Rediff India Abroad Assistant Managing Editor Syed Firdaus Ashraf was part of a nine-member team of senior journalists from South and South East Asia recently invited to the United States for a two-week seminar. The invitation was extended by the East-West Center, a think tank based in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The visit included trips to Washington, Detroit and Seattle, and its purpose was to provide opportunities for Asian and American journalists to discuss the relationship between Asian countries with large Muslim populations and the US, especially in the post-9/11 period.
In this, the first of a series, he shares his experiences in the land of the free...
The best thing about being a journalist is that the tag comes to your aid when you least expect it.
When I entered the US of A at St Paul International Airport, Minneapolis, I was left aghast by the immigration officer's behaviour. After a tiring 24-hour flight from Mumbai, I handed him my passport and smiled, only to get a strange response: 'Why are you smiling at me? Am I a girlfriend you have been longing to meet?
I simply didn't know how to react. Could it be the colour of my skin? Or the Muslim name on my passport?
Worse was to come. I mistakenly handed him the boarding pass of my connecting flight from St Paul to Washington. He stood up, told me to look at his uniform, and said, 'Can't you see I am an immigration officer, not an airline employee? This boarding pass will be of use only if I allow you to enter America, and I have yet to decide whether you will be let into this country or not.'
I was outraged, of course. I felt he had no reason to shout or treat me this way, but I was in no mood for an argument. Arguing could, after all, lead to deportation and a flight back to Mumbai. Without saying a word, I showed him my letter of invitation. When he realised I was a journalist on my way to a seminar, he calmed down. Then, he promptly stamped my passport for entry.
At times, it pays to be a journalist.Why Iraq can't be a democracy!At one of many meetings, an American intellectual told us that Iraq could not become a democratic country. When asked why, one of his reasons was the Iraqis could not tolerate homosexuality in their culture. In his opinion, if a society was tolerant to homosexuals, it was much easier for it to adopt democracy.
Most Muslim participants were surprised by his reasoning. We informed him that the question of homosexuality did not arise in Iraq because Islam didn't believe in it or permit it. If that were then a case for democracy, we would probably never find it anywhere in the Muslim world, would we?Discussing Israel
If you decide, at some point, to take a pro-Palestine stance while arguing with an American, forget about it. It is a waste of time because most Americans support the Israelis. While at the US State Department, we questioned that blind support of the Israeli cause.
The answer we got was this: Hitler killed 6 million Jews during the Holocaust. Nazis tortured and put them in prison camps. They didn't have their own country for 2,000 years, which is why we support the Israelis.
When we decided to counter question, they were taken aback. If Hitler and Nazis tortured the Jews, why didn't they build the state of Israel in Germany rather than an Arab land where they had no right to be? There was silence in the room for a minute. Then, an officer answered. "I think you should have put this question to our late President Harry Truman."Apologise? Who?A question often put to us by right wing Americans was: Why don't Muslims worldwide apologise for acts of terror? If they did, it would send out a better message.
My question to them was: Why should all Muslims be apologetic for some fanatics making Westerners their target? Islam is a religion of peace and clearly says that killing innocents is not permissible under any circumstances. Another participant then asked the Americans: Who speaks for Islam?
Millions of Christians have nothing to do with American soldiers abusing the Koran in Guantanamo Bay. In the same way, Muslims worldwide have nothing to do with terrorist acts committed by others of their faith. Instead of blaming each other, then, why not try understanding problems and reaching for solutions instead?
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh