Here we are, once again. Yet another hour added to the agonizingly long wait we were already suffering at the airports to cross the border. We can no longer pack our toothpaste or our favorite aftershave lotion in the carryon bags, no more of those hair products or duty free liquor either. How much longer or how many more sinister plots will it take before we’ll be asked to strip down to our underclothes? Who can tell? But what shall I do with the most lethal item that I have no choice but carrying in person, my name? My muslimness? And the name of the country of my birth? Nonmuslims have no idea how many eyes we manage to light up every time we produce our ID’s at the counter. It doesn’t matter how young or old you are, how ill or well, a Muslim name is a dangerous object these days. On two consecutive occasions last year I, at 73, a retired professor of Mathematics who taught for 36 years in two Canadian universities, was held up at the Ottawa airport to be “questioned” by a young man, probably no older than my youngest son. My little grandson, for all of his 8 years, was held for questioning at the Toronto Pearson, just because he, as his grandpa, carried a name that aroused suspicion. No, it’s no longer the age of reason, it’s the age of insanity.
And yet, incredible as it may sound, I’m not complaining. Insanity is not just in this continent but all over the world. If I were not insane then I’d be complaining bitterly for all the indignities inflicted on me just because I have a suspicious name. I’m not complaining because I’m not ashamed to admit that I love my life more than I hate the loss of my dignity. I do want them to search me, and every other fellow passenger ,search as thoroughly as possible, because I want to be assured that they have done everything humanly possible to make my journey safe. No, I’m not too anxious to get a free flight to the eternal bliss of high heavens, despite my muslimness, as the misguided suicide bomber has been so deftly programmed to believe.
The terrorists, if it is indeed the terrorists as they claim (and not some insidious international plot, as the conspiracy theorists seem to claim), didn’t succeed the last two times. The prime minister of Canada was not beheaded, and the 10 planeloads of transatlantic passengers were not blown off the skies. But let us not fool ourselves into believing that the security measures taken now will be able to foil every future effort at hitting the West somewhere, sometime, causing massive loss of lives and property. The probabilities are very high that they will keep trying until they succeed. Desperate people will take every desperate step to make their point. They desperately need the thrill of “victory” in taking as many innocent lives as possible, destroying as many symbols of western pride and glory as possible. Even if they do not succeed in any spectacular way (as they did in 9/11) they have managed to cause immeasurable damage to the West in trying to do so. They have eroded one of the most cherished values of the modern western society – individual freedom and basic human rights, thus shaking the very foundation of western civilization. At least in that sense they can certainly lay claim to a measure of “victory”.
As an elderly man who has lived through a lot of modern history I cannot help wondering what could have gone wrong that changed the course of humanity so drastically over a period of no more than 25 years. Why is there so much intolerance and distrust, so much violence? What happened in those years that made this planet of ours such a dangerous place to live? We have just stepped into a new millennium full of hopes and promises for greater and greater growth, more and more wealth and prosperity, more and more milestones of achievements in science and technology, arts and literature, crafts and medicine. We are supposed to be heading toward a brave new world, a new era of unprecedented enlightenment where poverty would become history, disease would be conquered, longevity would be bought at a price from the drugstore in the mall, ideal babies could be ordered for at the spermbank. Instead, we find ourselves at the brink of annihilation as a human race.
I do not claim to be an expert on international relations or politics or anything of much importance. I’m just an ordinary member of a frightened species deeply concerned about our survival and about what will be left behind for our children and grandchildren when we’ll no longer be here. I, like everyone else, despite my naivety in world affairs, can feel the toxicity of the gases and fumes in the air I breathe, can see the disastrous effects of global warming in the mighty waves of the oceans, in the frequency and fury of the floods and hurricanes, and in the steady and alarming rise of the sea-level everywhere. The callous indifference of our leaders to the problems of melting icecaps in the Arctics, the replacement of animal habitats by human settlements and tall towers, large-scale deforestation of rainforests in the name of development, dumping of deadly chemicals in the fresh waters of lakes and rivers, is contributing to rapid deterioration of the environment suitable for human habitation. The modern humans seem to have opted for affluence and prosperity now, everything today, even if it means nothing tomorrow.
On the other side of the coin, the powerful political leaders of the West, particularly the US, after having succeeded in demolishing the Berlin wall and diminishing the influence of the Kremlin, are now leading a new charge in taming the spirit of the Muslims in the middle east. The colossal misjudgment in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is what many experts believe to have triggered the violent anti-western reaction among the Muslim extremists. Iraq was one Muslim country in the entire middle east which, despite its despicable dictator, could boast some peace and stability, even a limited form of democracy. But the lords of power in the white house wanted to topple Saddam Hussein and install a democracy that would be more to their liking, a democracy that is very unlike the one the US has in their own country, but one that I call their “export-model” democracy. Every thinking person in the world, except the political leaders in the US agrees that in doing so the invading powers, namely the US and UK, unwittingly, unleashed an avalanche of chaos and violence in Iraq.By trying to eliminate future terrorism they helped create a whole new generation of highly committed terrorists and suicide bombers. Historians will probably go further back, much, much further, to the uprooting of millions of Palestinians from their ancestral homeland following the creation of the state of Israel, the covert removal of Dr.Mossadeq, the head of a democratically elected government in Iran, in order to reinstate the Shah on the throne in the early fifties, the support of Saddam Hussein (remember his famous handshake with Donald Rumsfeld?) in his futile effort to defeat the mullahs of Iran; to the enthusiastic support of Osama bin Laden in the Afghan war against the Soviets, and many, many other misdeeds and misadventures of the CIA in the third world. But let me not go into all that in this article. Here I’m concerned with my own safety and the safety of most other law-abiding Muslim immigrants in the western world, in the face of the ominous and open declaration of Jihad by a handful of fanatics among us against the western interests. What can we do to avert the impending threat, both from these extremist elements as well as the simmering resentment of the host society?
Different people will, of course, have different views on what we can do, but I know what we cannot afford to do. We cannot afford to do nothing, or worse, continue to blame the West for everything that is happening here, and refuse to take any responsibility ourselves as a community. There is a lot at stake here for everybody, more for the immigrant Muslims than anyone else. I, personally, have lived in the West for close to half a century. This is where my late wife and I came with a dream, raised a family, built our home, and wish to be buried. This is where we made a lot of friends, met a lot of interesting people from all nationalities, that helped broaden our views on cultures and customs and societies, and, knowingly or unknowingly, adopted a lot of western values. Above all, we have learned to love this country. I believe the same is true for most immigrants, be they from the second or the third world. At this stage of my life I cannot imagine living anywhere else, not even in the land of my birth, for fear of having to sacrifice not just the ordinary comforts of day-to-day life here, but more importantly, the sense of freedom, security, and the respect for human lives and rights.
Notwithstanding the bizarre claims of the perennial conspiracy-theorists, I think the recent arrests of 24 youths in the UK and 17 more in Canada earlier, should serve as a wake-up call for all Muslim communities in the western world, in particular, USA and Canada. It’s no use pretending to be armchair experts analyzing the root causes of all the violence thus shirking all responsibilities. We are in a crisis situation. We are on the verge of losing control of our own homes. The signs are quite alarming for our future. We cannot continue to hide behind the protective wall of tolerance of western society, because the wall may one day collapse under pressure. Can we go back to where we came from? Can we, really? I don’t think so. So it’s better to start thinking of this country as our own, and do everything possible to protect it from danger, even if the danger comes from our own children.
The question is: what can we, as a community, do other than stop being in a continuous state of denial. What can we possibly do to persuade our young boys to tone down their militant ways and seek redress for their grievances through peaceful means? What can the parents do to reclaim their children from the clutches of the overzealous and militant imams and mullahs? But before we address this question, I’ll ask if it is the right question to ask in the first place. Is it our young generation that needs to be reformed or is it our own generation, the generation of original settlers who came to the West with a big dream, but also with a heavy baggage? It was a baggage of old beliefs and prejudices and habits, of memories of bad blood and tainted history. I think much of what the children think and believe and do are a reflection of what they hear day after day after day at the dinner table, at the community gatherings, and from the members of their extended families. If they think Osama bin Laden is a champion of Islam, a true hero, chances are that their minds were already prepared by their parents and elders before confirming their beliefs on the laptops and web pages. Remember that they are not the ones who brought the militant imams to the West, nor did the imams appoint themselves, but it is their parents and community leaders who did. So the first thing we, the parents and grandparents, must do, if we want to do anything at all, is look in the mirror and ask: are we being completely honest with ourselves or with the host society? Are we here just to enjoy the benefits, without giving much in return? Is it fair to remain neutral and silent while the society that has given us an opportunity to build a better life is being sabotaged by some of our own people? It is time that we face this question without pointing fingers at others.
There is a familiar pattern to the immigrant life of many, if not most, relatively recent arrivals of Muslims in the western countries. They all come with great expectations. Many take incredible risks, legal and illegal, safe and unsafe, to land somewhere in the West, anywhere. As if just setting foot in the West is going to solve all their problems, help realize all their dreams. With a lot of hard work, often a good deal beneath what they are trained for, slowly they build a life, some prosperous, most just get by, some even sink in deep depression out of despair and desperation. On the average, most can make a decent living. They raise a family, send their children to schools, and hope they will have a more successful life. And yet, through all that, they expect, and indeed demand in many cases, that their children remain completely untouched by western culture, even the western values except those that are superficially beneficial to them. This is one aspect of the traditional Muslim society that I could never understand. They try to stay close to each other, preferably in the same neighbourhood, thus enabling a near ghetto culture to develop in time. They get their children an early grounding in religious education, discourage them to befriend any nonmuslim child lest they get contaminated by infidel touch, above all be influenced by western way of life. They dread the thought of their child getting “westernized”. They are willing to tolerate some deviations by the boys, but the girls are usually strictly forbidden to stray off the family line. Some parents do not like their children to go to secular schools run by nonmuslim teachers, so they go to Islamic schools that are sprouting everywhere in the West. The sight of a few 10-11 year old boys cramming the holy Quran in the old traditional postures at a religious school in New York that appeared in a New York Times article is a tell-tale picture of how boxed-in a section of our society here has chosen to stay. They do everything possible to look different, speak differently, eat differently, dress differently, and above all think differently from nonmuslims. When a community tries that hard to be different from others, is it any wonder that others will eventually start treating them differently, too? Ironically, as soon as we start being looked at and treated differently we begin to cry wolf, we begin to scream discrimination, racism and what not. We do not think for once that if we keep calling them infidels at every breath, the very people who gave us shelter and hope, then they will one day run out of patience and, at least some of their hot-headed ones, will want to run us out of their country.
So, I think, for our own sake, for the sake of our survival as a productive and helpful community, we should start shedding some of our dogmatic beliefs, be more pragmatic, accept some of the western values and make a sincere effort to build a bridge with the host society as well as other communities. We should start thinking of ourselves as part of a large family called the human race, and not a self-segregated community that looks at others as some kind of untouchables. I know we are very conscious of our rights as Canadian citizens, but now we should start being just as conscious of our responsibilities. We should try to understand the people here, make friends with them, learn their language, their beliefs and hopes and habits, their customs and proverbs and mannerisms. Above all, we should join hands in times of their needs, be eager participants in their celebrations. We should not hesitate to run the marathons with them in their efforts to raise funds for hospitals and cancer research and for aids victims and battered women. We should send our teams to help them bring help to victims of earthquakes and hurricanes and floods and famines everywhere in the world. And for heaven’s sake let us not teach our children to be different in every possible way from their children, and let us not keep them away from liberal secular education as some of us are doing now. In other words, let us work toward being good citizens with high moral and social values and not just what is there in our scriptures. I think this is about the only way we can help solve the problem of militancy and violence in our youths. At least we will have done our part of the job. The rest, the political part, has to be left on the shoulders of the politicians themselves.
Aug. 25, ’06.
Mizan Rahman, মীজান রহমান