Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The two faces of modern America

Even before the attacks on the twin towers, millions of Americans despised and blamed Muslims unfairly, as they did after the Oklahoma bombings

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It ain't over. The anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has mercifully passed without a mass barbeque of flamed holy Korans planned by the florid Florida pastor Terry Jones. But he is still there, waiting to start another fire, to protect his America, patently not the America admired around the globe – refuge of the persecuted, land of opportunity for all. Jones, leader the Dove Outreach Centre (Dove? perhaps Americans do get irony after all) and his lot believe their leaders are now wusses and traitors who hand over the US to dark, sinister forces – migrant Hispanics of strange tongues, druggie blacks, unsexed feminists, the fecund poor, socialists, high-tax politicians, and worst of all "ragheads" – Muslims, outwardly loyal but all furtively fattening up terrorists in their garages.

Jones et al are not maddened desperados. They are part of a mainstream, resentful alliance with Sarah Palin's Tea Party, growing ranks of fundamentalist Christians and Zionists, bitter and racist frontiersmen and women, and some neocons, no-hopers who can only feel alive and worthy when drunk on hostility. This standoff reveals the complicated profile and the many contours of the US, the contradictions writhing beneath its well-spun national identity and revered constitution.

The story of the Union is one of exemplary governance and intentions and also of outrageous inhumanity and injustice. It was heartening to hear the chorus of condemnation against Jones from President Obama, Hillary Clinton, rabbis, churchmen, senators and generals. To them the act of desecration would be "un-American". I beg to differ. The Pastor's hate-mongering is the parallel tradition of the other America, well known by its victims and ghosts of yesteryears. And Obama himself, hounded by the extreme right, which suspects him of being a closet socialist and Muslim.

The US constitution is a formidable document, guaranteeing inviolable rights to individual citizens. Much of the most enlightened jurisprudence in the world originated in America; so, too, civil rights law, equal opportunity policies, anti-corruption legislation, the language of fairness, freedom and integrity. Their kids are expected to internalise foundational ethical values and they do. How can one not admire that? I love that just face of America.

However, black slaves and their descendants remained excluded from the dream until they fought for recognition; women were restricted to domestic life; and some citizens were more equal than others. Last week's Time magazine featured a "brief history of intolerance in America". It contained astounding facts. In the mid-17th century there was an attempt to expel Jewish refugees from one state because they would "infect the colony"; Catholicism was periodically banned in several places; Chinese immigration was stopped in 1882; and in 1883 the Department of the Interior criminalised several Native American rituals.

Furthermore, there have been periods throughout when the good US has kicked down its own highest principles. They came over to help the allies fight Fascism, but brought anti-black attitudes with them and back home supported the internment of fellow citizens of Japanese background. And nobody should ever forget the hold of McCarthyism and anti-commie delirium that overcame the vast land.

Since 9/11, the malevolent tendency has grown dangerously. John le Carré warned in 2003: "America has entered one of its periods of historic madness. This is the worst that I can remember, worse than McCarthyism, than the Bay of Pigs, in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War. The reaction to 9/11 is beyond anything that Osama Bin Laden could have hoped for in his nastiest dreams... the freedoms that have made America the envy of the world are being systematically eroded." Last week the writer reminded us all of how the US pitches itself against a created enemy compulsively and because, with its vast arsenal and army, it needs always to be on war alert.

Understand that mentality and you can see how it leads inexorably to Pastor Jones and the current explosive conflicts in New York over plans to build an Islamic centre a few blocks away from ground zero. Even before the attacks on the twin towers, millions of Americans despised and blamed Muslims unfairly, as they did after the Oklahoma bombings. I went there to make a film for Channel 4. The bomber was an extremist, anti-state white man called Timothy McVeigh. It didn't matter. One interviewee said, on camera, to me, that behind McVeigh was probably "a man called Ali". A number of others would not condemn random and terrifying attacks on Muslims in the area and beyond. The set-upon had to expect such things because they were not wanted in the States and could never be accepted. An Iraqi mother, six months pregnant, a refugee from the first Gulf war, miscarried as her small home was attacked. She couldn't understand, she said, how the same people could fight for her people in Kuwait and hurt them when they showed up in their own country.

Life got immeasurably tougher for American Muslims, and understandably perhaps, immediately after al-Qa'ida brought down the twin towers. Almost all these migrants were middle class, educated and well integrated. They were appalled and said so publicly, that their new homeland had been violated in the name of their faith. The war on terror, though, seems unending and infringes so many rights daily that the most optimistic and loyal of US Muslims now feel unsettled and hopeless. Amira is of Moroccan ancestry and makes theatre costumes: "Don't tell them where I live, please," she pleaded when I phoned her. She was born in Pennsylvania, as was her mother. "It is impossible for us now. They won't even send their children to our birthday parties. What can we do? This man Jones, he wanted to provoke us on the day of Eid, the end of a hard Ramadan. They hate us so much."

They should take some comfort from the fact that, before them, others were put through the same punishment, some much worse than they are enduring, like African Americans who were burnt in their churches and lynched until well into the 1960s. One of them, Walter Mosley, an author of sophisticated, accomplished thrillers, connected the two in 2003: "We African Americans know what it is like to be treated as less than human, as inferior to our white counterparts. We know the extent of abuse that can be heaped upon people because they are not seen as part of the human race. How can we stand by as our nation, while claiming peaceful intentions, wages war on people who may not have played any part in the crimes against us?"

There were always virtuous, exceptional Americans who stood by the persecuted through the worst of times. They are there today, too, those who stand against mobs, like Donna Marsh O'Connor, whose pregnant daughter was murdered by the 9/11 bombers. She backs the Islamic cultural centre in New York because that freedom is what her country stands for – or should: "I cannot afford to allow my country to perish in the ashes with my baby girl."

The real struggle today is between hate-filled Yankees and those who hold on to the most noble aspirations of their country. If the idealists fall, it will be hell for Muslims, yes, and a catastrophe for the superpower. Its potent mythology, self-definition, patriotic anthems, poems and hymns will turn to ash and the Great United States Of America that was will be no more.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

For further reading: 'What Next: A Memoir to World Peace', by Walter Mosley (Serpent's Tail, 2003)

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