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Terror Hub or Empire Of Fear

By Mara Ahmed

07 January, 2016

A wonderful housewarming party the day after New Year’s, in a Rochester suburb covered with bright, powdery snow. A diverse group of guests – musicians, poets and academics, but also physicians and lawyers, neighbors, grandmothers, Indian, Iranian, Russian, Belgian, and of course, everyone soundly American. The hors d'oeuvres are splendid, I assume that the wine is good, the conversation flows.

In the midst of preliminary introductions and stories about work, the subject of terrorism comes up. It’s to be expected. Rochester has just experienced the latest terror plot in which a socially marginalized Muslim man with a history of mental illness was bulldozed by the FBI into planning an attack, and then quickly arrested. New Year’s fireworks were cancelled and Rochester joined the ranks of global metropolises like Paris and New York City. The excitement didn’t last long though, as the sad details of a local panhandler’s entrapment became known.

“Why has Belgium become a terror hub?” someone asks. There is some discomfort, some evasion, but the question is repeated several times. The Belgian guest explains how things have changed over time. We talk about Molenbeek, a municipality of some 95,000 people in the Belgian capital, an area inhabited by Muslims and North Africans, the alleged suburb “at the heart” of the Paris attacks. I express my displeasure at stereotyping entire neighborhoods for the actions of a few. I remember some of my Moroccan and Algerian friends at the Lycée Emile Jacqmain in Brussels. They might have been from Molenbeek. It wasn’t on the radar in those days, not newsworthy enough.

We discuss the social inequities that exist in many European cities, the impossibility for second and third generation, non-white immigrants to be absorbed by the mainstream, the high rates of unemployment and crime, the clustering of poverty, and the geography of racist segregation whereby central Paris becomes a foreign country to those relegated to the banlieues. Disaffection does not need to be imported from abroad, it’s borne of systemic, multigenerational discrimination.

Someone marvels at Europe’s difficulties with immigrants in light of the relative success we’ve had here in the United States. I mention Black Lives Matter and the ongoing war on American black men. But they’re not immigrants, I’m told. Indeed, they’ve been here forever and they’ve built this country, yet the projects look incredibly similar to the banlieues. Could racism be a point of intersection?

In an interview with Bill Moyers, in November 1988, Derek Walcott spoke about the appalling ghettoes of America, about the “colony” which exists within the empire. He said it might have something to do with denying the responsibility of being an empire, not just a global empire but also a domestic one.

This denial of empire creates endless confusion in American political discourse and lends itself to dangerous manipulation. It’s astonishing that the American public, protected by the mightiest military juggernaut in human history, is constantly afraid.

Al Qaeda, and now ISIS, can strike fear into the American heart in a way that is completely out of whack with reality. After all, it’s our military power that continues to flatten countries and kill innumerable people in the Global South, in invisible, largely privatized, open-ended wars, not the other way around.

The discussion at this lively party, organized by a dear friend, leaves me unsettled. I come home to find an article about Molenbeek in the Socialist Worker. It sounds all too familiar. In the piece, dated November 2015, Belgian activist Farida Aarrass describes heavy police presence in the area. There are frequent house raids, blatant profiling and use of racist language. These problematic dynamics with law enforcement remind me of inner city Rochester.

Aarrass explains how every terrorist incident or so-called plot is used to escalate repression. The media join in cheerfully by beating the drum of “jihad” and in the world outside of Molenbeek, there’s steady harassment and Islamophobia. People are frightened. Their fears are legitimate, grounded in a threatening reality, in which their homes and physical sense of security are routinely violated.

Americans, on the other hand, are 353 times more likely to die from a fall, while cleaning their gutters or putting up Christmas lights, than from a terror intrigue. But even those odds are not satisfactory. The policing of thought, preemptive arrests, the profiling of minorities, even the targeting of the mentally ill, are all permissible in the quest for perfect security. The rest of the world knows that such a quest is bound to fail and that fear is a miserable way to live. Let’s hope we catch on soon.

Mara Ahmed has lived and been educated in Belgium, Pakistan and the US. An artist and filmmaker, her third documentary "A Thin Wall," about the Partition of India in 1947, premiered in April 2015 and was subsequently screened in Bradford (UK), Seattle, Vancouver, Palo Alto, and Berkeley. She blogs at www.maraahmed.com.



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