Blackburn Muslims Happy, Afraid That Could Change

For one year from 2007-2008, Amar traveled around the world reporting on how people from all walks of life view the United States through text and video.  The following is one of a number of posts from England. For more, click here.

Blackburn - Though you’ll see them as a group playing soccer and eating kebabs, you won't see any of these Muslim men from Blackburn talking to my camera. They’re all afraid of saying the wrong thing and ending up a terrorist suspect.

These men live in the tight-knit Muslim area of Whalley Range. Just on the edge of the city center, this hillside community is flooded with sweet shops, halal kebab restaurants, madaris and mosques galore.

Explaining their fears, they tell me their friend was detained for three and a half years by the British government. They were not told why. And just recently he confessed to plotting terrorist activity. “He was a normal, quiet guy – quite friendly,” I was told, “But after three and a half years in jail, you’d say anything.”

These men never visited their detained friend for fear of association: “If you do go [visit him], they [the British government] will check you up; they’ll want to know why you’ve come to see him….You’ll be on a list.” An elderly man named Olam jumps in, referring to the length of time a British terror suspect can be detained without being formally charged, “90 days for no reason...of course we’re scared!” His colleague, a large man named Thair who works for the city government continues, “You have to understand…we have freedoms. We are very happy here. But we know there will be another terrorist attack. And the rules they’ve put in place are like two hands around our neck, closing slowly, you understand? And we can feel it.”

“In a democratic society you wouldn’t expect that,” Thair continues, “You can’t have a special rule for one group and a special rule for another….What kind of...democracy is that? I’d rather go to -- what’s that country -- Pakistan! and live under that dictator Musharraf.”

Latching onto the word “democracy” and turning from the personal to the political, Olam reengages, urging the group to look at "Palestine when they elected Hamas. How come the Americans and Israelis turn around and say ‘Sorry we don’t recognize this.’ What’s the point of fighting for democracy then? Is it only democracy if it supports America?” Shaking their heads, the group suggests that democracy, as they see it, is a sort of victor’s justice, victor’s morality.

The group is skeptical not only about whether Britain and America believe in “genuine democracy” or the selective implementation of it. They are equally skeptical of America's motivations for entering the Iraq war. It was never to rid the country of Saddam Hussein, remove weapons of mass destruction, or bring democracy to a troubled region, they say. “It was for oil money,” Thair plainly states.

Everybody within this group agreed that 9-11 was a tragedy committed by Osama Bin Laden and that this event was harnessed by “neoconservatives to justify war.” But a few people I met earlier in the day were skeptical about 9-11 itself. A young, clean-shaven car salesman and his lanky friend bantered about the tragedy on the side of the street.

Salam began, “How many murderers are still out there in America [that] still haven’t been named…but within an hour they were saying Osama Bin Laden did it...” Shaheed continued, “Nobody actually believed it was real. I mean, for somebody to organize something like dropping the twin towers, you got to be really, really clever to do something like that…”

“It’s more than Osama Bin Laden could do, you know what I mean?”

“I personally can’t put something like that on a Muslim. Hijacking three or four planes…”

“And why hasn’t it happened again?”

Skepticism about America’s commitment to civil rights and democracy is pervasive here. Though very few of the people I spoke to questioned 9-11 itself -- most agreeing it was a tragedy committed by Al Qaeda extremists -- everyone criticized U.S. reactions to it. And as far as motivations for the Iraq war, the jury was clear: money mattered. (This view was captured in 2004 by Pew Research Center's striking polls.)

Why such deep skepticism of America’s global motivations? There are many, many answers which this project will continue to explore. But Salam concluded by simply saying, "America makes up its own laws.”

EnglandAmar Bakshi