Smoke Screening President Obama’s War Crimes

Last Friday night, my Facebook news feed lit up with updates about President Obama’s support for the hotly-debated Cordoba House Islamic Center in New York. My Muslim-American friends, especially, applauded the President for his “bold leadership,” “preservation of American values,” and “defense” of Muslim civil liberties. Somewhere, amidst all the excitement of expressing how “grateful” and “proud” we should be of President Obama, Muslim-Americans and others forgot about the horror stories of US war crimes and complicities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Palestine.

I have been very outspoken in my criticism of the Obama administration in previous posts and while I strongly support the proposed Islamic Center in Manhattan, I remain astonished at the way many of my fellow Muslim-Americans and human rights advocates praise President Obama and stay silent about his policies overseas.

It is clear that the ugly and seemingly endless controversy surrounding the Islamic Community Center (incorrectly termed the “Ground Zero Mosque”) highlights on the disturbing prevalence and growth of Islamophobia in the United States. Due to the hate-mongering initiated by Islamophobic bigots and propagandists, an enormous body of literature, especially on the blogosphere, exists about what has become a nationwide debate. Muslim-Americans, inter-faith leaders, and representatives of anti-racist organizations continue to speak up and condemn the shameful anti-Muslim smear campaign perpetuated by right-wing Republicans and others.

Former speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich recently called supporters of the Islamic Center “radical Islamists” and likened them to Nazis. Gingrich then went on and stated, “We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor.” Equating the entire Muslim population with Nazis and radical extremists is more dangerous than it is insulting, as it undoubtedly fuels the Orientalist perception of Muslims being suspicious, untrustworthy, and the threatening “Other.” Carl Paladino, Republican candidate for the governor of New York, added to Gingrich’s alarmist assertions with the following ludicrous statement: “The Ground Zero Mosque is not about freedom of religion, as President Obama claims. It’s about the murderous ideology behind the attacks on our country and the fanatics our troops are fighting every day in Middle East.” His ignorant comments are reflective of the countless Republicans who have joined the hate choir in demonizing Islam and linking the religion with terrorism.

But this debate is not so clear-cut either. The so-called “Anti-Defamation League (ADL)”, which claims to “stop the defamation of the Jewish people” and “secure justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike,” released a statement in late July to oppose the Islamic Center’s construction. The announcement prompted Muslims and Jewish representatives from Mt. Airy’s “Shalom Center” to rally in support of the Islamic Center and condemn the ADL’s hypocrisy. Meanwhile, Democrats such as John Hall, Tim Bishop, and Mike McMahon oppose the project, calling it “insensitive” to the “families of 9/11,” as if Muslim-Americans are responsible for the attacks and didn’t die on 9/11, too.

With such ignorance and nationalistic xenophobia during a time when Islamophobia is becoming more and more deeply rooted in the hearts of non-Muslim Americans, it is understandable and correct for Muslim-Americans to expect their President to defend religious liberty. However, when Obama escalates military presence in Afghanistan, widens drone attacks in Pakistan, and fails to hold Israel accountable for its war crimes against the Palestinians, to what extent are we comfortable with praising the President while disregarding US atrocities? That is, have Muslim-Americans and self-proclaimed anti-racist/anti-war/anti-oppression activists become so self-absorbed that we exclusively care about our civil liberties and not the rights of those victimized by the Obama administration’s military campaigns in Muslim-majority countries?

Before discussing his international policies, I want to address what happened on Saturday, a day after Obama made it “clear” about backing the Islamic Center. The President told reporters, “I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making a decision to put a Mosque there.” Aside from wrongly describing the building as a Mosque, Obama once again revealed his attempts to appease both sides of the debate. Though he “supports” the right for Muslims to build an Islamic Center in the proposed location (which is not at Ground Zero), he refuses to endorse it. One must question why Obama doesn’t endorse the project? If he believes Muslims are not responsible for the 9/11 attacks and that the association between “Islam” and “terrorism” is abhorrent, then why refuse to comment on the “wisdom” of building an Islamic Center? Also, why is the Islamophobia surrounding this controversy not addressed? Palestinian-American journalist Ali Abunimah writes:

What the critics are engaged in is collective vilification, delegitimization and incitement against Muslims in the United States and they are doing it deliberately and for political purposes. This is what needs to be recognized and confronted and sadly I do not see the president or any other senior politicians in the United States doing that… Muslims may have the legal freedom to exercise their religion in the US — and they do despite increasing efforts to use laws and regulations to prevent the building of mosques — but what is that freedom worth if they live in a climate of increasing fear, vilification and hatred?

Abunimah also points out that the ADL’s Abe Foxman and even Sarah Palin did not challenge the right to build an Islamic Center, but certainly opposed the idea. Defending civil rights is important, but pretending that Obama has championed the exhaustive and heated debates against Islamophobes ever since this controversy started would be to overlook his vague remarks on Saturday, as well as the hard work of Muslim and non-Muslim activists.

At present, Obama is still upheld as the “anti-war President.” The constant promotion of Obama as someone who “understands” Islam, “reaches out” and offers a “new beginning” to the “Muslim world” replays like advertisement and it serves as a powerful tool to justify and conceal his war crimes. Surely, after citing Qur’anic verses, Persian poets, and Turkish proverbs, Obama must be helping the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan; he’s only killing the “terrorists,” right?

In June, United Nations human rights official Philip Alston urged the CIA to cease its drone operations in northwest Pakistan and accused it of potentially generating a “Playstation” mentality towards killing. In his report, Alston concluded that “CIA personnel could be prosecuted for murder under the domestic law of any country in which they conduct targeted killings, and could also be prosecuted for violations of applicable US law.”

While exact numbers of Pakistani causalities vary, all reports agree the death toll is high. According to a study published in February 2010 by “The New America Foundation,” between 413 and 709 Pakistanis were killed in drone strikes in 2009, while 278-465 (and counting) were killed in 2010.  As Pakistani-British author and political commentator Tariq Ali states, President Obama has ordered more troops and drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, respectively, than Bush ever did. Given that no evidence has been provided that these drone campaigns are actually working, let’s ask some human questions: How many of these hundreds are “terrorists”? How does bombing people promote peace and stability? Are people expected to forget the pain and trauma when their family members and Loved ones are bombed?  Is there really no expectation for retaliation?

In Afghanistan, the condition for Afghans, especially women, has worsened under US military occupation. When asked to comment on the controversial “Time Magazine” cover featuring an 18 year-old Afghan woman with her nose cut off, Afghan feminist-activist Malalai Joya stressed that the atrocity occurred under western occupation and that such violence has increased since the US invasion. Joya explained to reporters:

During the Taliban’s regime such atrocities weren’t as rife as it is now and the graph is hiking each day. Eighteen-year-old Aisha is just an example and cutting ears, noses and toes, torturing and even slaughtering is a norm in Afghanistan. Currently, Afghan people, especially women, are squashed between three enemies: Taliban, fundamentalist warlords and troops.

Along with Anushay Hossain, Joya condemned the US media’s exploitation of Afghan women, calling it an attempt to use the plight of Afghan women as an emotional propaganda tool to garner support for an unpopular war. RAWA News claims that Wikileaks published a document in March that outlined the CIA’s strategy to use the condition of Afghan women to counter opposition against the war in Europe and the US. Such images, indeed, provoke strong emotional responses, but if the US media wants us to really care about Afghan women, then what about the US soldiers that raided an Afghan home in February and killed three innocent women – two of whom were pregnant – and then tried to hide the evidence by digging the bullets out of the dead bodies? Will these images be published by “Time Magazine” or are the images only powerful when Afghans commit the atrocities?

Yet despite the predator drones in Pakistan, the troop surge in Afghanistan, the torture and prisoner abuse in Bagram, occupation in Iraq, and the silence on Israeli war crimes, protests against Obama’s wars and complicities aren’t nearly as large as the anti-war protests during Bush’s term. Why? Also, criticism of Obama is often shut down as “hateful,” “anti-American,” and “pessimistic” or “cynical.” As an anti-racist activist, I do recognize the ugliness of racism in our country and how a lot of White supremacists direct their rage at Obama, but my criticism of the President is based on the principles of fundamental human rights and anti-imperialism. It continues to surprise me whenever I encounter people who get incredibly defensive to criticism of Obama. There was one instance when a fellow Muslim told me, “If you hate America so much, then go back to your country! I’m an American, I’m proud of my country and my President!” Not only was I stunned to hear xenophobia from a fellow Muslim, but I also thought about how I heard similar remarks made by the pro-Bush crowd.

Dismissing, vilifying, or even censoring criticism of Barack Obama not only discourages diligent questioning of authority and our responsibility as human beings, but it also works a way to overlook the realities and consequences of US war crimes and complicities in the aforementioned countries. When I am asked, “Would you rather prefer McCain as President?” I find that problematic for many reasons. Firstly, it says Obama was the “lesser of two evils,” and secondly, it doesn’t encourage us to hold our leaders responsible for their wrongs. If we all elected Obama, then wouldn’t it be more productive to speak out against the war crimes instead of smoke-screening them? When someone challenges Obama’s policies, what is the point of getting overly defensive other than seeking to shut that person up? If we believe Obama is the “better President” or the “less racist President,” does that mean we should excuse the people murdered in his wars? Muslim feminist-activist Shaista Patel comments:

With a family in Pakistan, and friends in Northern Pakistan, some of whom have lost their loved ones to the US airstrikes, it’s hard to digest this ‘better’ Obama. I am not appropriating the pain of the people there by sharing this, but I am from there and I am from here too; invested in the hope of my President doing something for us but knowing full well that he’s killing my people across the oceans. We think that better times are here and that we have the support of Obama, a President much better than the last one, which Pakistanis, Gazans, Afghans and Iraqis will tell us is not the case.

Even worse, as I write this now, over 20 million people are suffering from the devastating floods in Pakistan. Mark LeVine of Al Jazeera English wrote a powerful piece yesterday that called for relief boosts in Pakistan and an urgency for Obama to call a ceasefire. Outraged at American and Pakistani officials for pledging to continue war in Pakistan, LeVine writes:

Over the weekend US missiles killed 12 people. Meanwhile, 19 American helicopters are currently involved in the rescue efforts. Precisely what kind of message does that send? “We are not going to give much to help you stay alive, but we will make sure to continue killing you during this time of greatest need.”

What is startling is how the Obama administration spends $12 billion a month to fight the Taliban. Compare that amount to the $460 million requested by the UN to help aid the 20 million Pakistanis. In other words, the money Obama spends on war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is actually 25-times the amount needed to aid Pakistan. When we know our government can help another nation in its time of desperate need, why do we not express outrage the same way we did when Bush was in office?

As Muslim-Americans, Islamophobia is a reality that confronts us at home and it is important for our communities and allies to speak out against it, but at the same time, if we really care about human rights, we should also condemn the war crimes committed by our government. Before we got over-excited about Obama wishing Muslims a “Happy Ramadan,” let us be conscious of the people being killed by US missiles, occupying military forces, and US-funded weapons, tanks and jets in Israel.  I do not deny that Muslim-majority countries are plagued by corrupt governments and aren’t doing enough to help their fellow nations, but since criticism of Obama from our communities is often marginalized, it is important we realize that the US military presence and intervention in the rest of the world is part of the problem, not the solution.

Real “change” means there is always progress to be made. Nothing changes if we stay silent.

Muslim-Americans Getting It Wrong on Pakistan

In no way do I support the Pakistani court’s decision to ban its citizens from accessing Facebook and YouTube. As many of you know, restrictions were put into effect after Pakistani officials learned about an idiotic, Islamophobic event on Facebook called “Draw Muhammad Day.” As much as I strongly oppose the event and find it clearly driven by hate and ignorance, I believe the Facebook ban is not only nonsensical and counterproductive, but also an insult to the Pakistani people, implying that millions of citizens would flock to the group and participate if the site is not prohibited. Without a doubt, the blockade of Facebook and YouTube represents the government’s religious insecurity and mistrust of its own people.

However, what puzzles me further is how Muslim-Americans, especially those of Pakistani descent, resort to simplified generalizations and misrepresentations of Paksitan and its citizens. I do not know Arsalan Iftikhar personally, but I have always respected his efforts to speak out against Islamophobia and distortions of Muslim-Americans. Whether on CNN or Fox News and talking to right-wing bullies like Bill O’Reilly, Mr. Iftikhar’s work certainly calls for respect and appreciation.

But I must challenge the comments he made about Pakistan in his latest piece on the CNN opinion page. Mr. Iftikhar paints a harsh picture of Pakistan in the very first sentence:

For a country that has produced five military dictators in 60 years, mourned the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and struggles continually against its own militant extremists who have killed thousands in their own nation, Pakistan has absolutely picked the wrong fight by banning Facebook and YouTube because of an idiotic virtual campaign called “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.”

Mr. Iftikhar went further to argue that the country did not live up to its name, pointing out that the word “Pakistan” means “Land of the Pure” when translated from Urdu. “There has been nothing pure,” he writes, “about the downward sociopolitical spiral of this nuclear-armed, Third World fledgling democracy of 172 million people over the last several years.” He cites former US ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlin, who describes the region as terrorized by extremists. Mr. Iftikhar closes with the following:

Instead of conjuring up stupid controversies like the recent bans of Facebook and YouTube because of some silly drawings, the 172 million citizens of Pakistan should focus their political attention and economic resources on educating their women, improving their rule of law system and truly understanding the repercussions that come with ominously naming your country the “land of the pure.”

I will not dispute the social, political, and economic struggles that confront Pakistan. Indeed, they are real. However, what surprises and appalls me is that there is not a single mentioning of the U.S. intervening, exploiting, and attacking Pakistan. Mr. Iftikhar’s article is titled “Pakistan should ban extremism, not Facebook,” but he does not address the root of the extremism. He only touches upon the symptoms of a larger problem. Yes, Pakistan has an unfortunate history of military dictators and while it is important to hold those leaders accountable for their criminal actions, it is also crucial to acknowledge that the US largely supported and funded those dictatorships.

When the United States was hell-bent on fighting Communism, the government subsidized General Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s most ruthless military dictator, who was trained in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and later stationed in Jordan to train soldiers during the Black September operations, which resulted in thousands of Palestinian deaths and causalities. The US-Pakistan alliance monetarily and militarily aided the Mujahedeen resistance movement in Afghanistan against Soviet invasion. Not only were extremists and militant groups supplied with US weapons and trained by the CIA, but the jihadi manuals were also printed in Nebraska.

I have repeatedly pointed this out in previous posts, but after September 11th, then President Pervez Musharraf was given an ultimatum from George W. Bush: “You’re either with us or against us.” Pakistani British author Tariq Ali has also emphasized on this next point: former US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage threatened to “blow Pakistan back to the stone age.” Pakistan’s cooperation with the US, as well as fighting in the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) has resulted in violent antagonism towards Pakistan from tribal groups, militants and extremists.

In other words, the war in Afghanistan is spilling into Pakistan. The invading Taliban groups view the Pakistani government as complicit with US war crimes, not just in Afghanistan, but in Iraq and Palestine as well. This has resulted in devastating attacks on Pakistan, which has caused so much suffering on the Pakistani people themselves – Sufi shrines being destroyed in Peshawar, the bombing of girl’s schools, sporadic bombings in Peshawar, Lahore and other parts of the country, etc.

President Obama, who frequently criticized the US for supporting Musharraf during the presidential campaign, is not only financially backing President Asif Zardari – a man who is reviled by the majority of Pakistanis – but also escalating troops in Afghanistan and carrying out deadly drone operations in Pakistani tribal areas. In fact, it was reported by Pakistan’s Dawn Media Group that over 700 civilians were killed by drone attacks since Obama took office in 2009. According to PressTV, an estimated 300 people (and counting) have been killed in 42 drone attacks in 2010. Not to state the obvious, but that is a lot of people! Zardari and Hamid Karzai of neighboring Afghanistan both welcome Obama’s policies in advancing the Afghan war and continuing the drone attacks, respectively.

Yet it seems that President Obama receives little to no criticism from Muslim-Americans, specifically those who are in Washington or work in civil rights organizations. I often hear peculiar arguments that seek to justify his policies. There are those who even question the number of casualties from the drone attacks (to which author and activist Jeremy Scahill has refuted). Others have argued that leaflets were sent to those areas, so all of the Pakistani civilians should just leave. Funny, because I never heard such excuses when Israel bombed Lebanon in 2006 or Gaza in December-January of 2008-2009.

The reality is that human rights violations still occur under Obama’s administration – in Iraq, in Palestine, in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan. In February, US soldiers raided an Afghan home and killed three innocent women – two of whom were pregnant – and then tried to hide the evidence by digging the bullets out of the dead bodies. Earlier this month, 20 people were killed in another drone attack in Pakistan. With such injustice, how does one expect there to be no violent backlash or retaliation at all? Do people easily forget the murders of their Loved ones?

It would be inaccurate to say extremism and corruption does not exist among certain Pakistani religious leaders and politicians, but excluding US attacks and military operations in the region would be just as misguided. As Tariq Ali has stated in several of his talks, the US presence in Afghanistan is not the solution, it is part of the problem and it is having a disastrous impact on Pakistan. Drone assaults on tribal areas only generates a culture of revenge, intensifies the violence, and endangers the lives of Pakistanis, as well as Americans (see: Time Square).

Extremism does not manifest out of thin air. Ignoring the US as a key factor is a misrepresentation of facts and simplifies the radicalization of extremists and militant groups (similar to how Bush advocates used to say, “They hate us because we’re free”).

Not all of the 172 million Pakistani citizens support the ban on Facebook and YouTube. I would argue that the vast majority of Pakistanis object to it – and I base this on the nation-wide demonstrations that helped reinstate the chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhary, as well as the gathering of over one hundred thousand people who observed the 250th anniversary of the divinely inspired 17th century Sufi poet, Bulleh Shah. Though I doubt Mr. Iftikhar was implying that 172 million Pakistanis weren’t doing anything about educating women and improving their ruling systems, I think it was unfair that he didn’t mention their efforts.

As for Pakistan not living up to its name, “Land of the Pure,” I cannot really disagree with Arsalan Iftikhar. However, I must ask: which country is, if any? Which country in the world is the shining example of justice and liberty for all? Sure, there is enough to criticize about the “Land of the Pure,” but let’s not dismiss the facts, the US-Pakistan relationships, the dynamics of power, and the deadly repercussions of military intervention and exploitation.

And surely, that turns our attention to the problems we have here in the “Land of the Free.”