From Oklahoma to Tobruk
By Roger Cohen, published February 24, 2011
LONDON — Watching Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi do his Caligula thing in the ruins of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, and reading about his son’s St. Barts fests with Beyoncé, I confess that disgust yielded to nausea: enough is enough.
There are as many versions of current events in Libya as there are transliterations of the Colonel’s name but it’s already clear this is the Ceausescu chapter of the Arab spring. Qaddafi’s killing is not yet on the scale of Assad’s Hama massacre of 1982 or Saddam’s slaughter of the Shiites in 1991, but it’s up there.
There are moments when the argument for capital punishment becomes persuasive to me. This is one.
I don’t know what the nascent Benghazi-Tobruk Libyan Republic with its new-old flag stands for, apart from ending Qaddafi’s 42-year rule, and I’m not sure anyone does. I do know Arabs have had it with despots who treat their nations as personal fiefdoms and oil revenue as pocket money for their dynasties. This is about enfranchisement. It’s not about Islam, or pan-Arabism, or Socialism. It’s about acquiring rights grounded in institutions and law.
Qaddafi’s Libya is a creepy place. I was there once for a couple of days and it left a lasting impression of spookiness. I went out to the desert to see the Colonel in his dun-colored caravanserai. There were camel motifs; sand got in everyone’s eyes. I never saw him. Mercurial used to be the operative adjective. Murderous works better now.
I’ve been thinking about that trip and also about the last time I saw Libyans in exile, in a mosque in Oklahoma City where local Muslims had gathered for Friday prayers.
This was late last year after Oklahoma, in the grips of a strange wave of Islamophobia orchestrated by prominent Republicans, had approved a “Save our State” amendment banning Shariah law. Its supporters told me the amendment was a “preemptive strike” against Muslim takeover.
Imad Enchassi, the imam of the mosque, was talking to his congregation about these troubles and said this: “Many of you may have been harassed or threatened at work. I don’t expect you to love those that hate but understand one thing: Many of you came to America from states of oppression. Here we can sue the government. In the countries where you come from, if you sue the government you disappear.”
Or you get shot by hired mercenaries before you ever get to your lawyer.
One Oklahoma Muslim, Muneer Awad, 27, did just that. He sued the state of Oklahoma over the Shariah ban and secured a preliminary federal injunction blocking the amendment.
Awad, an attorney, is a Palestinian-American; his parents came to the United States from the West Bank. His father started with a small store. He acquired real estate and gave his children good educations.
That’s the way the American Dream is supposed to work. Often, these days, it’s no more than a mirage. But Awad’s story is a reminder that America is still a reinvention machine.
Enchassi, the imam, had invited the local head of the F.B.I., special agent James Finch, to speak. As he placed the microphone on Finch, he joked: “This is something you’ve not seen before — an imam wiring the F.B.I.!”
Finch, an African-American, stood in front of the congregation and declared: “I’ve come here today to tell you that the F.B.I. stands ready to investigate any violation of the civil rights of our citizens in the state of Oklahoma, irrespective of ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. We are very aggressive in prosecuting civil rights violations, hate crimes, including religious discrimination and defacement or damage to any religious property. All persons in the United States have the freedom to practice their religions without fear of violent acts. If you are threatened in any way, call the F.B.I.”
There was an approving murmur through the mosque — a modest building. As I watched this scene — a black cop telling Muslim Americans about their civil rights and what the F.B.I. and the attorney general would do to enforce them — I could only think of the long journey traveled by the United States from its “original sin” of slavery, through the civil war and Jim Crow, on through the long civil rights campaign and the King assassination, to the once unthinkable thing: the election of an African American to the nation’s highest office.
It takes a long time — centuries — to establish that all men really are created equal; and that “certain unalienable rights” belong to all citizens rather than to all citizens except those of a certain color. Even then bigotry rears its head — as it had in Oklahoma.
Finch, flanked by Sandy Coats, a U.S. attorney for Oklahoma, finished with these words: “I love this country and have to uphold its laws. The buck stops with me. I am the face of the F.B.I. Hold me accountable if something is not investigated because I am passionate about ensuring people’s rights are upheld.”
The Arab world has embarked on a very long road to enfranchisement. It will be tempestuous but the direction taken is irreversible.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on February 25, 2011, in The International Herald Tribune.