Two Faces of America

Why do you hate America? As some of my perceptive readers might have already concluded, I get loads of fan mail from the land of the free. Most of it is rather interesting and revealing. Some of it is not most flattering and in what we in the subcontinent call ‘unparliamentary’ language.

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Why do you hate America? As some of my perceptive readers might have already concluded, I get loads of fan mail from the land of the free. Most of it is rather interesting and revealing. Some of it is not most flattering and in what we in the subcontinent call ‘unparliamentary’ language.
Yet the question, why do you hate America? from an all-American and all-white girl was a little startling. For I never see myself as an America-phobe. As regular readers might recall, I’ve often shared with them my early impressions of America, formed of course from a safe distance of thousands of miles.
The influence of American literature, Hollywood, pop culture and their collective glorification of ambition, excellence, grit and hard work left a lasting impact on an impressionable Muslim boy. Those influences are still a part of my consciousness. Just as they are a part of the people of my generation and generations after that. For none of us – wherever we are and whoever we are – can escape the influences of McWorld. You don’t 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 America. There is a little America in all of us. And we all love and admire in various degrees what America 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, 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, Uncle Sam would embrace you.
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 still enjoy 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 September 11, there’s been little change in the essential character and soul of the country 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 unwelcome. This gets all the more unpleasant when visitors happen to be or look like, you know, who! But then that’s how it is in the rest of the world – 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 changed, perhaps forever, the way we fly and the way we look at each other. Especially the way the Americans view the rest of the world and the Muslims in particular. Yet, notwithstanding the unprecedented curbs the US administration has imposed on civil liberties and basic rights of the Americans 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 a part of the US mainstream. This despite the pathological aversion of this administration for all things Islamic and its disastrous war on terror. 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.
And 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 a single incident of terror involving Muslims since September 11, 2001. None of those who blew themselves up against the World Trade Center six years ago were born or grew up in US. On the other hand, Europe has reported several so-called terror plots involving desperate Muslims.
Remarkably, the US Muslims responded swiftly to the challenge posed by 9/11 developments. First, they closed their ranks. Secondly, they reached out to the main street America addressing the accusations and misconceptions vis-a-vis Islam and Muslims. Instead of withdrawing into their shells, they tried their best to present the true face of their noble faith. But I must point out that this is also a tribute to the US model of tolerance and assimilation. 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 genuine tolerance and embracing new comers.
Perhaps this can happen only in America. It’s only in the US that an Austrian immigrant, Arnold Schwarzenegger, can scale Hollywood heights to become governor of California. Or Bobby Jindal, an Indian American, can become governor of Louisiana. And who knows you might even have a Muslim governor soon! On the other hand, across the Atlantic you’re still known as a Paki or Moroccan butcher despite having being born and brought up in Europe. As Mohsen Hamid, the author of Reluctant Fundamentalist says in The New York Times: ‘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, – The woods are lovely… – Mark Twain and Hemingway. This is the land of Jefferson, Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr and Mohammed Ali; the country of Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks, Robert de Niro, Sean Penn and Michelle Pfeiffer.
This America is different from the one that media punditocrasy 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 we often deal with in the Middle East and Muslim world. Yesterday, you encountered it in Vietnam. Today it’s stuck in Iraq and raring to go after Iran tomorrow.
Unfortunately, this America controls and manipulates the America that we all know and love. Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist, one of the six novels short-listed for the Booker prize this month and already a global best-seller, tackles these two perceptions of America. The 36-year old author who attracted global attention with his novel Moth Smoke, is well qualified to do so. Half of his life has been spent in the US even though he was born in the UK. The New York-based writer shares a fascinating relationship of infatuation and disillusionment with the US. He is like you and me. And like us, Hamid loves and loathes the US in equal measure.
For like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, America appears to suffer from a split personality. You don’t quite know which side of America is real and which is a facade. But it is not for us – the outsiders – to determine which side of America is not plastic. It’s for the Americans to decide which America they want the world to see: The America of Cheney and company with its legacy of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay or the freedom-loving and humane America that comes forward to help the helpless, as it did during World War II and recently in the Balkans?
[Aijaz Zaka Syed is a senior editor and columnist of Khaleej Times. Write to him at [email protected]]