Aljazeera: Fomenting nationalism with murder

article published on May 3rd, 2011

News of Osama bin Laden’s death has brought a surge of nationalism throughout much of the United States, and the Obama administration is using the event to justify its foreign policy in the Middle East.

Given that al-Qaeda has claimed the lives of far more Arab Muslims than Westerners, many Muslims and Arabs living in the US are relieved that he is gone.

Yet that relief is tempered by the knowledge that bigotry they face is most likely going to remain.

“I hope that his death helps reduce the stereotyping we all face here at times,” Said Alani, an Arab and Muslim who is a college student in New York told Al Jazeera, “But even though the symbol [Osama bin Laden] is dead, and that chapter is closed, I imagine there will still be some people who carry the stereotype on against Muslims in the United States. Osama bin Laden was the symbol of the stereotype, but the stereotype will still exist. I even see people here that call Japanese ‘Japs’ and think that they should be in concentration camps. So even that stereotype is still alive.”

U-S-A! U-S-A!

According to the US government, at approximately 1:30 a.m. local time in Pakistan, a US special forces team conducted a helicopter raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the so-called leader of al-Qaeda, where he was staying in a summer resort compound in the town of Abbottabad, roughly 60km north of Islamabad.

Abbottabad is also the home of Pakistan’s premier military academy.

Bin Laden, an adult son, an unidentified woman, and two other men were killed, according to US officials.

However, many Muslims in the US believe the event will not likely function to dispel stereotyping and bigotry against Arabs and Muslims.

Candeace Lukasik, a student of Political Science and International Relations at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, is in the process of converting to Islam.

While she expressed relief that the killing of Bin Laden has ended this troubling chapter of US history, she was sceptical that the event would cause a positive shift in negative perceptions of Arabs and Muslims in the US and abroad.

“As a US citizen, there was a moment of happiness that this chapter has finally come to an end. But at the same time, the ‘war on terror’ has already gone way past what Osama bin Laden represented. This event is bittersweet, and I don’t know that it’s ever a good thing to be excited about someone’s death.”

But excitement about Osama bin Laden’s reported death is rampant around the US, and has been fanned by remarks from US president Barack Obama himself.

US citizens gathered at the site of the World Trade Centre in New York City and at the gates of the White House to celebrate Bin Laden’s death. An orgy of nationalism even led some to sing “Amazing Grace” while others cheered and waved U.S. flags.

The chant – “U-S-A! U-S-A!” – echoed in Dearborn, Michigan, a heavily Middle Eastern suburb of Detroit, where a crowd gathered outside City Hall and waved US flags. In another area of Dearborn people honked their car horns while they drove along the main street where most of the Arab-American restaurants and shops are located.

Lukasik, like many Muslim American’s Al Jazeera has spoken with, is concerned that the wave of nationalism currently sweeping across the country will increase negative stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims.

“I really don’t think this will have a positive effect on American’s perceptions of Muslims here,” she said, “Because the policies of the US government have been totally against Arab and Muslim populations inside the US. So things like Guantanamo, and other questionable intelligence gathering practises will likely continue. It’s the same with bigotry and prejudice. I don’t think this will change that.”

Lukasik believes that racism, bigotry and prejudice against Arabs and Muslims has been ingrained in US society for a long time, and particularly so in the decade that followed the events of September 11, 2001.

“These are things that have been ingrained in our society over the last 10 years, and I doubt this will change that,” she said, “While I’ve been on programs that have sent Americans to the Middle East to spend time with people there, that has helped, but that is small compared to the mainstream US media that continues to equate being Arab or Muslim with being a terrorist, and vice versa.”

Her comments are reinforced by statements made on Monday by Obama, who declared the killing of Osama bin Laden “a good day for America.”

“Today we are reminded that as a nation there is nothing we can’t do,” Obama said.

Obama, who claims to have ordered the operation to have Bin Laden killed, will most certainly benefit politically from the news. Obama also hailed the “pride” of those who broke out in celebrations around bin Laden’s death.

Good news or backlash?

Dearborn, Michigan, where some of the nationalistic celebrations took place, is also where the Islamic Centre of America is located.

“I was surprised and satisfied to hear the news, and feel satisfaction for the families of those who lost loved ones in the September 11 attacks,” Kassem Allie, the Executive Administrator of the Islamic Centre of America told Al Jazeera, “We are gratified this chapter in that horrible event has come to an end.”

Allie does not believe that the killing of Bin Laden will cause a negative backlash against Muslims living in the US.

“We haven’t received any threats,” Allie, whose organisation works to educate the general public about Islam, added, “I don’t think this is an event that would cause a negative reaction like that to us. People have been clear that this was an incident that had to do with radical lunatics.”

However, despite this, there have already been instances of negative backlash from the killing of bin Laden.

In Portland, Maine, just hours after Obama announced that Bin Laden had been killed, graffiti that included comments like “Go Home”, “Osama Today Islam tomorow (sic)”, and “Long live the West”, were found painted on the Maine Muslims Community Centre.

Nevertheless, Ahmed Rehab, the Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), hopes that recent events will help cause a shift in both US foreign policy, and by doing so, a positive shift in Arab/Muslim perceptions in the US.

“It [Bin Ladens’ death] brings closure for the families of 9/11, and all Americans, and hopefully brings closure on an era,” Rehab, whose institution works to defend civil rights, fight bigotry, and promote tolerance, told Al Jazeera, “I hope now we can usher in a new era that focuses more on the Arab Spring which is the reality now, and less on the so-called War on Terror.”

“Bin Laden was more of a symbol than an actual operation leader, and as such his murder is symbolic,” Rehab said, “Many analysts say he was not relevant, but nevertheless his murder is symbolic and this could help shift the focus of the public in the United States from the War on Terror over to working with the new fledgling democracies in the Middle East.”

Tempered relief

Alani, the college student in New York, said that he, along with all of his friends who are Arab and Muslim, are relieved that Osama bin Laden is dead because of hopes it will bring safety to their loved ones abroad, but remain doubtful that the event will cause a decline in bigotry and prejudice they face in the US.

“Bin Laden’s death gives closure to the families of the thousands of Americans who were killed under the name of Islam,” he said, “It also gives closure to my friends and relatives who have been killed in the Middle East at the hands of al-Qaeda. But the judgement and racism we see here is not likely to evaporate with this news.”

Dr. Hussein, an Iraqi doctor from Baghdad who immigrated to the United States in 2007, now lives and works in Tampa, Florida. He asked that in lieu of his real name, he be referred to as Dr. Hussein, because he did not want his politics be made public for fear of retribution.

“I hope that more people in the US now have a better understanding of the shortcomings of stereotyping and prejudice against Arabs and Muslims by equating them with terrorism,” he told Al Jazeera.

Of the large segment of the US population that equates Arabs and Muslims with terrorism, Dr. Hussein added, “That’s a big lie, that all of us are with al-Qaeda. I cannot tell you how much we in Iraq suffered because of al-Qaeda. They did a lot of harm to us in Iraq. They [al-Qaeda] were killing people in Iraq because they did not have beards, or because they were selling ice.”

“This guy was a criminal, he by no means represented myself or other Muslims,” he said, “Al-Qaeda do not represent the rest of us that reject what they are about. I’m not a devout Muslim, but certainly those people do not represent us. Everything al-Qaeda has done has hurt Muslims. There is a lot of the stereotyping happening, we have to amend this ugly picture of Muslims. There are extreme people in all walks of life, and this minority group is just that.”

Meanwhile, the surge of nationalism sweeping the United States in the wake of the news of the killing of Osama bin Laden has some people manufacturing T-Shirts that read “Obama got Osama” and signs being held up in some of the nationalistic celebrations that read, “Obama 1, Osama 0.”