mai abdul rahman January 23, 2015
Europeans are not less imperfect than Americans. Centuries old European Jewish, Muslim, and Arab communities have endured their share of racial hatred. Yet, despite Europe’s many social problems and commonly held racist attitudes, Europe’s general understanding of their national identity whether German, French, or English is not shaken or threatened. European leaders are against casting a broad brush of condemnation of their Muslim citizens and European Arab communities. Dominique de Villepin, the former French prime minister, warned against the urge for adopting exceptional US measures. “The spiral of suspicion created in the United States by the Patriot Act and the enduring legitimization of torture or illegal detention has today caused that country to lose its moral compass,” he wrote in Le Monde. By in large, Europeans are critical of US counter terrorism measures, and the shallow quality of US terror experts.
After the three-day terror rampage in Paris that took the lives of 16 French citizens, France confronted questions about balancing civil liberties and terrorism. The evolution of the French debate, which centered on preserving France’s national values and unity, highlighted the wide political-cultural divide between France and the US. The vast majority of French leaders mocked and ridiculed the US Patriot Act and surveillance tactics. French politicians warned of adopting US strategies, and most dismissed any suggestion of applying US anti terror tactics. More specifically, The French identity whether Jewish, Muslim, Christian or non faith was not questioned or debated, instead it was evoked and assumed to be the unifying factor that bound French citizens to their common values and principles.
Following the Paris terror attacks the French president, Francois Hollande, addressed a grieving nation by calling the French to reaffirm their national ideals. While Hollande asserted France’s resolve to meet its security threat with vigilance, he also affirmed France’s democratic principles of “Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité” (liberty, equality and Fraternity). He said, “Unity is our best weapon” and called on the French to remain true to their values by acting as one ‘indivisible’ nation. President Holland, described what it meant to act as one unified society, by stating the following: “Not being divided means we must not paint people with a broad brush, we must reject facile (simple) thinking and eschew exaggerations.” Hollande concluded, “we must stand together as one… but always with concern for national unity.” French leaders insistence on preserving national unity generated an interesting landscape of responses that was not seen or exhibited here in the US during or after our own horrendous experiences with terrorism.
On Sunday, January 11th, during the Paris national Unity March, French people of every color and stripe honored those who were mercilessly murdered, and those who protected fellow citizens during the three-day terror rampage.
Many held signs to honor the Algerian born Mustapha Ourrad, the copy editor of Charlie Hebdo who was ruthlessly killed during the terror attack, and thousands paid tribute to the slain French Muslim police officer Ahmed Merabet using the rallying cry ‘JeSuisAhmed‘. Multitudes spoke in gratitude for the exemplary courage of the young Muslim immigrant who hid and protected Jewish shoppers from harm as he helped police enter the premises to free the hostages. On that same Sunday, French Jews, who suffered a deliberate malicious terror attack gathered at the Paris Grand Synagogue. In the presence of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and after he urged French Jews to immigrate to Israel they chanted in unison the French national anthem.
Fourteen years after 9/11, few in the US have acknowledged the large number of American Muslims and Arab Americans, who lost their lives on September 11, 2001. Meanwhile, the US remains invested in flawed policies that have eroded our national character. Reflexively, whenever we are faced with a crisis, and with little debate we dust off and re-use old worn out policies to control American citizens, their communal discussions, and institutions. American leaders implore the public to accept and confer their government’s decision to re- institutionalize past ill guided policies —without credible cause arresting Japanese Americans, African Americans, Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, and civil rights leaders. Each crisis we face, American leaders and policy makers classify a class of citizens as outsiders that should be monitored. These exclusionary measures create social dissonance, arrest and dilute our shared principles, and fray our national unity.
Since 9/11 American Muslims have become the designated fifth column, and few Americans question US disregard of their constitutional and privacy rights. Meanwhile, Arab American peace activists who call for the end of the Israel occupation of Palestine have also been swept into this tidal wave. Recent reports suggest that the US shares the personal data of American citizens with Israeli intelligence agencies, without regard to the potential risks this may impose on American citizens, their families, and associates.
The inclination to exclude and marginalize a class of American citizens and immigrants is not unique in US history. Nonetheless, Americans have also made the necessary effort to correct and mend hateful social attitudes. For example, Jewish Americans were once shunned in the US. However, we gradually created the safe space for Jewish Americans to honor and preserve their Jewish and American identity. Americans no longer question whether the Jewish faith contradicts with American values. By in large, Americans are respectful of the Jewish faith and deferential to Jewish American’s allegiance to Israel. In fact, while few young Jewish Americans serve in the US military, some choose to join and serve in the Israeli military. Today, Jewish Americans are fully embraced and no one questions their identity or loyalty.
Healthy societies are in perpetual evolution. It is high time Americans begin to re-evaluate the influence of US counter terrorism policies on our national fabric and Constitutional rights. Since 9/11, US policies and actions have severely curtailed the rights and freedoms of all Americans. Collectively we need to rebuild and save what we have managed to destroy and mangle. But, first we need to allow Americans including American Muslims and Arab Americans to freely express their opinions without fear of retribution. Understanding that freedom of speech does not mean the freedom to cause harm or malign the character and freedoms of others, the First Amendment protects the rights of average Americans to express their ideas and beliefs without unwarranted restrictions. Reaffirming America’s fundamental values will help rebuild the social contract that once was the corner stone of the American experiment.
Furthermore, we need to accept that our actions whether they are our torture practices of the guilty and not guilty in far away torture cells such as Guantanamo Bay, the cost of our ‘perpetual wars‘, the loss of life and limb of thousands of young American soldiers, our policies regarding Israel and Palestine, and our relentless bombing of small villages by planes or drones will naturally generate a push back by some Americans including American Muslims and Arab Americans. These are acts that affect human beings and cause harm to many helpless women, children, old people, and families. In addition, the enormous costs of US wars and counter terrorism policies are diverting American treasure away from the pressing social problems we face here at home. American voices of dissent need an outlet—a safe space to speak and discuss the merits of our actions and national objectives without fear of being labeled and maligned as anti American. These voices, once included, will enrich our national dialogue and enhance our national character.
Institutionalizing censorship hurts our fundamental freedoms, while self-constructive censorship once funneled and positively directed can be helpful to our general understanding of the many complex issues that our nation is struggling to come to terms with. In addition, authentically engaging American Muslims and Arab Americans instead of the horde of terror experts who have little knowledge or understanding of Islam or Arabs can bridge the learning gap we are facing in dealing with Muslim and Arab countries and peoples.
Granted, humans are imperfect, and imperfect people driven by fear are more often suspect in formulating and endorsing imperfect policies. Yet, fear alone is not solely responsible for the many legislative initiatives that are feeding this hyper frenzy. Lucrative federal and private funding streams, poorly informed American terrorism experts, deliberate misinformation campaigns, disrespectful prejudice, and the general acceptance of careless racism have also contributed to this trend. Nonetheless, even imperfect societies can still aspire to attain noble humane ideals.
Not long ago, Americans were admired for their principled values. The cumulative impact of US counter terrorism practices are ridiculed by the world, and have raised serious questions about our claim and interest in spreading democracy. The US deliberate campaign of fear and suspicion has harmed our national character— and unfortunately, we are no safer today than we once assumed prior to 9/11. The formulation of these infringing policies were initially based on fear and gut reaction under the presumption that adopting such policies that disregard the privacy rights of Americans was necessary. As if bullying Americans into silence will rid us of terror and ill thoughts.
Few comprehend the cost of our actions and its impact on the national harmony and affinity of Americans. Identity and nationality are sentiments that hinge on a set of political and social conditions that strengthen or weaken citizens’ sense of belonging. Furthermore, identity is inherently fluid and interactive. It depends on outside factors that either embrace or repel and marginalize the individual from his or her country and community. Since our country’s inception, national identity has been shaped by a promise affirming the universal protections that the US Constitution affords all its citizens regardless of race, national origin, ethnicity, or political affiliation. But after 9/11 these protections have become less meaningful.
In spite of the inherent limits of human frailty, our shared American ideals are worth protecting, and deserve to be experienced and enjoyed by every American citizen. Americans’ acceptance and respect of fellow Muslim Americans and Arab Americans without mocking and insulting their faith and culture, will fortify young Americans from being lured by fanatical militants who are promising a humanistic utopia that already exists within the folds of the US Constitution. Instead of seeking a far-fetched utopia in the killing fields of Iraq and Syria, embrace them here at home as full American citizens. This proposition is not based on high moral ground or theoretical assumption, but rather it is a practical approach that can help our society rid itself of ideas and concepts that contradict with our values and threaten our national character.