Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Irv Rikon: Terrorists: What They Don't Understand About Us

One day in 1970, I was in Kandahar, Afghanistan, playing a game of chess with a Kuwaiti gentleman as several onlookers watched. I had come overland by bus from Peshawar, Pakistan, across the Khyber Pass to Kabul, Afghanistan's capital city, then driven on to Kandahar and later would cross the Afghan border into Iran. The bus was full and remained so throughout my journey. All the passengers but myself were Near Eastern Muslims: Afghans, Iranians, Jordanians, Palestinians. Only two spoke English, the aforementioned Kuwaiti and an Afghan university student, who sat beside me and translated for me as I was peppered by people whose natural curiosity impelled them to ask who I was, where I was going, what my country was like, and so on. In general, all these people took me under wing, mostly treating me as a guest, insisting that I stay with them in their hotel of choice and eating with them where they ate. Our chess game was played in the restaurant kitchen of the hotel in which we stayed in Kandahar.

One observer was a restaurant waiter, who spoke English and clearly did not like me, probably because I was an American. During the game, as he and I were politely speaking, he turned to his Swedish-made refrigerator-freezer. "This is brand new. We just got it." He sneered: "Does your country have anything like this?" "Yes, we do," I told him, but I was not sure he believed me. And I thought to myself, he doesn't understand us, anything about us.

The subject in the kitchen changed, but another incident aboard the bus reinforced my thought. Americans had just made their first moon landing. It was a hot topic on the bus, but all who spoke about it expressed doubt that it had ever happened. The consensus: We had sent an airplane aloft and photographed the landing as it took place somewhere in the American desert. How could I convince them the story our government was telling the world was fact?

A light-bulb went off in my head. "Isn't it true," I asked, "that the Prophet Mohammed was illiterate?" "Yes," came the answer. "Isn't it true that he wrote the Koran?" "Yes." "Isn't it also true that he ascended into Heaven and returned to earth." "Yes!" "So," I continued, "it's also true that a very well educated, highly disciplined and motivated group of Americans flew to the moon and returned!" "I won't translate that last part," the university student said. "They'll kill you!"

I wasn't trying to be irreverent or disrespectful of the Prophet, whom I actually do respect and admire for the many things he said and accomplished. Mohammed wasn't — isn't — worshiped as God by his followers in the manner Christians worship Jesus Christ. Rather, Mohammed is perceived as the last of the great Prophets, but a man. The point I was hoping to make to this busload of believers was that in America there were likewise believers, men who, working harmoniously together and greatly motivated, had produced a miracle even as Mohammed had done. We are all human. Many are believers. With God's help, we are all capable of performing miracles. Yet that never got translated, and until now I've told this story only to two or three people.

Exactly forty years have passed since my time in Kandahar which, ironically as I write this, our government has announced to the world our armed forces are planning to invade for the reason it's regarded as an Al-Qaeda-Taliban stronghold, the place where the Taliban began.

But the invasion won't turn the tide. Even if we capture the city with a minimum loss of lives on both sides, the terrorists still won't understand us except as their enemy. We can try to rebuild Kandahar and all of Afghanistan, but the Taliban will claim that we are neo-colonialists attempting to re-make the world in our image. They will do this with considerable effect, thanks to the technologies of the modern era, the internet, the cell phone and such. They can easily communicate across the globe and persuade others who incline anyway to feel as they do that we are an occupying army, because to them, we are.

What has failed us is not our military forces, who are doing exactly that which we ask of them under horrific circumstances. Rather, we have failed ourselves for not showing the world the best of what we are, probably because we've largely taken it for granted, forgotten it or not informed our new immigrants of the beauties, wonders and, yes, the truths of this great land we call America.

We do believe in people, as well as in God. We're not a theocracy or a dictatorship. The Preamble to our Constitution begins with the words, "We, the People." Our Declaration of Independence declares, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights — that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

By contrast, the word "Islam" means "submit." A Muslim is one who submits. It's all right to submit to God: I've no objection to that. But in practice, following World War Two, when Muslim masses gained independence from foreign colonialists, they submitted to dictatorships, oligarchs, charismatic military and theocratic leaders: strong-men all. But then they turned around and blamed us — the West, especially the United States — for their problems. We became their scapegoats.

And even when they see something of what we are, they don't understand it. Laura and I just recently were in Sydney, Australia, which at the present time, I regard as the world's most beautiful big city. On the waterfront is a huge park and botanical garden, and the same sign is posted throughout the park: "Please walk on the grass, smell the flowers, hug the trees, talk to the birds." We did all of that, but how lovely, how democratic, how people-oriented!

Yet the Sunday edition of Sydney's main newspaper carried the story of a terrorist, born in Australia, the son of Lebanese immigrants, who was planning to blow up an important Sydney building. He was a "home-grown" terrorist, that is to say, one who had been radicalized in Australia. When the authorities, who luckily apprehended him in time to prevent damage, tried to determine the reason behind his thinking, they found that his religious leader had said, "They're killing Muslims." Such thinking and such influences are also behind the would-be American Times Square bomber. "They're killing Muslims."

What they haven't been given to understand by us is that we don't kill Muslims. We seek to destroy evil when and where we perceive it. We fought evil-doers in World War Two, most of whom were Christian in fact. Going back in time, even though some of us we were holders of slaves, others came to see that this was morally wrong, and eventually a civil war was fought — Christian against Christian — over this very issue, a war that resulted in the elimination of slave-trading and slavery, at least in our own country. We invaded Muslim territory only after we were attacked on 9/11/01, a new "Day of Infamy." It's evil that we fight, and not innocent people who are, despite our sincerest wishes and fervent prayers, caught in harm's way, but we've got to make them understand that. Are we perfect? No, definitely not. But most of us strive to be good. And that should be understood.

Coming Next: Terrorists, Part Two: What We Don't Understand About Them.

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