America the Beautiful from 1974 to 9/11

Dr Syed Akhtar Ehtisham, USA

Attention ‘wannabees’ who think they are as good as White Americans.
This is an abstract from a chapter from my first book,”A Medical Doctor Examines Life on Three Continents,”
When I arrived in the country in 1974, the United States of America was friendlier to immigrants and diverse ethnicities than any other country I had lived and worked in. I had also discussed the working conditions with friends in countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Nigeria, France, Holland and Germany. They all discriminated to various degrees against foreigners, minorities and new immigrants. The US was entirely different. I was offered a senior position in a good hospital on the basis of my British qualification. I was made to feel at home in Brooklyn, was invited to homes of my

When I arrived in the country in 1974, the United States of America was friendlier to immigrants and diverse ethnicities than any other country I had lived and worked in. I had also discussed the working conditions with friends in countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Nigeria, France, Holland and Germany. They all discriminated to various degrees against foreigners, minorities and new immigrants. The US was entirely different. I was offered a senior position in a good hospital on the basis of my British qualification. I was made to feel at home in Brooklyn, was invited to homes of my coworkers, encouraged to develop a private practice and assisted in many other ways.

I also came across several physicians of subcontinental origin in positions of authority in my hospital and other hospitals in the area. Immigrants from the subcontinent counted business tycoons, corporate heads, banking chiefs, partners in investment firms, members of think tanks and elected officials among their ranks. By the waning years of the twentieth century, Muslims had made great political headway in the United States. Expatriates and local followers of the faith had united on a broad based platform and played a great part in raising public consciousness about the faith. Interfaith dialogue had become fashionable. They generously contributed to electoral campaigns. organizations like the Council on American Islamic Relations and American Muslim Alliance earned public recognition and the former had access to the White House. Muslim haters like former congressman Suarez and a senator from South Dakota, lost re-election races largely due the work of Muslim activists, not the least among them the cabbies in New York City, who transported voters to election booths to vote against Suarez.

By the waning years of the twentieth century, Muslims had made great political headway in the United States. Expatriates and local followers of the faith had united on a broad based platform and played a great part in raising public consciousness about the faith. The interfaith dialogue had become fashionable. They generously contributed to electoral campaigns. organizations like the Council on American Islamic Relations and American Muslim Alliance earned public recognition and the former had access to the White House. Muslim haters like former congressman Suarez and a senator from South Dakota lost re-election races largely due to the work of Muslim activists, not the least among them the cabbies in New York City, who transported voters to election booths to vote against Suarez.

A US senate candidate refused to accept a platform presented to him in New Jersey. A corps of volunteers manned the phones for seventy-two hours non-stop. The man lost.

US society is rather insular, though post 9/11 their perception of the outside world has undergone a change. Pre 9/11, an average person had little knowledge of anything outside his/her own region. New York City was as foreign to someone from the Midwest as to a person from Nagpur, India. The reasons for that lie outside the scope of this book.

The US has been ascendant since World War I and may only now be beginning to grow out of its resplendent (and reckless) imperial youth. It has gone to war in the Middle East twice in less than two decades. It has failed to realize that social and political awakening follow acts of both group and state terrorism.1

The illusions of invulnerability and invincibility, and for many, trust in their government, were shattered by 9/11. Rumors abounded about who did it, who knew, and who should have done what to prevent it. After the disbelief, terror and numbness had worn off, unprecedented outrage took over in the United States. Every foreign-looking person was a suspect. The general line given was that this crime had been committed by a band of men under the leadership of a Saudi Osama bin Laden. Muslim women with the traditional hijab 2 were harassed. Government agencies put out incomplete and misleading information that did nothing to underscore the fact that all Arabs/Muslims/brown people were not the same. George W bush made an irresponsible remark about a “crusade”3 against terror. A Sikh was killed because he had a long beard and a turban — like Osama bin Laden’s.

People of all shades of complexion between white and black were targeted. Facts that were glossed over include the point that those named as the hijackers had been beneficiaries of the Saudis, who not too long ago were funding 22,000 religious seminaries in Pakistan, and the Saudi ruling family was as close to the American establishment as could be and acted as their surrogates in the region. There were links with US security agencies that had trained fighters to oppose the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Also ignored was the fact that the US government was supporting Israel in perpetrating a reign of terror on the Palestinians.

Gross injustice breeds terrorism. The US fanned the panic by cracking down on everyone: friends, foes, and its own citizens. All air space and harbors were closed. 4 The whole Western world was shocked. Someone had hit the two main citadels of US hegemony — the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The US gathered a huge harvest of sympathy and the voters were happy thenceforth to approve any curb on their liberties in the name of fending off another such disaster. bush gave an ultimatum to Afghanistan to hand over osama bin Laden and sent a belligerent notice to Musharraf: “You are with us or against us” (never mind that his first responsibility was the integrity of the Pakstani nation).

  1. Terrorism is the war of the poor; war is the terrorism of the rich — Peter Ustinov.
  2. Hijab, the head covering, was originally ordained for wives of the prophet so that other men would not pester them.
  3. The word, referring to the massacre of Muslims in Jerusalem in one of the crusades, has historic anti-Muslim connotations.
  4. But members of the bin Laden clan, business partners and benefactors of the bush family, were whisked out on secret flights.

The Taliban rebuffed the ultimatum. Osama’s forces were strong and he was an icon. Americans went into Afghanistan with great hubris and in the first round made short work of any organized resistance. but they did not get Osama.

It would all have been well, if the US had left it well enough alone. but apparently this was just one move in what was intended as a larger campaign. The Bush league now set out to pulverize what they painted as Islamo-fascists everywhere.

It is curious that they chose to begin in the officially secular state of Iraq. Lies that Iraq had WMDs were invented, convincing the public that there were grounds for an attack. The Democratic Party, perhaps scared of being accused lack of patriotic fervor, fell in line.

The US defense budget at $451 billion already exceeded the combined defense spending of the rest of the world.1 More funds were allocated.

It was taken as a given that Iraqis would turn to America as a savior, and out of gratitude hand over the oil wells to US-dominated multi-national corporations (MNCs), elect a “democratic” government with a prime minister in the image of Tony Blair, and all would be well. Spinmeisters even staged the ecstatic scenes of Saddam’s statue being toppled.

There was apparently not much discussion of an exit strategy; perhaps there was no intention of exiting at all. Within the United States, all kinds of illegal and unconstitutional acts were perpetrated under the blanket cover of national security. The congress passed the draconian USA Patriot Act, which gave law enforcement agencies great leeway. 2 Legal Muslim charitable organizations sent money to the destitute in Middle East and South Asia, as Oxfam and others did to South America; but now the former were targeted, harassed and intimidated. Their leaders were often arrested and held without bail.

People became shy to contribute to humane causes lest their motives be misconstrued.

Bush captured the White House for a second term. Iraq continued to spiral out of control. The US applied techniques perfected in Central and North America. They funded, trained and supplied arms to Iraqi equivalents of the Contra in Nicaragua with similar results — mass murders, kidnappings, torture, rape and mass displacement of population internally and out of the country, but on a far larger scale. About a million Iraqis had been killed by the end of 2007. Over three million in external and two million in internal exile had been rendered homeless. Altogether about a quarter of the country’s population was affected.

  1. The nearest rivals are Russia at $65 billion and China $56 billion a year.
  2. A mini 9/11, the event of 7/7 in the UK, gave an excuse to the neo-con government of Tony Blair to persuade the British parliament to pass draconian anti-immigrant laws.

Alan Greenspan, long serving Chairman of the Federal Reserve bank, wrote in his post retirement autobiography that oil was the reason all along.

In order to distract attention from the gaps between rhetoric and reality in Iraq, and the failure to achieve the apparent goals, debates were raised over the “need” to attack Iran on the totally spurious grounds that the country is developing atomic weapons — this in spite of repeated declarations of International Atomic Energy Agency that they had been unable to find any evidence to the effect.


Successive US governments used Al-Qaida, Taliban, and Saddam Hussein as surrogates to secure US interests. It made pragmatic sense, we were told. but no one likes being ditched after having been used. Thugs require aftercare. US government agencies failed to provide that. 

The late aftermath of 9/11 was even worse for non-white foreigners. Smarting from their monumental failure, the security agencies went after the most vulnerable among them, hundreds of thousands of people who had overstayed their visas, etc., and were running grocery stores, cabs, restaurants, and doing other odd jobs. They were rounded up wholesale and held incommunicado. Families in many cases had no knowledge of the whereabouts of loved ones for weeks, even months. One of my friends, Sibghat U. Kadri, a barrister on the Queen’s Counsel (2) no less, was interrogated on arrival at Chicago’s o’Hare Airport and quizzed on an anti-Musharraf speech he had given. Criticizing satraps was also terrorism!

The quality of life of all South Asians and others has been badly affected. The image of the United States has been tarnished and it is highly debatable if security was enhanced. Some second-generation South Asian students in the US contemplated a future career in Canada, Europe or South Asia. And whereas very few first-generation immigrants used to plan to return to their native land, now most of them are giving serious thought to the matter.

We might have to face the prospect of a reverse brain drain. The trend is conspicuous among doctors from Pakistan. After passing the requisite tests to qualify for a training program in this country, fully one-third are denied visas. The usual excuse is that the Homeland Security Department has denied clearance. Physicians working in the US on different kinds of visas accept the appointment in remote, poor and under-served areas under an assurance that their status will be adjusted. They were ordered to report to INS offices all over the country for “validation of visa,” then were interrogated and harassed. They were interviewed in a room next door to a hall with a prominent sign, “Detention Cell.”

A physician driving back to New York City from Florida stopped at a restaurant on the way. The waitress was not happy with the tip. She called the FBI and said that he looked like a terrorist. The man was picked up and held without the benefit of legal counsel for two weeks. His wife happened to know an attorney who had been a public prosecutor. He pulled strings and got the doctor out of jail. Meanwhile one of the doctor’s patients, who had been admitted in a hospital, sued him for abandonment.

Highly regarded barristers are appointed to the rank. only they are allowed to appear before the judiciary committee of the House of Lords, the British equivalent of the US Supreme Court.

An Oxford University student (of Indian origin) and his English girlfriend boarded a plane in London to attend a music festival in New York. The check in clerk told her supervisor that the man looked like a terrorist. The Canadian and US governments were immediately warned. It was panic. Canadian air force planes escorted the flight to the US border where US F16 fighters took over and accompanied the airliner to JFK. Both passengers were arrested and kept in jail for three days.

Crossing the border from Canada used to be a breeze. Now visitors are stopped at random. My van was once checked for radiation and we were made to wait for a long time. Driving back on my next visit, I told the immigration agent that I had bought a bottle of whisky. He waved me on without a question. Alcohol had conferred good citizen status on me!

People who bore grudges reported on neighbors they did not like. One house in Pittsburgh was raided because a neighbor had seen the woman of the house putting something suspicious in the garbage can. They had exchanged harsh words a few months ago. The suspicious material turned out to be spoiled beef curry.

The Economy suffered. Whole neighborhoods were rendered desolate. To cite one example out of a score of hundreds, numerous shops were shuttered and whole blocks of apartment buildings abandoned in Coney Island Avenue, Brooklyn, New York. None of these people supported terrorism. Airlines went bankrupt, as people were scared of visiting the US.

I know of several businessmen who were grilled because they had offices in South Asia and had to, of necessity, transfer funds overseas for employees’ salaries and other expenses. Their clients panicked and the businesses failed, adding to unemployment.

The initial panic has subsided after a while, conditions remained uncertain. The random harassment continued.  (Trump and Co are trying to bring the time back).

The ill-considered and imprudent military adventure in Iraq enhanced the sense of insecurity. Saddam was a brutal, fiendish and unregenerate tyrant. His removal was an undoubted act of humanity. but a perpetuation of occupation is an unmitigated disaster. Measures to reduce US troop casualties inevitably lead to increased Iraqi civilian deaths and injuries.

Private security forces have run amock. They and fundamentalist cohorts react in kind.

Afghanistan is an exact parallel. Afghans are veterans of innumerable resistance movements. They humiliated Russians at the height of their power and the British when the sun never set over the Empire.

Immigrants always carry a baggage of norms, mores, traditions and customs from the old country. I have used the term “baggage” advisedly, and not in any derisory sense. It is a heavy load that they carry and it keeps them from moving ahead. The burden of racial, linguistic and religious differences can be even heavier. They might be vegetarians, halal meat eaters or observe other food restrictions. By and large, they are comparatively sexually conservative.

Their culture and religion discriminates against women.1 For many, their home environment was post-colonial, feudal or tribal. They were caste- and sect-ridden.

Only India had representative government, which was substantially marred by covert and lately overt mistreatment of Muslims and Untouchables.

Because of the baggage, the first generation of all immigrants tends to ghettoize. That alienates them further from the locals.  The second generation rebels against tradition and tries to assimilate. They are often thwarted in their longings. Insecurity breeds intolerance and fundamentalism widen the divide more.

Muslims specially do not assimilate easily. They do not drink and are not very tolerant of others faiths. They insist that women wear hijab, so hoodlums have no problem identifying them. This is reminiscent of Nazi fascists who forced Jews to wear the Star of David.2

Charging or paying financial interest is proscribed in their dogma. They are forced to rationalize in order to get by in the Western world: mortgages involve interest so they stoop to such subterfuges as getting a loan which included a “mark up” calculated on what would been interest plus loan. Others keep the money under the mattress and get into trouble when they offer thousands of dollars in cash when buying a car.

Saudis, the Wahabi Munafiqeen, invest in interest bearing accounts in the United States. Their women wear dresses from the most expensive boutiques under the traditional dress and take off the outer covering as soon they land at a Western airport. Saudi princes import liquor in boxes declared as furniture. 3

South Asian immigrants were, by and large, educated and brought much-needed skills in medicine, engineering and trade. They were welcomed and made much of in early years. They worked hard and distinguished themselves in the medical, financial and commercial fields. In the beginning, they were far too few in numbers to congregate in ghettoes which were to mushroom in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois and many other states.

But with success came jealousy on the part of the natives. Some South Asian students in university campuses are routinely called new colonizers by black youth. South Asians can help avoid some of the misunderstandings by being circumspect — but honest — in discussions. To the extent they may have a different perspective on events, they can try to base such discussions on rational information instead of what may be termed instinct and conviction, that is, “gut” reactions and emotion.

They can bring some knowledge of history and geography to the discussion while impressing upon all that they are as loyal to the country as the progeny of those who migrated a few generations before them. They should participate in civic affairs, shun and deplore extremist views vehemently, and counsel people with nefarious views to either shape up or ship out. There is little merit in ostentatious exhibition of such social customs as the Hijab, which was, in any case, ordained only for the prophet’s wives, so street Arabs won’t harass them.

They should also try to grow out of deliberate ghettoization of their communities. They must above all learn to separate religion from politics. Muslims should also keep in mind that the US is still a more open and tolerant society than many in South Asia or the Middle East, Europe and other continents. Incidents much less earth shattering than 9/11 have led to the annihilation of suspect communities — in Iran in 1953, Indonesia in 1965, the then East Pakistan in 1971, Karachi and Jordan in the 1980’s, the Syrian town Hammas in 1986, Bosnia in the early 1990’s, Gujarat in India in 2001. The list is endless.

Ethnic cleansing is endemic in Israel, India, Pakistan, several African countries and sporadically elsewhere. And history suggests that events that set off such reaction sometimes turn out to be complicated affairs, involving provocateurs and false-flag operations intended to inflame a relatively stable situation.


  1. Even in the comparatively enlightened versions of the Islamic faith, women have half a vote as the witness in a court of law, half as much inheritance as male siblings and if a person has only female children the share that would have gone to a male child goes to a male cousin. A woman may be divorced by a simple device of the husband saying so three times.
  2. A stark example of ‘conditioning-brain washing’ is that some European Jews took to exhibiting the sign of David with ostentation and as a right rather than as a symbol of victimization.
  3. A newspaper reported that a prince arrived from Europe and declared that the wooden crates he had brought contained furniture. one crate crashed. Whisky started pouring out. The customs man called the palace to report, “Your Highness, your furniture is leaking.” Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law School in her book World on Fire contends that if “democracy” were to be introduced in the Mid East, fundamentalists and others who fail to admire the US, globalization and free markets, would easily defeat Hosni Mubarak and other rulers in the region.

 

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