That the quality of leadership and what the leaders believe in matter a great deal was on full display on the evening of December 7. That day, United States President Barack Obama addressed his nation and the world on TV from the Oval Office. This was only the fourth time since he became the country’s chief executive that he chose to speak from that location. The speech was prompted by the December 2 killing of 14 people by a husband-and-wife team of terrorists of Pakistani origin. The man, Syed Rizwan Farook, was born in the United States to parents who had migrated from Pakistan. The woman, Tashfeen Malik, was born in Pakistan and had spent most of her life in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. However, she attended Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan and briefly enrolled in Al Huda Institute in the city. She ‘met’ her husband-to-be via a website when he was searching for a woman to wed. She was allowed into the United States on what is called the ‘fiance’ visa and was waiting to get citizenship. The couple had a six-month-old daughter they entrusted to the care of the husband’s mother when they embarked on the killing spree. The Pakistan connection was clear.
This was the most potent terrorist attack on the United States since the felling of the World Trade Towers in New York and the ramming of a hijacked plane into Pentagon near Washington. Those attacks killed nearly 3,000 people, but was different from the one carried out in San Bernardino, California. The latter was something the Americans had begun to fear. It was the work of a couple who was American, but had been radicalised even before the arrival of the Islamic State (IS) on the world stage. Could such incidents be repeated by some Americans of Islamic faith, similarly disposed as the couple in California? The question demanded an answer. It came from two very different sources: the American president and the most popular candidate from the Republican Party for the election to the presidency in November 2016.
The approach Obama adopted was different from the one taken in September 2001 by then president George W Bush, his immediate predecessor in the White House. Bush said he will use the country’s full military might to destroy those who had attacked his country on September 11. Al Qaeda, operating out of Afghanistan where it had been given a sanctuary, had taken responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. Bush’s muscular approach took the American military to Afghanistan and within a couple of months, the Taliban government was overthrown. Fifteen months later, Bush ordered his troops into Iraq to topple the regime headed by Saddam Hussein. The United States is still present in both countries 14 years later with religious extremism flourishing in both nations. In fact, the invasion of Iraq and the way the country’s occupation was managed by Washington, contributed to the rise of the IS.
“Even in this political season, even as we properly debate what steps I and future presidents must take to keep our country safe, let’s make sure that we never forget what makes us exceptional. Let us not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear,” said Obama in his TV address. “We cannot turn against one another by letting this war be defined as a war between America and Islam. Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbours, our co-workers, our sports heroes and yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are prepared to die in defence of our country.” He pleaded that this brutal attack must be seen in its proper perspective. “So far, we have no evidence that the killers were directed by a terrorist organisation overseas and, or that they were part of a larger conspiracy at home. But it is clear that the two of them had gone down the dark path of radicalisation, embracing a perverted interpretation of Islam that calls for a war against America and the West.”
But there were other political figures in the country who thought differently. Among them was the billionaire Donald Trump, the Republican contender for his party’s ticket in the presidential election of 2016. A couple of days after Obama spoke from the Oval Office, Trump addressed his supporters in the politically important state of South Carolina. He called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. He also suggested that non-Muslim Americans should keep a watch on those who subscribed to the Muslim faith and report any activity that appeared suspicious to them. Despite widespread criticism of his stance, the candidate did not relent. His position made The New York Times write the following in an editorial: “Not a vote has been cast in the 2016 presidential race. But serious damage is being done to the country, to its reputation overseas, by a man who is seen as speaking for America and twisting its message of tolerance and welcome… And the danger right now is allowing him to legitimise the hatred he so skillfully exploits, and to revive the old American tendency, in frightening times, toward vicious treatment of the weak and outsiders.”
Published in The Express Tribune, December 14th, 2015.