Atta Mohammad, the Afghan governor of the prosperous province of Balkh, is one of the Western world’s champions on the front line in the fight against extremism. But if he tried to come to America, he would probably be detained as he entered the country. His name is too close to the Egyptian guy who piloted the plane that brought down one of the towers.
Eight years after 9/11, we’re still having trouble telling friend from foe in the Middle East. There are numerous examples of our security services detaining and holding innocents, in some cases for years. Yes, years. We still don’t have an exact accounting of the crimes committed by all the Guantanamo Bay prisoners, if any. Some of them, like the Uighurs, are complete innocents who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They bear no ill will towards the United States, that is, at least at the time of their capture they didnt. Who knows how they feel now, after years of imprisonment. We can’t forget that much of the Al Qaeda leadership were radicalized after torture and humiliation in Egyptian prisons.
This is the problem with the military/law enforcement side of this war. You don’t know who you are alienating and what enemies you are making in the process. The bad guys certainly need to be dealt with and many of them are beyond any kind of rehabilitation. However, we need to be careful. If there are 4 innocents being detained and roughed up for every bad guy taken out, we are paying too high a cost. This perpetually renews sympathy for extremism among the general population of Muslims, and leads to more American deaths and a longer war costing us more money. It’s not worth it.
I met Salaam Zatari in Beirut in 2005. I immediately hit it off with the hip producer for Future TV, a popular TV channel that is part of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s Lebanese media empire. Salaam was the typical freedom-loving young professional in Lebanon- more interested in talking about music and movies than religion, full of recommendations for “hotspots”- not for Hizbullah activity but for Beirut cocktails. This is the future of the region and indeed the entire Muslim world- the overwhelming majority of young people that love American and Western culture and consume it at a breathtaking rate. If we are to win this “war”, we can’t afford to alienate these people.
But in 2002 we did alienate Salaam. He was studying film in the United States. He boarded a plane without realizing that he had left some artistic stencil blades in his luggage. He was arrested and put in solitary confinement for 48 days. He was harassed and interrogated. Some claim he was used as leverage against the Lebanese government.
When I talked with Salaam he didn’t seem all that upset over the ordeal. He acknowledged that he had been stupid to leave the stencil blades in his luggage. But that’s no excuse for taking 48 days to figure out that he wasn’t a hostile. It was clear that this experience scared him and will color his views of the US. But Salaam is more intelligent than average. He is smart enough to differentiate between the actions of a few government officials and the people of a country. I’m afraid others will be less forgiving.