Let's liberate ourselves from the fear

It was an exhilarating sight — more than 2,000 physicians cheering, clapping and whistling as a young Pakistani-American girl, clothed in traditional Pakistani dress, sang the final words to the American National Anthem: “…land of the free and home of the brave.”

I joined these physicians, who represent the tens of thousands of Muslims who save lives every day in American hospitals. We were in Washington, D.C. for the recent annual convention of the Association of Pakistani Physicians of North America.

The American dream continues to inspire, making these men and women's hearts soar and their eyes mist.

But the tone changed drastically once these patriots sat down and the convention began. Stories of Islamophobia and deep-seated paranoia about Muslims surfaced in the group sessions and in private conversations. People said they feared the America they once knew was receding into a distant memory.

That fear isn’t just palpable among Muslims, but among all Americans. Before 9/11, Muslim Americans were battling stereotypes and discrimination, but at the same time making significant inroads in building bridges with people across the country. But the terrorist attacks and subsequent violent, anti-American images from Muslim dominated countries from around the world caused our American neighbors to fear us like never before.

Many American politicians exploited that fear, fueling anti-Muslim sentiment on U.S. soil while mounting a so-called anti-terrorism campaign abroad. Almost overnight no one wanted to be seen with us. Trust was replaced with suspicion and accusations. We Muslim patriots were treated as adversaries in our own country. The American dream started turning into a nightmare.

Many of those bridges we’d built with our neighbors were knocked down and replaced with hurdles and thick barriers. There was confusion even among liberal non-Muslims, who had preached a gospel of tolerance and inclusion. Many Americans simply had trouble squaring their good experiences with Muslim neighbors with the violent images from across the world projected into their television screens.

The fear is causing America to becoming unwelcoming to visitors. In a 2007 poll of mostly European travelers commissioned by a coalition of U.S. tourist organizations, 70 percent of respondents said they feared U.S. officials more than terrorists or criminals. Another 66 percent worried they would be detained for some minor blunder, such as wrongly filling out an official form or for being mistaken for a terrorist. The majority agreed that officials are "rude."

Chinese diplomats and traders are more welcomed in the markets and streets of the world than the U.S. businessmen and diplomats. Why can a country that has no constitution like ours, no civil rights as ours, no freedom and democracy as ours does, thrive and maintain a solid reputation on the international stage?

Yet, we should take heart in the fact that the lines seeking visas to China are much shorter than those for the United States. That is a small but significant indication that not only do we, Americans, believe in our nation's dream, but people from all around the world do, too.

A few years ago, when I heard a silly report about Muslim students carrying a nuclear bomb in their backpack, I laughed at it. But when the media reported that mosques around the country, including Chicago, had been checked out for radioactive material, I was no longer laughing. A siege mentality prompted President George Bush to establish a “Domestic Nuclear Detection Office” with a half-billion dollar budget. 

Fear has become an industry of its own. Zbigniew Brzezinski, writing for the Washington Post rightly noted that the "war on terror" has fostered a culture of fear in America. “That America has become insecure and more paranoid is hardly debatable. A recent study reported that in 2003, Congress identified 160 sites as potentially important national targets for would-be terrorists. With lobbyists weighing in, by the end of that year the list had grown to 1,849; by the end of 2004, to 28,360; by 2005, to 77,769. The national database of possible targets now has some 300,000 items in it, including the Sears Tower in Chicago and an Illinois Apple and Pork Festival.”

This fear is causing our embassies to become fortresses against enemies instead of garden of diplomatic life — not just in Baghdad's green zone, but in “safe havens” like Berlin as well. Today, American embassies are understaffed as American diplomats are afraid to serve in many Third World countries. At the same time, there have been violent episodes in those countries which fuels the fear.

Both U.S. presidential candidates — Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)  — have used the fear card in their campaigns. For instance, they’ve both promised to liberate American from the tyranny of Middle Eastern oil production, which they claim is funding terrorism against the United States. The fact of the matter is only 10 percent of the oil used in our country comes from the Middle East.

Many Muslims continue to cheer and support Obama, whose message is one of “hope” and “change.” His own experience living as “the other” and struggling with racism, defining his identity and trying to find his place in America is one that resonates deeply with Muslim Americans.

Yet, a recent New York Times article reported that the Obama campaign has chosen to distance himself from the country's first Muslim congressman — Keith Ellison — for fear that the public association with a Muslim might hurt his campaign. Obama's conundrum is legitimate only because of the climate of fear that pervades the country. But running from it only fuels the fear and bigotry. Why not face it head on and name it for what it is? Why not stand with American Muslims instead of treating us like a bad disease?

But McCain is more worrisome to many Muslims who see him carrying on the fear-mongering policies of the Bush administration. Until last month, when it became a political liability, McCain associated with a pastor who was teaching that one of America’s God-given purposes was to smite Islam. 

Both presidential candidates want our support, but they don’t want to be seen with us.

America has always been able to liberate itself from tyranny and fear. This is the beauty of this nation and its people. American can and will do it again, but it will take a willingness on the part of all citizens, Muslim and non-Muslim, to fight the fear mongering. Muslims can take heart in the fact that their struggle is not new and that today's model minorities were yesterday's bogeymen, as Muslims are today. African-Americans, Jews, Chinese, the Irish, Italians, Poles, Germans, Japanese and so many many others have suffered worse and rose from the ashes of hate and bigotry to liberate America from its boxes of bigotry.

We, too, must pay our dues. But it has to start by being ready to truly free ourselves from fear — fear of speaking up, fear of standing up for ourselves and fear of doing what all Prophets have always done, struggling to establish justice. And the nature of justice is that must be for all!

Let’s resolve this independence day to liberate America from the fear, so we can finally defeat the terrorists.

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