

(Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies and professor of international relations at American University in Washington, D.C., is author of “Discovering Islam: Making Sense of Muslim History and Society” published by Routledge.).

(UNDATED) The White House was concerned enough about the manner in which the Immigration and Naturalization Service launched its drive in December to register immigrant Muslim males to invite Muslim leaders for a meeting in January.

Articulate and sympathetic senior INS officials attempted to explain that while there may have been mistakes made in the manner of implementation, they were not meant to express discrimination against Muslims but were a reflection of the newness and scale of the operation. Eventually everyone _ not only Muslims _ would be registered. Security was top priority for the administration.

No one argued with this. But Muslims pointed out that by selecting only Muslims to be fingerprinted and registered a perception had formed in the public mind that every Muslim was potentially a terrorist. So while seeking to identify those with illegal visa status, the exercise had cast a shadow over the entire Muslim community.

The anxiety and even hysteria in the Muslim community as a result of the INS drive have exposed a serious contradiction at the heart of the administration’s policy in dealing with the Muslim world that will have long-term implications for America’s “war on terrorism.”

The Bush administration correctly assessed after Sept. 11 that there was a “problem,” which is both global and deadly in dealing with the Muslim world. The evidence is all around: from the violent deaths of the three Americans killed in Yemen in the last week of December 2002 to the countless deaths of innocent people who were targeted because of their association with the United States _ from Christians killed in the churches of South Asia to those in the disco in Bali, to the hotel in Kenya and those in Israel and the West Bank.

Two diametrically opposed policies appear to be in play which threaten to paralyze American policy.

On the one hand, there is the vigorous attempt to win the hearts and minds of the Muslims. President Bush has led this policy by example. He has visited the Islamic Center in Washington twice. He hosted a dinner for Muslims during the month of fasting. He has made complimentary and well-publicized remarks about Islam. Even diehard al-Qaida supporters cannot dismiss Bush as someone who hates Islam whatever their argument about his policy.

On the other hand, there has grown what appears to be a policy that in effect harasses and humiliates Muslims. Since Sept. 11, Muslims living in the United States have simply disappeared without trace, on suspicion alone; their charities have been closed; their religion, customs and nations have been insulted and ridiculed in the media in what appears to be a government-inspired campaign; the prophet of Islam himself, and on this Muslims, whether they are secular or religious, remain highly sensitive, has been abused loudly and publicly by people considered close to the administration.

In this context the manner in which the INS decided to register Muslims is seen as the final straw.

More than Muslim politics is under attack. Muslim dignity and honor are at stake. It is not surprising Osama bin Laden repeatedly and shrewdly mentions the attack on the “honor” of Muslims by Americans. It is not surprising either that there has been a dramatic swing toward Islamic parties that are prepared to stand up to the United States throughout the Muslim world. The “moderate” Muslims appear to be either silenced or shifting closer toward the Islamic parties in despair.

The anger and sense of humiliation in the community are widespread. The cries of Muslims as a result of the INS actions are music to the ears of the supporters of bin Laden. They have argued all along the United States has launched a war against Islam. While they could not entirely refute the Bush initiatives, they could point to the INS actions with glee. And they do.

Stories of Muslim families being broken up as a result of members being arrested and of families escaping in the bitter cold to Canada to avoid the uncertainties of the registration process circulated widely.

The interconnectedness of events that take place in Southern California with those in parts of Africa and Asia may not make philosophic or political sense to the bureaucrat in an INS office. But it is precisely this interconnectedness that is causing major damage to the interests of the United States in the “war on terror.”

The INS needs to be aware of the hysteria it has created in the Muslim community at home and abroad. Better trained officials; greater sensitivity in handling individual cases on the basis of merit; more openness in dealing with each case; a regular and well-publicized routine so no one feels a call to register is a trap from which there is no return _ all will help in regularizing what surely is a routine and necessary bureaucratic step.

With a war against Iraq, a major Muslim nation, looming on the horizon, Bush’s efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world become even more vital. The policies of the INS, which have harassed and humiliated Muslims, therefore have dangerous consequences for American policy.

The contradiction at the heart of American policy toward the Muslim world needs to be resolved urgently.

DEA END AHMED