Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Terror of August

On Tuesday, August 8, I flew from London’s Heathrow airport to San Francisco. The check-in was a breeze, and with a few hours to spare before boarding, I had time for some last-minute shopping. Perfume. English biscuits, toffee and tea.

The flight took off on time and we arrived at San Francisco a few minutes ahead of schedule. The only “inconvenience” I suffered was when I was among about 50 of my fellow-passengers selected at random for baggage checking.

My annoyance must have shown on my face because the security officer said almost plaintively as she checked the contents of my suitcases: “We are just doing our duty, sir!”

Considering the number of times I have flown in and out of the country since 9/11, and this being the first time I had been thus “inconvenienced,” I apologized for my impatience and assured her of my full cooperation. The entire process took about 10 minutes.

Little did I know that in less than 48 hours, all hell would break loose at Heathrow and other British airports and also at major American airports. British police had apparently broken up a conspiracy to blow up 10 jetliners over the Atlantic, and over two dozen suspects were taken into custody, all Muslims living in Britain. Arrests were also made in Pakistan, including British citizen Rashid Rauf, identified as a key player in the plot. Britain gratefully acknowledged Pakistan’s help in apprehending the suspects.

A nightmare ensued for travelers, particularly those stranded in Britain, but with a rippling effect throughout the world. I couldn’t thank God enough for leaving London when I did.

The inevitable backlash followed. Several American mosques were vandalized and Muslim women wearing hijab were taunted and threatened. A Reverend labeled Muslims bloodthirsty barbarians and a radio talk-show host dubbed Islam “a religion that is designed to cut off your head.”

But there were also hopeful signs. The FBI worked with mosque-goers in major cities to boost security. Police in San Jose, California, where I live, proactively began guarding local mosques. San Jose may be unique: Its Police Chief, Rob Davis, had fasted the entire month of Ramadan in 2004 to show solidarity with the estimated 15,000 Muslims living in this pluralistic city.

As details of the terror plot unfold in the coming days, Muslims will be wondering what continues to lurk in the minds of some of their co-religionists. Is it the insecurity of their psyche in a modern world? Is it Islam reduced to a political ideology, instead of being a source of moral guidance? Is it the clash of utopian fantasy against dystopian reality?

One can only guess.

If indeed certain radical Muslims sought midair martyrdom with horrific consequences, we have to acknowledge that no amount of Western sins (and there are many) attributable to foreign policy or racism or similar grievances can justify such acts or intentions.

Surely, with the memory of last year’s bombings still vivid in their minds, the English can be forgiven if they feel jittery and angry. But they will also do well to remember that it was a British Muslim who provided the initial critical intelligence that led to the apprehension of the plotters.

As always, in the wake of atrocities and foiled conspiracies, the bitter question of societal integration of immigrants, or lack of it, comes up.

While in London, I watched on TV the third cricket Test between Pakistan and England at Headingley that England won by 167 runs. In the annals of cricket, this would hardly register a flutter, except that the architect of English victory was a 24-year-old fast bowler named Sajid Mahmood.

Born in England of a Pakistani-born father, Sajid was heckled by a small section of the immigrant crowd as a traitor!

Normally, Sajid’s father would have supported the land of his birth against England but Sajid insisted that must change. "I told him he had to support England during this series,” Sajid told a reporter.

I bring this up because of a provocative reference that the 1998 Economics Nobel-laureate Amartya Sen made in his recent book called Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (pp 153-155).

It is the “Cricket test” proposed by Lord Tebbit, a Conservative political leader. Tebbit contends that British immigrants from the subcontinent and the Caribbean should support England, not the lands of their ancestry. Only when that happens can integration into British society be considered a success.

Tebbit’s test may be considered idiosyncratic by some in the immigrant community but more and more, it can emerge as a divider between assimilation and retreat, between flexibility and rigidity, and even between living and delusional martyrdom.

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