Robert Fisk: How Middle America made me feel safer

Here were 32,000 Muslims saying they were proud to be Americans

The Independent

Published: 09 September 2006

Every time I enter the United States, I wonder what the lads in Homeland Security have in store for me. But last week, Chicago was a piece of cake. I was arriving from Lebanon, I told the young man at the desk, and I was to address a Muslim conference. "Gee, you must have had a bad time out there in Lebanon," he commiserated, stamping my passport in less than 30 seconds and handing it back to me with a scriptwriter's greeting: "There you go, partner." And so I passed through the barrier, saddled up my white Palomino in the parking lot, and rode off towards the crescent Islamic moon that hung over Chicago. Hi Ho Fisk, Away!

I had forgotten how many American Muslims were south-west Asian rather than Middle Eastern in origin, Pakistani and Indian by family rather than Syrian or Egyptian or Lebanese or Saudi. But the largely Sunni congregation of 32,000 gathered for the Islamic Society of North America's annual gig were not the hot-dog sellers, bellhops and taxi drivers of New York. They were part of the backbone of middle America, corporate lawyers, real estate developers, construction engineers, and owners of chain-store outlets.

Nor were these the docile, hang-dog, frightened Muslims we have grown used to writing about in the aftermath of the international crimes against humanity of 11 September 2001. To about 12,000 of these Muslims in a vast auditorium, I said the Middle East had never been so dangerous. I condemned the Hizbollah leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, for saying he had no idea the Israelis would have responded so savagely to the capture of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of three others on 12 July. Later, a worthy imam told me: "I thought what you said about Sheikh Hassan (sic) was almost an insult." But that clearly wasn't what the audience believed.

When I told them that as American Muslims, they could demand a right of reply when lobby groups maliciously claimed that a network of suicide bombers was plotting within their totally law-abiding community, they roared. But I warned them that I would listen carefully to their response to my next sentence. And then I said that they must feel free to condemn - and should condemn - the Muslim regimes that used torture and oppression, even if these dictators lived in the lands from which their families came. And those thousands of Muslims rose to their feet and clapped and yelled their agreement with more emotion and fervour than any rabble-rousing non-Muslim yelling about "Arab terrorism". This was not what I had expected.

Signing copies of the American edition of my book on the Middle East some hours later - the real reason, of course, for going to Chicago - these same people came up to me to explain they were not American Muslims but Muslim Americans, that Islam was not incompatible with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Some had stories of great tragedy. One young man had written out a short sentence for me to inscribe in the front of his copy of my book. "To my parents and siblings," he had written on a pink slip, "who perished in the hands of the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Yousos Adam." I looked up to find the young man crying. "I am against war, you see," he said, and vanished into the crowd. There were other more ingratiating folk around: the Pakistani broadcaster, for example, who wanted me to talk about his country's peace-loving principles - until I began describing the continued secret relationship between Pakistan's intelligence service and the Taliban, at which the interview was swiftly concluded.

Then there was the young man with Asiatic features who said softly that he was "Mr Yee, the Guantanamo imam" - who turned out to be the same Mr Yee foully and falsely accused by the US authorities of passing al-Qa'ida type messages while ministering to the prisoners of al-Qa'ida at America's most luxurious prison camp. But there was no bitterness among any of these people. Only a kind of growing pain at the way the press and television in America continued to paint them - and all other Muslims in the world - as an alien, cruel, sadistic race.

One woman produced an article of June this year from the Toronto Star about the Israeli town of Sderot, the target of hundreds of Palestinian missiles from Gaza. "Under fire at Israel's Ground Zero," ran the headline. "Do you believe in this kind of journalism, Mr Fisk?" the woman demanded to know. And I was about to give her the "both sides of the picture" lecture when I noticed from the article that just five Israelis had been killed in Sderot in five years. Yes, every life is equal. But who at the Star had decided that an Israeli town with one dead every year equalled the Ground Zero of Manhattan's 3,000 dead in two hours? All dead are equal in the American press it seems, but some are more equal than others.

And I couldn't help noticing the degree to which The New York Times's Thomas Friedman is stoking the fires. This is the same man, an old friend, who wrote a few years ago that the Palestinians believed in "child sacrifice" - because they allowed their kids to throw stones at Israeli soldiers who then obligingly gunned them down. Most egregiously for the Muslims I spoke to, Friedman was now "animalising" - as one girl put it beautifully - the Iraqis, and she presented me with a Friedman clipping which ended with these words: "It will be a global tragedy if they (the insurgent Iraqi enemy) succeed, but ... the US government can't keep asking Americans to sacrifice their children for people who hate each other more than they love their own children."

So there we go again, I thought. Muslims sacrifice their children. Muslims feel hate more than they love their children. No wonder, I suppose, that their kiddies keep getting Israeli bullets through their hearts in Gaza and American bullets through their hearts in Iraq and Israeli bombs smashing them to death in Lebanon. It's all the Arabs' fault. And yet here in Chicago were 32,000 Muslims, dismissing all the calumnies and sophistries and lies and saying they were proud to be Americans. And I guess - for a man who wakes each morning in his Beirut apartment, wondering where the next explosion will be - that I felt a little safer in this world.