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Panel discusses future of U.S.-Muslim relations

by Shamala Gallagher
The Stanford Daily
10/21/2003

Last night, a town hall gathering called “Hope Not Hate” brought together four speakers to discuss various aspects of the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world. The panelists encouraged discourse between Muslims and Americans to increase understanding, especially in light of the events of Sept. 11, 2001 and the war in Iraq. The event featured: Syed Muazzem Ali, former foreign secretary of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh; Banafsheh Akhlaghi, a lawyer who specializes in immigrant rights; Azmat Abbas, a 2004 International Knight Fellow; and Donald Emmerson, the director of the Southeast Asia Forum and senior fellow of the Institute for International Studies. It was organized by a variety of political and international student groups, including the Muslim Student Awareness Network and Stanford International Affairs Society.

Ali opened the event by describing the status of Muslim populations around the world.

He said that there are 57 Muslim majority countries spreading across three continents, many of which have been subjugated for centuries under colonial rule and are now facing prejudice due to alleged terrorist ties.

After Sept. 11, 2001, “the Muslims felt like they were branded as terrorists,” Ali said. “The Taliban regime was not connected with Islam. Only three Muslim countries were connected with the Taliban, and two of those rejected it after they took over Afghanistan.”

Despite this, Ali said, “Even countries that were tolerant and moderate were seen as fundamentalist.”

He stressed the importance of changing this outlook.

“History has proven time and again that cooperation and not confrontation has always been the most effective method,” he said.

He added that students play a very important rule in opening up channels for discourse.

Next, Emmerson described the large presence of the Indonesian population in the Muslim world, mentioning that Indonesia has more Muslims than any other country.

He highlighted the fact that 64 percent of Indonesian Muslims oppose the war on terrorism and that, after its onset, the popularity ratings of the United States in Indonesia declined from 51 percent in 2002 to 15 percent this June.

Despite American unpopularity, in 2004 Indonesia will hold its first directly democratic presidential election, though feelings are mixed among Indonesians about this “Western-style” election.

“Only 41 percent of Indonesians believe that American-style democracy will work in Indonesia,” Emmerson said.

Emmerson believes that strengthening education and judicial institutions in Indonesia is the key to aiding the Muslim community.

After Emmerson, Akhlaghi spoke of civil-rights issues on the domestic front.

“The basis of this country has been lost since Sept. 11,” she said. “The people of this country have gone, with all due respect, mad.”

Akhlaghi cited the Patriot Act as an example.

“The Patriot Act says that if a federal agent or a local agent wants to question you, you must avail yourself to those inquiries,” she said. “If you do not, they can detain you. We have men in this country who have been held for 20 months under the Patriot Act guidelines without charges to a crime.”

She added that these men, mostly Muslim and Middle Eastern, are held in 24-hour lockdown without the right to counsel or time to say their daily prayers.

In addition, Akhlaghi said, men from targeted countries, even high school students and senior citizens, were detained throughout last year solely due to their racial background.

Abbas ended the night by explaining the ambivalence among Pakistanis about collaborating with the United States.

Although the governments of the United States and Pakistan are partners in the war on terror, “We see no association between the people,” Abbas said.

After the bombing in Afghanistan, the United States lost its credibility in the eyes of the Pakistanis, he said.

In order to mend the shaky relationship between the people of the two countries, Abbas said, “We really have to sit together and sort out things. We have to acknowledge our faults and then come out with a set of solutions to prevent further damage.”

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