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It's been a whole month now of shock, sorrow, fear, compassion, rage -- a tsunami of emotions -- and America was just beginning to regain some sense of normalcy. And then, on Sunday, President George W. Bush unleashed the military, and bombs and Tomahawk missiles rained on Afghanistan. More death and dying. The only rejoicing is probably among the men behind the Sept. 11 terror -- Osama bin Laden and his circle of fiends. The American "war" improves their standing and, despite statements to the contrary by Bush, it validates their goal: It's Islam versus the West. And it's bound to breed more suicide missionaries, willing to inflict more murder and mayhem in America. We're back to fear.
Perhaps it is too early for America to look in the mirror. Too early to grapple with the question at the core, the question many Americans have been asking since Sept. 11, the question the president raised in his Sept. 20 speech to the nation: "Why do they hate us?"
Arsalan Iftikhar can think of a few reasons but believes it's not yet time to speak out. Iftikhar is a 24-year-old American who grew up in Chicago and is studying law at Washington University. A quiet, soft-spoken, devout Muslim of Pakistani descent, he is the executive director of the local chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, the leading Muslim-advocacy organization in the country. And he worries about Muslims in America who are feeling the heat.
"I think this isn't the right time," he says. "This is the time when Arabs and Muslims need to be extra-cautious when going out. I mean, myself, I have to worry about civil-rights issues right now. You can't address foreign policy when your brothers and sisters are getting beaten up. I think it's for a good reason why people aren't saying anything about foreign policy, because right now it would fall on deaf ears."
Says another prominent local Muslim, who, like many others, only agreed to talk anonymously: "When I visit my homeland [Iran], I get into all kinds of fights with my friends and relatives who can't understand why I've become a citizen here. I tell them Americans aren't bad people, even if their government sometimes does bad things overseas -- you know, like in Iraq and the Middle East. But when I'm here, I become very critical of America; I talk like the people back home. But not now, because I'm afraid."
Bill Ramsey, probably the most persistent and principled pacifist St. Louis has ever seen, doesn't think it's too early to talk about why there has been growing anti-Americanism around the world, especially among Muslims. In fact, he worries that it may already be too late.
And he understands the current need of American Muslims to wrap themselves in red, white and blue, to carry the message that Islam is all about peace, to condemn the perverse acts of the terrorists and to not speak loudly about why they believe America inspires both respect and revulsion among Muslims worldwide. On a visit to a local mosque two weeks ago, says Ramsey, he received a warm welcome. "I've never been in a room with that many American flags at one time," he says with a chuckle. "And as I looked around, there was a banner saying 'Justice, Not War,' but the rest [of the event] had to do with them professing their patriotism.
"They have a right to that space right now," he continues, "and a need for that kind of space, and if these other issues have to be brought up, it's my responsibility and the larger peace movement's responsibility to carry those issues right now." Ramsey runs the Human Rights Action Service and works with a host of local groups promoting peace. On Sunday, he was out at the vigil for peace, hours after the bombing of Afghanistan began.
So: Why do they hate us?
President Bush, speaking before a joint session of Congress last month, had this answer: "They hate what they see right here in this chamber, a democratically elected government.... They hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."
Ramsey disagrees. "He's doing a real disservice to the American people," he says. "There are very clear, explicit reasons why people in the Middle East resent us and are angry with us over our policy there, and if we come through this crisis -- and I don't think it's the first thing we need to talk about in this crisis -- but if we come through this crisis with the American public feeling that somehow Islamic fundamentalists hate us because we're free, we've lost a huge opportunity to understand ourselves and our world."
A couple of things need to be said about the president's statements. The first has to do with the definition of "they," the ones who hate America. It isn't just Osama bin Laden and his octopuslike network of militants, it is a much larger group of Muslims around the globe who do find America less than a beacon of democracy and freedom. Second, they don't hate the American people or the American way of life; what they hate are the actions of the American government and American corporations outside America, actions that have destroyed the quality of life -- and the lives -- of millions abroad.