A Muslim editor in London argues that President Bush should not force her community to choose sides
For a decade now, reporters at Q News, a London-based Muslim magazine aimed at British Muslims, have examined how Western Muslims cope with their allegiances to both Western and Islamic cultures. The journal has always been young and, by the standards of other, staider, Muslim journals, rather edgy: it was Q News that coined the phrase “Muppy,” in the late 1980s to describe young, upwardly mobile Muslims living in the West. Fareena Alam, the publication’s 23-year-old news editor, met with NEWSWEEK’s Carla Power last week to discuss young British Muslims’ reaction to September 11th—and the global strains it has triggered.
NEWSWEEK: Walk me through your reactions to the bombing and the threats of war.
Fareena Alam: We were in the office when the news came. Our first reaction: we were completely devastated. We couldn’t believe it. Our thoughts were with the people in the building as the plane came toward them. All of us wept. Then the next level was: ‘Oh my God, we’re at the office. We have to get home.’ Usually when something like this happens, Muslim women get attacked. So we thought before the news gets out, we should go home. So we packed up. The third level was getting home and tuning into the news. And we watched our leaders talk about war and revenge. The fourth level is watching our own leaders trying to deal with non-Muslims.
NEWSWEEK: As British Muslims, do you feel caught in the middle between national and religious allegiances?
A real Muslim wouldn’t [bomb the World Trade Center]. In terms of morality and on the human level, we, and our religion, are on the side of the Western powers.
NEWSWEEK: The Muslim community in the West has long been critical of the media for stereotyping Muslims as terrorists. How do you think the media’s handled this story?
It’s been amazing. We’re really impressed. In every single newspaper, every day, there is at least one article that’s positive, that tries to show the Muslim perspective, that tries to show “this is what Islam is—and it’s what terrorism isn’t.” This is very new to us, to have the media so positive. And I honestly can’t say what brought it out. It’s barbaric to be the way we were, with divisions, and classifying people according to religious stereotypes. That’s definitely falling away.
NEWSWEEK: How would you analyze the tenor of the political rhetoric from U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair?
When I hear our Prime Minister or President Bush tell us Islam is peace, I’m not sure whether they really believe it. Perhaps the modernized Westernized, liberal Muslim is harmless to them. These leaders have a problem with some things about the Taliban [rulers of Afghanistan] or the Muslim world; they have to realize that we empathize with some of their grievances. What is acceptable to a non-Muslim is a liberal Muslim. But would they really accept the very conservative ways of life that we uphold? If they’re OK with us, are they OK with our counterparts in the Muslim world?
NEWSWEEK: You caused quite a stir on BBC’s “Question Time” after the attack, when you asked a question that very much upset the former American ambassador, Philip Lader. Later, Greg Dyke, chair of the BBC, apologized. Tell us about the incident.
The show was about what America should do next. So it was quite unfair to blame the audience for asking questions. If it was untimely, it was the BBC’s fault for running it two days after the attack. After the first few hours of the attack, our leaders were talking about military action. Come on, we’re a democracy, we have to talk about these things! I’m not going to sit there and let my prime minister make those decisions without my being able to say something. So I asked: “When Bush talks about retaliating against terrorists and the countries that harbor terrorists, does he and the American government realize that many people consider Israel a terrorist [state], and that America is a government that harbors terrorists, and that is where a lot of the anger comes from?” Philip Lader looked upset and said he couldn’t believe that two days after the attack, people are talking about this. Then I said, “We have to speak, because our leaders are talking about it.” The next day, the Daily Mail had a headline: THE DAY THE BBC SHAMED AMERICA, and it had a little picture of me. I’m quite proud of that title.
NEWSWEEK: What do you think about the pursuit of a military strategy?
I totally see this as an exploitation of American grief. The reason they want us to keep quiet is to carry out policies like this retaliation. Because they know people are emotional, they’re not thinking straight; they’ve lost loved ones. This is the only way that the American or British government will get away with something like this. Waking up and questioning them is not something that’s very popular now. Pakistani officials have told the BBC that America has been planning to attack Afghanistan since last summer and to overthrow the Taliban government. People are recovering slowly—there are more and more antiwar rallies around Europe, Asia, and America. It just scares me to think what would have happened if people hadn’t started talking right after the tragedy.
NEWSWEEK: Assuming that because of political pressure and overwhelming public outrage America feels the need to respond with force, and quickly, what would you suggest they do?
I don’t see the point of a military strike unless they know what exactly they’re trying to do in Afghanistan. Where is Al Qaeda? Where is Osama bin Laden? If they had some sort of target, then I would consider it. At this point, it doesn’t look as though they know where he is. I believe the Taliban has offered to hand him over to Pakistan or to a neutral Islamic country to put him on trial. I want to see this guy on trial. Why didn’t the U.S. agree to Osama bin Laden being handed over to a neutral third country? If rule of law is to prevail, that is the way we should go.
NEWSWEEK: Then, you see the Sept. 11 bombing not as a war action, but a crime against humanity that should be tried in a court?
Yes. And that is assuming Osama bin Laden did it.
NEWSWEEK: In the medium term, what do you see as the dangers of pursuing a military response for Muslim-Western relations?
The difference this time is that the suspects came from within the West. This will put pressure on the immigrant population, because it leads people to think: “They’re dangerous. They’re breeding people like this.” This is setting us way far back in terms of fighting for refugee rights. No matter what Bush says about Islam being peace, how many people are starting to think that the enemy is within these brown people, or these colored people? At the end of the day, people are going to be saying “we need to kick these people out.” That’s my biggest fear.
NEWSWEEK: How much do you think the Bush response will radicalize people on the ground?
Bush says: “Either you’re on our side, or you’re on the side of the terrorists.” He has no idea what implications that has. People are being shaken to one side. Our community is not legitimizing or defending the act, but we’re asking more and more questions. Muslims are defending Osama bin Laden, they’re questioning evidence. People who ordinarily wouldn’t have been involved are getting more and more involved. The problem is being created for young British Muslims and American Muslims now, because you’re forcing us to choose. When you push people to make a choice, you create really dangerous currents. Even cultural Muslims [who aren’t necessarily devout] are feeling very defensive. People who are militant within British society—that group of people are going to pushed towards terrorism. It’s unleashing this division, and it’s very dangerous. Anti-Americanism is growing, because of the way America is dealing with this.