SOLIHULL, England — On the train from London to Solihull, near Birmingham, a young man kept glancing at me. He would take his eyes off the movie he was watching on his laptop computer, look at me, and go back to staring at the screen.
He was watching a movie that had plenty of bearded men screaming, shouting, and terrorizing helpless men, women, and children. It was a movie about terrorists.
Of late, moviemakers have discovered a lucrative genre by instilling fear in our hearts. I was traveling after the killing of a British soldier by two Afro-British immigrants.
My fellow passenger appeared to be nervous because the movie portrayed terrorists who had my skin color. I was also uncomfortable, because I thought he was comparing me to the movie characters minus the beards. How could we coexist peacefully by sharing a train seat, or for that matter, living as neighbors?
As the movie depicted, we have developed a corrosive narrative about Islam, Arabs, and Muslims. The so-called war against terrorism has helped define that narrative. The word “war” demands that we define our enemy.
Since this war is not against a country, but against individuals, anyone who shares a similar religious, ethnic, or cultural background to Muslims becomes suspect. Apart from individuals, religions and cultures can also be, perhaps inadvertently, dragged into the wider circle defined by the word “terrorism.”
Since 2001, our country has found it convenient to throw a wide dragnet in the hope that we might catch terrorists or those who could be terrorists. This month, the British newspaper the Guardian broke the story that Internet and cell phone providers such as Google and Verizon have been sharing electronic data, including telephone conversations, with the U.S. government.
The reach of such snooping is not limited to the United States; it is global. Spying on citizens of other countries has made our western allies nervous and angry.
Most of us thought that with the departure of the likes of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz, the excesses of the George W. Bush era would end. We believed then-presidential candidate Barack Obama when he assured us that he would be different.
But not only has the President continued wiretapping, electronic snooping, and holding prisoners without charges at Guantanamo Bay, he also has increased the use of drones in sovereign countries. When we look at the breadth and depth of spying on Americans, it is as though Mr. Bush is serving a fourth presidential term.
Terrorism, domestic or global, is a symptom of deep-rooted political grievances that are based on real and at times imaginary gripes.
In 2009, the year he took office, President Obama went to Cairo to deliver a policy speech aimed at Muslims and the Arab world. It was an impressive performance.
Using stirring rhetoric, he reassured his audience in Egypt and beyond that he means what he says. He reiterated his commitment to Israel, but said that Americans would not turn their backs on Palestinians’ legitimate aspirations for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.
Four years later, the goodwill he generated with his speech has all but dissipated. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent efforts to revive a moribund Middle East peace process are likely to end up where previous American peace initiatives ended up: in the dustbin of history.
The so-called war on terrorism has made us fearful and uncertain as a nation. My experience with the young man on the train, the Boston Marathon tragedy, the murder of the British soldier, and the widespread snooping by our government all reflect how fear can overtake our lives.
In the process, we have delegitimized a religion and most of its followers. Parrot-like statements by our leaders in response to acts of terror that Islam is not the enemy are exercises in futility.
Our leaders would do better to address the legitimate concerns of Arabs and Muslims and help resolve the festering issues that have been of concern not only to Arabs, but also to most other people across the world.
Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org