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Published in the 1-15 Oct 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

INTERNATIONAL

US and Muslims: the double act

By Mukundan C. Menon

Thiruvananthapuram: "The (US) Consulate in Chennai also organized a roundtable on June 23, 2003, to promote better understanding between the Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist communities. The Chennai Consulate also continued to reach out to the Muslim community through Iftar parties and the International Visitor/Madrassa programs."

The latest "International Religious Freedom Report 2004" released by the "Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor" of the US State Department on September 15, 2004, carried this claim in its India chapter. 

NDF activists protesting against US consulate  officials at Kozhikode
NDF activists protesting against US consulate  officials at Kozhikode

However, on the previous day (Sept 14), officials of U.S. Consulate in Chennai had to abruptly cancel their visit to Kozhicode in Kerala following militant protests staged by activists of National Development Front (NDF) by shouting slogans and holding placards against the "Yankee Imperialism".

According to the protesters, the visiting US Consulate officials came to hand over Rs. 35 lakh to the S. K. Pottekatt Memorial Cultural Centre at Puthiyara for construction of a park, as a first step to convert the Centre for US activities in Kozhicode, which is Malabar's focal nerve center city. This was, however, denied by the Consulate officials who include Consul for Public Affairs, Ravin Candabai, Programme Advisor Ratna Mukherjee, and Cultural Affairs Specialist, Shajahan Madampattu, apart from the Pottekatt Cultural Centre Chairman, A. Sujanapal, MLA. "The US Consulate officials only wanted to visit our institution", the Congress MLA said after the visit was abruptly cancelled due to the NDF protests. The police arrested about 50 protesters. 

This is not the first time that the desperate attempts of US Consulate at Chennai to garnish good image among Kerala Muslims, especially in Malabar region, met with resistance from radical Muslim bodies like NDF. A few months ago, a seminar on Muslim women at Kozhicode sponsored by the US Consulate was also opposed by NDF. Notably, the US Consulate at Chennai initiated steps to cajole and woo Malabar Muslims after it launched its worldwide war against terror following WTC 9/11 and unleashed direct war against Afghanistan and Iraq. Strikingly, the arrest of Saddam Hussain saw the anti-US ire reaching its peak in Malabar where numerous bus stops, teashops, cultural centers, libraries, and even a sea shore beach still bear the Iraqi leader's name since long.

Unmistakenly identifying the widespread anti-US feeling among Muslim masses, the US officials missed no opportunity to appease them. The elaborate claims in the latest "International Religious Freedom Report 2004", to woo Indian Muslims is a pointer: "The U.S. Embassy and its consulates continued to promote religious freedom through contact with the country's senior leadership, as well as with state and local officials. During meetings with important leaders of all of the significant minority communities, U.S. officials discussed reports of ongoing harassment of minority groups, converts, and missionaries."

Dealing with the foremost sensitive issue of Gujarat pogrom, the US report said: "U.S. agencies provided funding for an NGO program designed to assist internally displaced persons in Gujarat following communal violence in the area in 2002; and U.S. officials continued to meet with officials and private citizens concerning the violence.. The Ambassador and other senior U.S. officials publicly expressed regret over the communal violence in Gujarat in 2002, extended condolences to the victims, and urged all parties to resolve their difference peacefully. In addition the U.S. Agency for International Development office provided funding for an NGO program designed to assist internally displaced persons in Gujarat. U.S. officials from the Consulate General in Mumbai traveled to Ahmedabad within days of the start of the violence in Gujarat, to meet with officials and private citizens about the violence and continued to have meetings during the period covered by this report. Consulate officers also met in Mumbai with a range of NGO, business, media, and other contacts, including Muslim leaders, to monitor the aftermath of the violence in Gujarat."

The Report further said: "The U.S. Embassy and Consulates regularly meet with religious leaders and report on events and trends that affect religious freedom. .. During the period covered by this report, Embassy and Consulate officials met with important leaders of all of the significant minority communities. For example, . the Consulate in Calcutta continued to conduct Iftar and Madrassa exchange programs. Embassy officials also continued an active program of outreach and engagement with leaders of the country's Muslim communities. ."

Racial Profiling in US:
Well said. It is, however, pertinently interesting to peep into the US authorities' attitude in implementing these very loud claims on religious (and racial) freedom and equality in their own country where the foremost democracy in the world supposedly function. For example, on the previous day the "International Religious Freedom Report 2004" was released by the U.S. State Department, the US wing of Amnesty International released its report titled "Racial Profiling, National Security, and Human Rights in the United States" which, in particular, exposed how Muslims and Sikhs faced racial discrimination in US. 

Authorities targeting of people because of their racial background or religious affiliation is a deep-rooted problem in the US, with nearly 32 million people, including Sikhs and Muslims reporting they've been racially profiled, the Amnesty report alleged. "At least 87 million people one-in-three in the US are at high risk of being victimized because they belong to a racial, ethnic or religious group whose members are commonly targeted by police for unlawful stops and searches", it said.

"Racial profiling is a growing problem as the government has expanded its war on terror", the Amnesty Report pointed out. Police, immigration and airport security procedures are the areas where the problem has gotten worse since the September 11, 2001, attacks, it added. 

Citing that "citizens and visitors of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent, and others who appear to be from these areas or members of the Muslim and Sikh faiths, have become more frequent subjects of racial profiling over the last three years", the Amnesty report continued: "Such racial profiling is a distraction to law enforcement and therefore, undermines national security efforts. As police primarily focus on Arab, Muslim and South Asian males, they are more likely to overlook terrorists who are white. For example, recent cases of American Taliban John Walker Lindh and British shoe bomber Richard Reid show that al-Qaeda has an ability to recruit a diverse range of sympathizers. These two would not necessarily have been identified by policies that focus on Arab, Muslim and South Asian males".

The numerous instances cited in the Amnesty report include: 1) An eight-year-old Muslim boy from Tulsa, Oklahoma, was reportedly separated from his family while airport security officials searched him and dismantled his Boy Scout pinewood derby car. He is now routinely stopped and searched at airports. 2) A Muslim imam from the Dallas area reports being stopped and arrested by police upon leaving a mosque after an outreach event. Officers stopped him, searched his vehicle, arrested him for expired vehicle tags, and confiscated his computer.

Like the NDF demo at Kerala's Kozhicode on Sept. 14, which embarrassed the visiting US Consulate officials, the same day's Amnesty International US report released at Washington kept all the tall claims of State Department's report, which was released the next day, in a piquant situation. 

Cases of Tariq Ramadan and Abdullah Webster:
It did not end there. Two days later, separate news about violations faced by two Muslims - an academician and a soldier - came from the same mighty US. 

Associated Press (Indianapolis, Sep 17) reported about scholars and critics worldwide demanding the U.S. government to explain why it revoked the work visa of a Muslim scholar, Tariq Ramadan of Switzerland, who was hired by the University of Notre Dame, saying the action threatens academic freedoms. "But few answers are forthcoming from the Department of Homeland Security, which cited security concerns when it barred Tariq Ramadan from entering the country. That silence has sparked protests from at least four U.S. scholars' groups, led a United Nations-sponsored institution to issue an academic freedom alert."

According to the report, the State Department issued Ramadan a work visa in May but revoked it in July. The action came just weeks before the scholar was scheduled to begin a tenured position as professor of religion, conflict and peace-building at Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. 

Many who have rallied in Ramadan's support believe the scholar's controversial profile, including sharp criticism of Israel, the war in Iraq and U.S. policy in the Middle East, was the real reason for the revocation. "We fear that pressures were applied to reverse the granting of the visa by people who disagree with Dr. Ramadan's views as a scholar," two groups, the Middle East Studies Association of North America and the American Academy of Religion, stated in a joint letter to Powell and Ridge. 

The report quoted Robert O'Neil, Chairman of academic freedom committee for the American Association of University Professors, saying that Ramadan's case could have a chilling effect on an academic community already facing security measures stemming from the 2001 terrorist attacks. "It does suggest ... foreign scholars may be scrutinized more carefully and may be denied entry on the basis of something less than overt terrorist activity or association," said O'Neil, whose group has written Secretary of State Colin Powell and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to protest the decision. 

On the same day (Sept 17) Amnesty International USA launched a prisoner of conscience urgent appeal campaign against sentencing a Muslim soldier, Sergeant Abdullah William Webster, by US court-martial for 14 months imprisonment. His crime? "Refusal to participate in Iraq war due to his religious beliefs". We consider him a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned for his conscientious objection to participating in war, the Amnesty campaign declared. 

According to Amnesty, Abdullah Webster is a US citizen who served the US army since 1985. "He had been based in Bamberg, Germany, since 2001 from where he was requested to deploy to Iraq between March and April 2003. In September 2003 he submitted a conscientious objector application to secure his release from military obligations in Iraq on the basis that his religion prohibited him from participating in any aggressive war against, or in any oppression or injustice to, Muslims or non-Muslims. He later withdrew this application after receiving advice that it would not be successful."

However, Abdullah Webster thereafter submitted an application to be reassigned to non-combatant services. Despite this, he was ordered to deploy to Iraq in February 2004. "Following his refusal on religious grounds he was charged with failing to obey commands from his superior and missing his Brigade's movements. A further application for conscientious objector status was refused on the grounds that his objection was not to war in general but to the Iraq war in particular. According to US Army Regulations, requests for qualification as a conscientious objector will not be favourably considered when such requests are based on objection to a certain war", the Amnesty noted. 

At the court-martial hearing, Abdullah Webster was sentenced to 14 months imprisonment, a bad conduct discharge, suspension of his salary and loss of pension and other benefits. He had been due to retire from service in 2005. He is currently held at the US base in Mannheim, Germany. 

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