“If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.” These words of James Madison, who served as US President from 1809-17, would now seem almost prophetic. If you were to believe your average columnist from the New York Post, America is at war with a foreign enemy represented domestically by millions of Americans who have some link to Islam. You would also read all kinds of justifications for American lawmakers to curb civil rights of some with a view to protecting the freedoms of others.
The rhetoric is well-known to us all. Muslims flew two planes into the World Trade Centre in September 2001. Muslims blew themselves up and killed over 50 people in London in July 2005. Muslims are threatening terrorist attacks to disturb the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It’s always the Muslims, you know. OK, so not all Muslims are terrorists. But that fact is that all terrorists are Muslims. The veritable tsunami of hatred has but one goal – to justify racial and ethnic profiling. We have to profile these Muslims so that we can catch terrorists. Since virtually all terrorists are Muslims, the best way to stop terrorists is to profile Muslims. If that means making them feel uncomfortable and insecure, so be it.
But exactly how does it feel to be profiled? And what impact does such profiling have not just on those being profiled but also on those doing the profiling? These are the issues raised in Dr. Zighen Aym’s short book Still Moments. In a mere 65 pages, Aym educates us on a range of issues. This isn’t just a book about racial profiling. It’s a book with numerous themes which reflect the experiences of so many migrants to the United States and other Western countries.
Aym first arrived in the United States in January 1977, an engineering student of Algerian nationality and Berber ancestry. He returned to Algeria in 1982 before returning with his wife to the United States in 1990 to commence his postgraduate studies. We often read about Algeria, though usually in the context of terrorist acts committed by various extremist groups. So often is the conflict in Algeria simplistically described as one between an (allegedly) moderate secular government and (allegedly) typically violent religious fundamentalists.
Aym’s book provides a context to the Algerian conflict rarely discussed by Muslimphobic pundits and supporters of political Islamist groups such as the Algerian FIS. Aym provides us with a glimpse of how many ordinary Algerians viewed the political situation in their country – critical of the incumbent FLN regime’s corruption and despotism but ill-disposed to ex-FLN officials who aligned themselves with a modernist form of political Islam. Aym and his family lived through these troubled times. Like so many Algerian families, Aym’s family suffered its own casualties in the crossfire between militant supporters of the regime (most often in the army) and militant opponents. A photograph of Aym’s 19 year old sister-in-law Fatima appears. She was killed in a car bomb in Algiers in 1977.
How did Aym compare America with his homeland? We get a glimpse of this in the beginning of the second chapter:
“I dreamt of America when I was in North Africa in the early 1990’s. ‘You will see. Our life in America will be so different from here,’ I remember telling my wife as we stood on the balcony of her parents’ home in Notre Dame d’Afrique, a hilltop suburb of Algiers overlooking the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. ‘Laws protect people and dreams come true,’ I explained to her … [W]e wanted to shield ourselves from the violence, repression, and injustice that had been plaguing Algeria for the last fifteen years. In America, we wished to find freedom, tranquillity, and plenty of opportunities to pursue our dreams.”
Such visions of the West are shared by migrants and asylum seekers of all faiths and nationalities. One of my own colleagues, a middle-aged lawyer of Vietnamese background, once told me of how he fled Vietnam to avoid the wrath of communist forces from the north. In Australia, he was able to pursue his legal studies after working for years as an interpreter.
Liberal democracies provide millions with opportunities that many more millions living in despotic regimes could only dream of. But what happens when liberal democracies see despotism as the only way to fight perceived external threats?
Aym’s book describes two incidents of such despotism which directly affected him. Both were triggered by his interest in photography. One is in Algeria in 1986, when he was with a friend in the Algerian coastal city of Bejaia. His friend had left to buy a newspaper when Aym took out his camera and aimed at cargo ships as they were being unloaded at port. Aym was soon stopped by a policeman who reminded him of the alleged external threats Algeria faced from “foreign powers, especially the imperialists and the old colonialists.” Aym was taken to the police station for questioning.
The incident in Bejaia is mentioned in the context of another brush with police, this time as Aym was getting his kicks whilst photographing railway tracks, spider webs and barns along the famous Route 66. Aym’s wife warns him that his photography hobby might land him in the same sort of trouble in the United States as it often did in Algeria. It turned out she was right.
Aym is first interviewed by a police officer on Route 66. He was then contacted by an FBI agent. Aym describes both processes in great detail, perhaps too much detail for some readers’ liking. Aym was fortunate enough to have a lawyer with him during his FBI interrogation. Apart from some flashbacks to late 20th century Algeria and a solid dose of disillusionment in the entire law enforcement regime of the Patriot Act, I wasn’t exactly sure what damage Aym suffered by the time I had finished the book.
Then again, perhaps I am being too cynical. Perhaps it isn’t fair to compare the experiences of Dr. Aym to, say, those of former Guantanamo inmates such as Australia’s David Hicks and Britain’s Moazzam Begg. Perhaps I, unlike Dr. Aym, have been fortunate enough to have been sheltered (thus far) from the ignominy of being grilled about why I attended a rally protesting against the visit of a visiting dictator.
Despite the frustration I felt on searching in vain for a climax to the sudden and anti-climactic end to Still Moments, I still felt the book was well worth reading if for no other reason than that it provided me with an important window into Algeria’s modern history and politics. It’s good to know that the only real opposition to Algeria’s murderous generals were the equally murderous “Armed Islamic Group” (GIA).
And certainly Dr Aym is a superb photographer. He isn’t a bad writer either. I hope he writes and publishes more on Algerian ethnic politics.
Irfan Yusuf is an associate editor of altmuslim and a Sydney-based lawyer whose work has appeared in some 15 mainstream newspapers in Australia, New Zealand and South-East Asia.