Open letter to US ambassador to Belgium, Denise Campbell Bauer
Open letter to US ambassador to Belgium, Denise Campbell Bauer, representative of president Barack Obama
Dear Madam Ambassador,
I received your invitation to take part in an Iftar evening on Wednesday, July ninth, 2014. An activity that aims to gather various representatives of the Muslim community, and that has been a tradition at American embassies worldwide for quite some time now. I promised myself that this time things would be different. After years of absence, this time, if I would accept your invitation, I would have the courage to do away with small talk and discuss the only topic I would really want to talk about with a US ambassador, that is, Palestine. Yes, the elephant in the room. It is always there but somehow we have managed to tiptoe around it. Only now it had grown so big, there was barely room left to breathe, let alone think about anything else.
I really wanted things to go differently at the Iftar, but they didn't. As I walked in to be greeted by members of your staff, the first thing that caught my eye was the gentleman wearing a Palestinian kufiya. This led me to breathe a sigh of relief. There were more people with Palestine on their mind, I thought. Walking into the elegant dining room and seeing the authoritative religious figures of our community, I was sure there were going to be more than just prayers for Gazans tonight. There were going to be heated discussions. I thought. Unfortunately, nothing of that sort.
Each time words of gratitude, respect or admiration were expressed, I felt like shouting at the top of my longs „what about Palestine?!!”. I want to say that I feared the response of the huge security officers ten feet away from us, to make it sound as if there was some sort of a threat, but there wasn’t. I wished to somehow echo the voices of Palestinians, and voice a message inside that is often only heard outside of embassies. But I guess I didn’t think things through. I don’t know what I expected would happen with my invisibly small pin supporting Palestine, and the countless questions running through my mind. I want to say that the setting did not lend itself to a proper conversation as we did not even meet due to a tardiness on my end, but again, that wasn’t it. I could have easily approached you.
No, mostly it was my own inhibitions. Shying away from the dozens of confused gazes and frowns I anticipated once I raised the highly sensitive topic of Palestine. My upbringing had something to do with it. Seen as I have learned not to launch a provocation when someone has invited you into their home. In the end, I came, I saw and I basically chickened out, so I left. In hindsight, maybe the best approach was not to accept your invitation in the first place. But I did. As a strong believer that everything happens for a reason, I think I needed this overwhelming feeling of guilt and frankly, humiliation, to trigger an actual response instead of wallowing in a sense of helplessness.
I needed this feeling that developed inside of me when I returned home from the Iftar, to watch the news rerun and hear that infamous phrase being uttered by another White House spokesman, adding insult to injury: “No country can accept rocket fire aimed at civilians and we support Israel’s rights to defend itself against these vicious attacks”. Everybody knows that these words - that are passed on from administration to administration - are the US government’s way of saying to Israel: whatever your military actions, we approve. From that moment on, each word that would follow to express sympathy or call for peace, would become meaningless.
I felt sick to my stomach when I heard these words, madam Ambassador. I could no longer sleep from watching the images of their impact. That is when I decided to write you this letter, which I hope you will take time to read. If you are truly interested in having a genuine conversation with us Muslims, I hope you, and your president, will acknowledge the concerns many of us have. I for one can no longer ignore this issue that stands between us, and that will continue to stand between us as long as we do not address it openly.
The targeted kidnapping and killing of Israeli children was horrendous and should be condemned and prosecuted, but condoning the collective punishment of an entire civilian population – including many Palestinian children, with no way to escape, leaves me with no words. We all know the cause of this recent escalation of violence was not “just” a criminal act of a few Palestinians, resorting in a brutal retaliation from the Israeli army. I wish your president would acknowledge that the situation is not that straightforward. I wish he would demonstrate the same critical insight and boldness he displayed commenting on the murder of young Trayvon Martin, which was not “just” a murder but an act tied to a history of violent oppression and criminalization of African-Americans in the US.
There are no Palestinians living in Gaza. There are only Palestinians being held captive in the world’s largest open-air prison, suffering from harassment and intimidation, being humiliated on a daily basis, denied their dignity, robbed from their land and their homes and stripped to their flesh and beaten simply for being born in the “wrong” place. We seem just fine accepting decades of violent occupation and oppression of Palestinians, as long as we keep telling ourselves that it is two equal parties fighting with the same power and means, for land they have equal claim to. So when one party acts with all its means, the other party has “the right” to retaliate, with all its means. The truth is that there are no two parties, there is an occupier and an occupied, an oppressor and an oppressed, one creating situations of despair and one resorting to desperate measures. The truth is that the Israeli government is the only one who can end the occupation, and the US government is the only one with at least some leverage to persuade them to do this, or, at least not support them in any way when they decide not to.
If you are not going to sit down with us and not only share a meal but also listen to our concerns, madam Ambassador, I do not understand why you and your colleagues around the world even bother inviting us to an Iftar evening? It is not in my nature to be cynical but it does make me wonder whether there is really nothing more to it than a PR stunt. One that seeks to show Muslims around the world - especially those your government has left to suffer, or, inflicted suffering on through its project for a New Middle East - that your policies are not all bad. That you have the support of the Muslims who take part in your activities.
Or, is it part of a post-9/11 outreach program of some kind to bring closer those people you believe hate Americans? So as to keep your friends close but your “enemies” even closer? I don’t know what your fellow countrymen were made to believe about Muslims but we don’t hate Americans, nor do we hate their way of life. Many of the people I respect and admire most are American. From modern-day economists, like Joseph Stiglitz, who seek to promote justice through equitable economic policies, to the great civil rights leaders of the past who continue to inspire me and members of my community to this day, like Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and many more. Added to that list are the human rights advocates and community activists I met with recently taking part in the International Visitor Leadership Program.
An opportunity I am grateful for and a program I champion, for many more reasons than the simple fact that it allows for taxpayers’ money to be spent on fruitful international exchange rather than the military. It allowed me to meet with people like Mr. Hilary Shelton of the NAACP, who seeks to strengthen democracy in the US by determining the needs of the African-American community and putting them on the agenda of mainstream politics; Miss Janus Adams, an award-winning author who lived through experiences of mandated desegregation and who shared with me crucial insights about current developments in the American society; Miss Linda Sarsour of the Arab-American Association who is dedicated to making the lives, and ethnic and religious heritage of Arab-Americans part of the diverse US fabric in any way she can; to name but a few. These wonderful encounters with admirable Americans do not mean that I am going to stop being critical of the US government’s foreign policy. It does not mean, madam Ambassador, that I will remain silent and disregard the injustices that are allowed to persist by your government’s choice to turn a blind eye. The biggest injustice of all being the violent oppression of Palestinians.
Madam Ambassador, the attempts your administration has made to reach out to Muslims in the West have been important and substantial. However, these attempts at reaching out remain pointless if one is going to willfully ignore the ongoing suffering of Palestinians and the effect it has on our communities. Few people are insensitive to the agony of the Palestinians, but for us Muslims this sensitivity reaches a new high during the month of Ramadan, because we no longer have food to dull our senses.
What is then the point of sitting together for an Iftar, if we cannot address the collective punishment of Palestinians endorsed by your administration and president? What is the value of such gatherings, if your administration is going to keep defending Israel’s disproportionate use of military violence, against a people that is worn down by a neglected occupation? The Palestinian death toll from the Israeli air strikes has topped 160 deaths - and counting - of which more than three quarters civilians. If we cannot talk about this, Madam Ambassador, I am afraid there is very little left for us to talk about.
Maryam H’madoun IVLP-alumna