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Exactly Whom Is This War Against?

October 16, 2004

A high ranking US official once asked me, what is the single-most detrimental scenario we must avoid at all costs, if we are ever to convince the world that our fight is against terrorism and not Islam?

I quickly answered, forgoing legitimate targets like Bin Laden, while nabbing peace activists like Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) and Tariq Ramadan.

Well, this conversation never took place. But how I wish it had.

For here we are indeed; the worst-case scenario is panning out before our eyes. Bin laden and Al Zawahiri remain free, while we focus our resources on stifling the reconciliatory voices of highly-revered Muslim peace activists.

Whether or not we mean to do so, the message we are sending out to the world is shamelessly clear: peaceful Muslims are not immune to our retaliation and wrath.

As a Muslim, I am shocked and confused at the recent decision to bar Tariq Ramadan and Yusuf Islam from entry into the United States on grounds of national security concerns. I personally do not subscribe to the theory that our government is purposefully targeting Islam and Muslims, but that is exactly why I am so shocked; shock is a reaction to the unexpected.

As an American, I am outraged that my country's attention and resources are being squandered in all the wrong places, while serious tangible threats - like al Qaeda and North Korea - benefit from the distraction.

Tariq Ramadan and Yusuf Islam are the embodiment of Muslim progressiveness, inclusiveness, and intellectualism. They are precisely the antithesis of what terrorists are about. The life and work of these two men speak for themselves.

Tariq Ramadan built his name around the tenacious promulgation of interfaith and intercultural understanding. A widely published professor, he preaches to audiences in both East and West with unique insight owing to his hailing from both heritages. In Europe, he is a highly regarded authority on Islamic and secular philosophies who debates French ministers on public radio.

Yusuf Islam is a world-renowned artist and educator whose undying compassion for humanity is self-evident through decades of charitable work. Like Ramadan, he is a respected voice of reason that relentlessly speaks out against terrorism. Yusuf is an international peace activist who has donated much of his own earnings to 9/11 family funds, something I as an American have yet to do.

And so at this juncture, the ringing question becomes: why does this administration target peaceful Muslims in the name of fighting terrorism? Is it not actually abetting terrorism to knock down those Muslims whose moderate preaching is our surest bet against extremism? The inescapable answer is yes, indeed it is. Depriving a body of its white blood cells renders it vulnerable to even the mildest of outbreaks. The irony could not be worse.

As of today, we do not even know the reasons Tariq Ramadan and Yusuf Islam are designated as threats to our security. Officials, who insist they are, refuse to share their reasons with the rest of the world who feel otherwise.

If it is the result of a mistake, the mistake must quickly be fixed. If not, suspicions about our government’s ill-intent will abound, and voices of outrage will get louder. This can scar our image beyond repair. We are engaging in nightmarish PR moves that work to undermine our rightful war on terrorism.

This isn’t about Yusuf Islam. Granted, Yusuf Islam was forced to depart the US, befuddled and dejected, but in actuality, the joke is on us.

I remind myself of a quick lesson from 19th century France. Jewish colonel Albert Dreyfuss stood befuddled and dejected throughout his court martial in Paris, 1898; yet after the dust had cleared, Dreyfuss stood vindicated, and the ordeal went down in history as a shameful, forgettable blunder for the government of France. Dreyfuss had been unfairly accused of treason, but just as with Yusuf Islam and Tariq Ramadan, no hard evidence was ever put forth to support the accusations. Just as with them, his only crime was belonging to the wrong religion at the wrong time.

If not remedied, the Yusuf Islam episode will also be remembered as nothing more than a shameful episode of the United States contemporary history. We do not know if we will ever get the explanations we need, let alone the remedy.

But what can the Homeland Security boss possibly do to remedy the situation? Admit that it was a mistake? That is unlikely; it is clearly stipulated in the bylaws of this administration to never publicly admit a mistake. Perhaps the slickest way out is to shrug the incident off as the pilot of a newly created “random deportation system”: a natural evolution of the random check system. Would that “fly”? It could, if they explained that it was necessary for our national security.

All jokes aside, this administration would do America well to undo this travesty of justice as publicly and as swiftly as possible. But until then, we can all rollick in the knowledge that though Bin Laden still runs free, we have successfully barred a professor, and deported the "peace train" singer.

Ahmed Rehab

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