A Life Changing War

‘A few Muslim extremists have transformed the experience of travelling’

Obama proclaimed on the ninth anniversary of 9/11: “As Americans, we are not — and never will be — at war with Islam.” Yet Manhattan’s memorial service was marred with protests against a proposed Islamic centre near Ground Zero. Earlier this summer, a young man who’d been to Afghanistan knifed a Bangladeshi taxi-driver in New York, and an Islamic centre was vandalised in California. Famously, a renegade Florida pastor planned to celebrate 9/11 as International Burn a Koran Day — a designation worthy of Private Eye and impossible to say with a straight face.

Yet these are high-profile aberrations. According to an FBI report in August, “hate crimes” against Muslims since 2001 have been rare — numbering far fewer than those against gays or Jews. This is cause to be thankful, especially considering a certain numbing consistency to leading news items post-9/11. While no prejudice is strictly rational, a bit of an eye-roll regarding Islam these days is at least understandable.

Only a tiny fraction of the 1.5 billion Muslims constitutes a huge international headache, and I feel profoundly sorry for reasonable, decent US Muslims who sometimes draw unjustified glares. But this decade’s onslaught of bad news inevitably invites the fuzzy perception that Muslims create more than their share of bother, sometimes stirring the fleeting, admittedly rather silly thought that life would go so much more smoothly without Islam. 

Let’s nimbly skip over 9/11 itself out of sheer exhaustion; ditto 7/7. What religious faith can we link with the following? The US major who went on a shooting frenzy in Fort Hood, Texas, killing 13 and wounding 30, while screaming “Allahu akbar.” The hapless Times Square bomber, awarded US citizenship only months before, who had a funny way of embracing his new nationality. Underpants Man, who concealed explosives on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit in a place that mostly ensured he won’t have kids. The conspirators who plotted to simultaneously explode ten transatlantic planes with liquid explosives.

Add the bigger picture. Afghanistan — a money pit, and run by a government rated second only to Somalia in corruption, so it’s up for grabs whether the Muslims we support or the Muslims attacking our troops are the bigger pain in the neck. Iraq — another money pit, which cannot be bothered even to form a government because in the meantime America will take care of everything, and where after the US has squandered $750 billion you still can’t refrigerate a pint of milk. Somalia — where Muslim pirates are paralysing vital shipping lanes with impunity, since on the few occasions they’re caught they’re simply let go, like nursery-school kids who after a “time out” have learned their lesson. Pakistan — where when Muslims are blowing each other up it’s hard to escape a mean little thought: at least now you know how it feels. And there are violent Muslim insurgencies in Indonesia, the Philippines, Nigeria and Yemen, to name a few.

Even on the level of daily life, a few Muslim extremists have transformed the experience for Americans (and not only Americans) of travelling, of trying to have what used to be known as a good time. Flying, we submit to the Richard Reid Memorial Shoe Scanner and cram our 100ml toiletries into humiliating one-litre Ziplock bags; most of us can’t even remember the halcyon days when you could actually pack a corkscrew in hand luggage. Thanks to Underpants Man, all-body scanners will increasingly slow security from a crawl to a baby wiggle. 

Even a jaunt to watch tennis at the US Open involves long queues to have your tuna sandwiches rifled. Reading the exacting details of which bags are admitted into stadium grounds — never backpacks, and only single-compartment holdalls no larger than 12″x12″x16″ — you can’t help but recall of whom security is most afraid: Muslims. Indeed, even the political logic that pressured Terry Jones to abandon his Koran burning exuded a familiar whiff of blackmail: if you rile those Muslim guys, they will blow us all up.

The point is not that, as Pastor Jones once posted outside his dishevelled little church in Gainesville, “Islam is of the devil.” And unquestionably, many Muslims construct a completely different “narrative”, as we’re all supposed to say now: Americans are killing innocents with drone strikes, Americans are occupying Muslim countries, Americans are supporting Israeli settlements… Still, as New York Times columnist David Brooks astutely observed in September, America is at war with two Muslim insurgencies. Compared to bigotry towards Germans in the First World War and towards the Japanese in the Second, so far America’s attitudes towards its Muslim citizens have proved mercifully temperate. 

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