“The Taliban Next Door: At 16, John Walker was a quiet California kid. At 20, he was a Taliban warrior. How did he get from Marin County to Mazar-i-Sharif?”
As I read the title of this CNN article on December 10th, I actually expected to hear music and then a voice announcing: “Monday Night Movie of the Week, starring Richard Thomas as Osama Bin Laden,…” This entire scenario reads out of a Hollywood screenplay: upper-middle class kid, groovy family, and he becomes a Muslim fundamentalist. It sounds ready to roll—all we need is an all-star cast. But this is the “film” that neither Hollywood nor Washington expected: to find that among the enemy are other foreign nationals, to include one of “our own”. Inasmuch as this is perfect material for a John Water’s production, the “American Taliban” represents a “cultural black whole” and the implicit dangers of maintaining such divided ideologies and spaces. For the space between the words “American Taliban” represents the unspeakable, that which we refuse to discuss. For indeed there is an incredible schism in how we see ourselves and how they might indeed see us. This a space which we all must ponder seriously as the synapse that separates American from Islamic culture is expanding and exploding upon us all.
Yet there is a film whose story line vaguely follows that of the “American Taliban”, Udayan Prasad’s My Son the Fanatic. This film deals with the friendship between Parvez, a Pakistani cab driver living in Nothern England (with his wife and son) and Bettina, a young prostitute. The lesson of the film comes when Parvez’ son, Farid, rejects his English fiancée, becomes a Muslim Fundamentalist and tries to rid his neighborhood of the prostitutes. It is then that Parvez finds himself in the position of having to make a choice between tradition and modernity, between his culture and a foreign culture and between obligations and desires. Prasad’s film offers the spectator two visions of the world with different symbolic structures and disparate moralities, without necessarily presenting tidy conclusions or perfect solutions. For the film’s message is not singular—it lets us see the various ways one might interpret the social reality of the other, such as when Farid states in the film: “They say integrate — but they live in pornography and filth and they call us backward!”
So, John Walker is our “backward” American. He represents both what is best in America—freedom of speech, freedom of thought—and what is most feared in the United States—that free speech might actually be critical of the very system which “authorizes” its existence. However, we have learned as a society that we cannot pick and choose which acts of freedom, nor even what speech, we wish to hear, and which we should silence. This would certainly not be dignified of a democracy. It would seem to me, therefore, that we rise to the challenge of John Walker’s return to the United States and that we begin to listen, starting with him. Let us for the first time in history listen to the world’s voices beginning with Mr. Walker’s in the task of finding out why a massive group of people with whom we share this planet have come to hate the United States’ policies. Of course, few are invested in thinking about the roots of terrorism and most everyone nay says any suggestion that we begin to look for reasons causing such animosity towards the United States. We do, of course, have the choice to ignore these voices. We can continue overlooking the many claims against our country, the countless masses of people who are, indeed, infuriated by US policies which have come to harm countries like Iraq and Palestine, just to touch the tip of a very large iceberg. Yes, we can remain aloof to our responsibilities to a world whose resources we take, whose people we economically deprave, and whose institutions and governments we have crushed. After all, who cares? Right?
After repeatedly hearing people question these past few months “why do they hate us?” I realized that this was the most telling moment of the year since the very people asking “why” are the same individuals who have been ignoring the voices of the millions calling out for so many years. The act of asking “why” unambiguously demonstrates our failing international communications and diplomacy over the past fifty years. The United States government can arrogantly walk out of the Race Conference in Durban and the Kyoto Protocol negating the cries of millions, but should we really be shocked when terrorism comes home to roost? We can also blindly support a terrorist state such as Israel without understanding the incredible hypocrisy in such a gesture, not to mention the damning social and political effects this has on thousands of lives there. We can continue to manipulate elections in countries like Nicaragua where our president and his brother, Jed Bush, once again freely strongarmed public opinion abroad, publicizing just two months ago: “George W. Bush Supports Enrique Bolanos…Ortega has a relationship of more than 30 years with states and individuals who shelter and condone international terrorism”. So, after the 1980’s US-sponsored terrorism (which resulted in thousands of deaths and economic upheaval in Nicaragua) and our funding of Violeta Chamorro in 1990, it was inevitable that Nicaraguans would succumb to this new wave of “political terrorism” which is, incidentally, illegal in the United States due to laws that actually prohibit foreign nationals from funding our elections (Section: 2 U.S.C. §441e). And let us not leave out Colombia where we have been militarily intervening in a drug war while pushing thousands into poverty and displacement and where our involvement with paramilitary groups has curiously been resulting in countless murders. So, let’s just pretend that we don’t have any legal or moral obligation to listen to any non-American on the planet, if you will. For it is our country, our policies, our market, our way, and so it would seem, our world! Who are they to speak? They can’t vote!
And so what shall we do with our American Taliban who embodies the two polemical narratives of the day: The United States and Islam? In fully disagreeing with those who claim that this is a war of Islam versus the West or vice versa, this situation can be better understood as a crisis of the politically disenfranchised persons around the world versus the United States’ government policies. We are currently witnessing the “either you are with us or against us” mentality as it extends outside the discourse of terrorism and enters an ideological field which collects and polices public opinion—everywhere! Thus, our government reacts rather aggressively to criticism branding those who disagree as “terrorist sympathizers”, rather than diplomatically or rationally approaching the problem, rather than dialoguing. One could ask: what are we to expect really from a country whose majority does not vote, does not question the political decisions made by their leaders, and despite its lack of both domestic and political awareness, stubbornly believes that all other country’s systems are “wrong” and its own “better”?
I recently found an Internet counter of babies born in the world, with the number spinning upwards in real time at 3 babies per second. I stared in awe of the numbers moving so quickly imagining a life coming into being over and over again. Then I thought about how many more people there are with whom we must all learn to live. There is a lot of suffering and dying in this world as a result of our politics and it is time that we recognize that our international policies have a direct “link” to the terrorism. We are the force surrounded by suicide bombers (whom we once funded) who then take up fresh missions because nobody listened to their cries of the terrorism they had long before suffered and communicated to us in non-violent, spoken forms. Perhaps “we” are causing “them” to shout? There is much truth in what John F. Kennedy once said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” So, while we might think of September 11th as purely a day of terror and incredible loss of precious human life, we need to also begin to understand that for others September 11th was really Election Day.