Robert Fisk: American and Muslim: six million people in search of an identity

Seattle businessmen, students, Miami housewives... Well, what did I expect, asks Robert Fisk at the Chicago Muslim convention

Sunday 03 September 2006 00:00

A guy with brown eyes and dark skin and a thick American accent walks up to talk to me. I guess he's an Iranian, possibly a Pakistani. Where're you from, I ask? "Austin, Texas," he replies. Fisk foiled again. But where do you originally come from I ask him? "I was born in Newark, New Jersey." Fisk clears his throat. Where does his family originally come from? I'm beginning to feel like the man from Homeland Security, racially profiling my new friend. "Lahore," he replies laconically and I try to make amends. The only beautiful city in Pakistan, I say, and he smiles witheringly at me.

And I go on making the same mistake at the conference hall where the biggest annual convention of American Muslims - perhaps 32,000 of them - is meeting for a weekend of speeches and discussions that run all the way from drug addiction to Condi Rice's "new" and bloody Middle East, from banking without interest to the Bush administration's use of torture and yes, of course, the after-effects on Muslims of the international crimes against humanity of September 11, 2001.

You from Jordan I ask? "Denver, Colorado," the young woman replies. Born in San Diego. Family, yes, from Jordan. From Lebanon, I ask another? "Buffalo, New York." Actually, the family was from Syria.

It takes a while to realise that I'm playing the game of so many American non-Muslims in the aftermath of the plane hijackings. I'm sniffing for the world's enemies only hours after President George W Bush went into paranoid mode while addressing the American Legion in Salt Lake City. He had just claimed that America is fighting "the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century" and then jumped on the crumbling old arguments of pre-Second World War appeasement to bang the Hitler drum as well.

Oddly, it's the Muslim converts rather than the Muslim-born Americans who are toughest on Bush. "He wants eternal war," a young man with a brown beard but very bright blue eyes - yes, he was from Vermont - hissed at me. "He talks shit and we have to listen to this and promise to be non-violent or someone will point the finger at us." All agree that the most pernicious element to the latest Bush rant is his gift to Israel of placing Ehud Olmert in the ranks of his "war on terror", quite specifically linking Israel's slaughter of Lebanese civilians in July and August to his own manic project by stating that combatants from Iraq and Lebanon "form the outlines of a single movement, a worldwide network of radicals that use terror to kill those who stand in the way of their totalitarian ideology".

I search for the anger amid these thousands of Muslims, businessmen from Seattle and students from Harvard and housewives from Miami. It's there, I know, but as an Armenian friend of mine remarks in the afternoon, they seem happy. And it's true. There are more smiles than expressions of contempt, more babies in backpacks and prams than posters of pain. In fact there aren't any posters at all. But I suspect I know the truth. On their own, as thin minorities in the towns and cities of the United States, America's Muslims - perhaps six million of them - can feel under siege, distrusted and even hated.

At the convention centre, however, they are in a self-confident majority, Sunnis for the most part - America's Shias, who may be in the majority over all, don't have the same organising abilities at present - who blithely ignore the officers of the Illinois state police and the Chicago cops' bomb squad. I watch them, guns swinging at their hips, go from stand to stand, occasionally inspecting the boxes of books piled against the walls. Just who, I wonder, do they think is going to bomb Muslims in Chicago?

Salam al-Marati - he is one of the few Muslims I meet who actually was born in the Arab world, in the Baghdad suburb of Qadamiyeh - is director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), a Los Angeles advocacy group which repeatedly urges American Muslims to work with the authorities against violence but who sees other dangers and other targets for Muslim political anger: the pro-Israeli lobbyists who ostentatiously insist that the vast majority of American Muslims are peaceful and law-abiding but that a "network of Islamic terror" exists across the nation.

Daniel Pipes is a bête noire, as is Steven Emerson, a freelance journalist who grinds out article after article about the "American jihad" for such august papers as The Wall Street Journal, which, by the way, more and more reads like The Jerusalem Post. Emerson and his work are taken apart by al-Marati and his colleagues in a widely circulated booklet entitled Counterproductive Terrorism: How Anti-Islamic Rhetoric is Impeding America's Homeland Security.

"Those representing pro-Israeli groups continue to intimidate and marginalise those who are critical of Israeli policies by claiming this is pro-terrorism," al-Marati says with a mixture of anger and weariness. "This is to the detriment of America, to the detriment of countering terrorism."

Maher Hathout, originally from the Cairo suburb of Qasr el-Aini and an MPAC advisor, is, if anything, even more angry. "We are that group of Americans who are not intimidated," he says. "You go to the campuses, and the Muslim students are the most outspoken. They are asking - we are asking - how we can get the average American who knows the truth about the Middle East to have the guts to speak it. Our job is to say: 'Shame on you. You criticise your President. But when you speak of Israel,you whisper.' What has happened to the home of the brave?"

MPAC - which is operating in Chicago under the auspices of the distinctly pro-Saudi Islamic Society of North America - has produced a handbook called the Grassroots Campaign to Fight Terrorism, which quotes from the Koran ("Whoever killed a human being... it shall be as if he had killed all mankind") and advises its supporters that "it is our duty as American Muslims to protect our country and to contribute to its betterment".

"But what is the American-Muslim identity?" al-Marati asks. "Our religious values and our American values are not incompatible. There is no dissonance between the founding principles of America and Muslim values. Unless we have this identity, we will be trapped. We will end up creating Muslim ghettoes in America."

Sometimes, though, these men and women remind me of nothing so much as the more ardent members of the Israeli - or Armenian - lobby: fluent, just a little bit over-eloquent, passionate - and I wonder if one day they may get a little loose with the facts.

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