A little America in all of us

By Aijaz Zaka Syed,

Some years ago, in response to a piece critiquing the endless US shenanigans in the Middle East, an American reader wrote back: “Why do you hate America?”

As some of my perceptive readers might have already deduced, I get loads of fan mail in response to my weekly rants, especially from my own kind, some of it not very flattering. Yet the accusation “why do you hate America?” from an all-American white reader was a little unsettling, as I do not see myself as an America-baiter. Indeed, I grew up admiring and adoring America.

The influence of American literature, Hollywood and their collective glorification of ambition, grit and hard work left an indelible imprint on an impressionable young Indian Muslim. Those influences are still very much part of my consciousness. Just as they are a part of people of my generation and those who followed later.

After all, none of us, wherever we are and whoever we are, can escape the far-reaching influence of Pax Americana. You do not have to be a Star Wars fan, drink Coke or sport Levi’s and Nike to be a part of the empire of mind created by Uncle Sam. There is a little America in all of us. And we all love and admire in various degrees what America ostensibly stands for or once stood for: Democracy, freedom, civil liberties, freedom of speech and action and a celebration of individualism and doing your own thing.

If you are born with imagination, crazily original ideas or just happen to be a plain hard working guy, then the land of the free is for you. No matter where you were born or where you come from, America would embrace you – or at least did until recently. If you have guts for glory, patience and persistence, it’s not impossible for anyone to get your slice of the American pie. Life is beautiful!

This is what we once believed about America. Many of us still do. At least, I still do. I like my share of Hollywood potboilers, Westerns and John Grisham’s legal thrillers where small, insignificant men are pitted against big, bad corporate leviathans and who ultimately prevail over their far more powerful opponents.

Despite the watershed transformation that America has undergone after 9/11, there has been little change in the essential character and soul of the country apparently discovered by Columbus.

It might have changed in the way foreigners are received at US airports. The punishing frisking, scanning and daunting questioning certainly make all visitors to the land of the free feel very welcome! This gets all the more unpleasant when visitors happen to be or look like, you know, who. But then that is how it is in the rest of the world these days too — from European airports to Asian holiday destinations.

The welcome ceremony doesn’t vary much whether you are at LaGuardia airport in New York or passing through Charles de Gaulle of Paris. That now infamous date in September 2001 has forever changed the way we fly and the way we look at each other. Especially the way the Americans view the rest of the world–the Muslims in particular.

Yet notwithstanding the unprecedented curbs imposed on freedom at home and the usual suspects around the world, Muslim Americans are still better off than their counterparts, say, in Europe. This is borne out by several recent opinion polls.
This may come as a surprise but Muslim Americans still feel and see themselves as an essential part of the US mainstream. This is despite the pathological aversion of this administration for all things Muslim and the disastrous war on terror under Bush & Co.

In total contrast, the European Muslims, long paraded as a model of the continent’s fabled multiculturalism and tolerance, are dangerously angry and unhappy with the Western policies in the Muslim world in general and their host countries in particular. Unlike the Muslim Americans who are a healthy part of the mainstream, Muslims in Europe have been living on the sidelines of their societies.

Unlike their fellow believers across the Atlantic who’ve been enjoying the fruits of America’s economic progress, Europe’s Muslims live in deprivation and isolation in their ghettos and enclaves. So it’s no coincidence that the US hasn’t witnessed any major incidents involving US Muslims since 9/11. On the other hand, Europe has reported several terror plots, not to mention the beeline European Muslims made to join the sham “caliphate” of ISIS.

The US Muslims responded remarkably swiftly to the challenge posed by 9/11 developments. First, they closed their ranks. Secondly, they reached out to the Americans addressing the accusations and misconceptions vis-à-vis Islam and Muslims. Instead of withdrawing into their shells, they have tried their best to present the true face of their noble faith.

But this is also largely thanks to the US model of assimilation and acceptance. If the US Muslims today identify themselves with America without compromising their religious and cultural identity, the credit goes in no small measure to the US spirit of embracing newcomers.

It’s only in the US that an Austrian immigrant, Arnold Schwarzenegger, can scale the heights of success in Hollywood and become governor of California. Or a Barack Hussain Obama, born to a Kenyan Muslim father and white American mother, can occupy the highest office in the land.

As Mohsen Hamid, the author of Reluctant Fundamentalist wrote some time back: “If you speak with an American accent, you’re an American (it doesn’t matter whether you are a Muslim or Hindu). In Europe, although I’m a British citizen, they still refer to me as a Pakistani novelist. In the US, even though I’ve never had an American passport, I am called a Pakistani American.”

I love and admire this side of America. The America of Robert Frost, Mark Twain and Hemingway. This is the land of Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and my beloved hero Mohammed Ali.

This America is different from the one that the punditocracy obsesses over day after day. The America that repels and agitates you and me is like a different country altogether. Represented by neocons, Zionist lobbies and powerful corporate interests, this entity is self-centred and most often doesn’t seem to see beyond its nose. It seeks to run the whole world as its extended colony.

It doesn’t lose sleep over a couple of million innocent lives wasted here and there. It’s this leviathan that you see throwing its weight around in the Middle East and around the world. Unfortunately, this America controls and manipulates the America that we all know and love. For like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Uncle Sam appears to suffer from the disorder of a split personality.

You don’t quite know which side indeed represents the real America. But it is not for us — the outsiders — to determine which side of America is cosmetic and which truly represents its values, ideals and spirit. It is for the Americans to decide once and for all which America really represents them and which they would like the world to see: The America of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay or the freedom-loving and humane America that comes forward to help the helpless, as it did during World War II and more recently in the Balkans? Will the real America please stand up!

The writer is an award-winning journalist and editor.
Email: Aijaz.syed@hotmail.com
Twitter: @AijazZaka

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