Untitled by Salar
Some months after September 11th I
found myself inside an interrogation room in New York City faced with
a US special agent flanked by two burly guards. The matter in hand? Passport
fraud and illegal entry into the United States.
I sat in the cramped, brightly-lit room with its obvious and ominous one-way
mirror, not as one of the accused. Rather, I was translating for friends
from Iran, a young woman and her mother.
As an Iranian-born author I had delved before into the world of terror
and espionage, and my friends’ plight just then seemed to me ripe with
the stuff of fiction. They had already endured a grilling session in Turkey,
for instance. They'd also received completely valid - not fake - passports
from an Italian foreign ministry official who had befriended them during
a previous posting in Tehran.
Sitting in that oppressive room, I thought how such heavy-handedness on
the part of the US authorities would have been unthinkable a year earlier.
While their vigilance was quite understandable, I knew in this particular
case and thousands like it, theirs was a suspicion that was entirely misdirected.
These women were not terrorists for pity's sake. They were simply scared,
bullied to breaking point and completely bewildered.
Yet even before this episode occurred I knew that we had entered a new
age, one that I would call the age of terrorcrats.
Already by the end of September 2001, one could see that this shift
had begun. Counter-terrorism was all the rage, becoming the fastest ticket
to political promotion, election, re-election, and fifteen minutes of
I would have little problem with this new cult - the cult of counter-terrorism
- if it did what it was supposed to, stop terrorists from inflicting misery
The reason it won't work, however, comes down to America's persistent
failure to look beyond itself. Today, more than ever, America continues
to be not very well liked, even while envied, in much of the rest of the
world. But even a superpower needs real friends - not people simply in
awe of it and fearing its wrath. And what is the basis of any true friendship
if it is not mutual understanding?
It is not just moral reservations that drive me to criticize certain policies
of the country of which I am now unconditionally and wholeheartedly a
citizen. We don't just live in a tough neighborhood, after all, but in
a very tough world. So if the counter-terrorism game needs be played,
how much better it would be if it were played with depth and finesse rather
than thoughtless declarations that only alienate foreign nations while
allowing American decision-makers to delude themselves into thinking progress
is being made?
Of all the steps taken since 9/11, for example, the one that really stuck
in the craw of those who had been working, often successfully, toward
democratic change in Iran was President Bush's "axis-of-evil" speech.
The hardliners in Iran were beside themselves with joy on hearing their
country damned by his phrase. Because in one stroke my president had created
a situation where any Iranian calling for a dialogue with the United States,
as many had been doing, would be accused of treason by the fundamentalists.
Fundamentalism essentially splits the world into good and evil, and woe
onto those who live on the wrong side of the fence. No one has suffered
the consequences of Islamic fundamentalism more than Moslems themselves.
And many of us who were born in the Middle East but chose to leave, did
so because we value the traditions of Western humanism, pluralism, rule
of law and the separation of church and state.
Therefore, to America I say: "Don't cut us out. Don't draw the curtain
on us. Help us Moslems, both within and beyond America, so we can help
In the long run, the peddlers of radical Islam can only be neutralized
by Moslems themselves. Blocking immigration or pressuring Moslem citizens
living amongst us, will only alienate the very people who should be at
the vanguard of the struggle against intolerance and religious narrow-mindedness.
And yet, a year after September 11th, I still feel jittery when I have
to sign for a package delivered to my door. Why did the delivery man ask
me to spell my name? Was that a certain look he gave me when I pronounced
my distinctly Middle Eastern last name to him?
Am I being paranoid? Maybe. But maybe not. Then what am I to think about
the recently proposed TIPS program, the so called Terrorism Information
and Prevention System where Americans working for utility and postal delivery
services will be asked to report anything suspicious on their routes?
What exactly would qualify as suspicious to the cable man who has come
to fix my TV reception? Would my name be enough? Or the fact that on my
shelves I have books on terrorism and espionage because that just happens
to be something I write about?
I do not know. What I do know is that at the end of that day in the company
of the government agents and the two Iranian women under interrogation,
I could not help but ask exactly why the ladies' passports were being
taken from them even though they were entirely legitimate documents issued
by the consular office of a European Union nation.
Looking away, the special agent told me that it was because the passports
had not been obtained through normal procedures. Strictly speaking, he
was right. They hadn't. But nor had the passports of thousands of innocent
people who would have surely expired in Hitler's Europe had not some consular
officer decided to be good to them.
Not feeling like laboring the point, I remained quiet that day. Then a
week later my friends finally phoned from back in Tehran. The younger
woman, who had been one of several thousand people in Iran who had braved
the beatings of government thugs to go out on the street and hold a candlelight
vigil for the victims of September 11th, told me something. She told me
that if there were to be another attack on America, she would not make
such an effort again. "No," she said, "I will not shed another tear for
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