Sunday, July 25, 2004

Of America and Americans

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi

I was a little bit apprehensive when I gave my passport to the immigration officer at Washington international airport. I wasn’t sure I would be welcome after reading stories of how our fellow Muslims, Arabs and Saudis are treated in America since 9/11. I was in for a pleasant surprise. The officer welcomed me, politely explained that certain procedures are required for Saudis, which wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes in a nearby office. In an apologetic tone, he asked me not to think of this routine as anything more than standard procedure.
I was treated with similar politeness in the office he directed me to, and was given similar assurances and explanations. Fifteen minutes later, I was on my way out.
Like millions of immigrants and people of color, I just blended into the American melting pot and went about my business as usual.
This, of course, doesn’t mean all is well for everyone, everywhere at all times, as Mohammad, a Pakistani taxi driver, explained. Some Muslims have been beaten by angry mobs; others treated poorly by their colleagues or neighbors. The FBI and other security agencies have wrongly accused and detained Muslims, and some airport and airline officers singled them for “special screening.”
Within the polyglot society that is the United States, there are as many attitudes as there are people. The adherence of the majority of citizens, and especially their officials, to the rules of the country is impressive. Of course there are going to be exceptions. They are however, very much the exception and so when they occur, they become news.
Still, Mohammad assured me, he and most Muslims he knew were never bothered, ever. Even though he wore a beard, attend prayers in mosques, and participated in various Islamic activities, not once was he investigated or pressured.
Again, I asked the same question to Jennifer Salan, Communication Director of the Arab American Institute (10,000 members). She agreed with Mohammad and assured me that civil rights groups and organizations representing Muslim and Arab Americans are taking up cases of discrimination and talking to the appropriate authorities regarding laws and mistreatments of Muslims and Arabs in America.
My visit is not over yet; I am here for two weeks to cover the 2004 elections as a guest of the foreign press center in the US department with a group of Arab journalists. But if my previous experiences are any guide, the actual situation is much better than what we anticipated. Accidents do happen, of course, and incidents of aggressive investigation and treatment of Saudi students, in particular, do occur. However, the overall environment is as welcoming as ever. And the American people are as hospitable, open, generous and beautiful as they always were.
This conclusion confirms my earlier conviction that American foreign policies are one thing, and America the civilization, the dream, and the great nation is something else.
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