On The Dennis Miller Show on CNBC, where I appeared after my radio interview, a fellow guest, a member of the Bush administration, said that badness has gradations. While the abuse of Iraqi prisoners was bad, it certainly was not nearly as bad as the beheading, said Wade Horn of the Health and Human Services department. The guiding theme: We Americans can now feel better about the prison pictures because we are not as bad as "they" (meaning, Muslims).
What does the prison scandal, indeed, the entire war in Iraq, mean for American Muslims like me, who must represent our faith to our fellow Americans while representing America to our fellow Muslims? Since the war's start last year, we have had a hard sell on both sides. Many of us have friends and family in the countries that we or our parents emigrated from. The Iraqi prisoner photos put us in an impossible position.
In London about a week before the radio interview, I appeared on an ethnic television show with two Pakistani political party officials. They were stunned that I supported the United States' entry into Iraq and our continuing presence. I argued sincerely that the United States needed to rid the Iraqi people of Saddam Hussein, who was monumentally cruel and abusive. Even absent weapons of mass destruction, I said, the Iraqi people needed us to help them.
"How are you helping them now?" they both responded, pointing to the photos. "Doing exactly what Saddam used to do!" Diametrically opposed on other policy issues, this was the only point on which these politicians agreed.
These politicians and I, along with all Western Muslims, have been fed a steady diet of "Muslims silently approved September 11." Even today, nearly three years after the tragic 9/11 attacks, I am still asked why Muslims did not condemn September 11. The truth is that Muslims immediately condemned (and still continue to condemn) the horrific attacks of that day. Poor media coverage of these condemnations-which came in the form of peace marches, letters, and press releases-gave anti-Islamic commentators an opening to slam Islam.
Now we have the Iraqi prison photos. And it would only be fair for me to ask where the outrage is among Americans. Although outrage has been expressed, it is no greater to me than Muslim outrage at 9/11. Yet that level of outrage - at all levels of the American Muslim community - was not sufficient for the critics. Based on the standard Muslims are held to, I'd like to ask: where are the protest marches, the continuous and unconditional statements, the howling disapproval of outright American abuses and humiliations?
I never felt that the Muslims involved in September 11 represented all of Islam. Al Qaeda is a self-appointed fringe group, not a national military. But the American soldiers goofily smiling over a pyramid of naked Iraqi detainees are members of a regular army. They wear our flag, right along with standard-issue fatigues, helmets, and boots. As a Muslim, I can certainly understand that the actions of these individuals do not represent American values. As an American, though, I refuse to accept the excuse, "at least we did not kill them."
America has stood for all that is good in the world, for freedom and for justice. In some places, America does still stand for these noble goals.
When my aspiring filmmaker brother visited Pakistan last summer, he wanted to film the old walled city of Lahore, the inner-city ghetto of that third-world country. Our family members warned him that even locals do not visit that part of the city. But he went anyway, wanting to capture the real face of Islam today-not the ski-masked terrorists presumably of Al Qaeda but the poor, hungry, and undereducated children of Pakistan's slums.
When the children asked if he was American, he modestly told them yes. Excitedly, they jumped up and down, wanting to touch this young Pakistani-American with the camera. "Take my picture," they chortled in Urdu, exuberant with excitement. To them, he represented the freedom and wealth of America-that a boy as brown as they could wear blue jeans and have an expensive video camera. Like the Pied Piper, he walked through the streets of the old city of Lahore, a trail of peasant children following him. They didn't hate him. When my brother recounted for me the events of that day, I felt proud to be an American-happy that these children, who lived, ate, and slept in the same alleyways in which they were born, reveled in the sight of an American, had been given hope by his presence.
A different, unfamiliar feeling came over me on the plane home to San Francisco a few weeks ago. I had saved up articles about the prison abuse from the British papers for the ride. As I read the descriptions of the photographs, I felt a stillness, a numbness, a hushed solemnity. Usually when I read the newspaper, I reflect as I read, connecting the news to other things I have learned. But this time, I just wanted to finish the articles quickly, not think about them, as if I could ignore what they contained. It was a new feeling for me, and it was not pride. It was shame.