Hate America? Hate Amar too?
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 India. For more, click here.
New Delhi - “This is Amar Bakshi from The Washington Post,” I introduce myself.
“Daniel Pearl was Mossad. You must be CIA,” comes the response. Then I’m told to go upstairs.
It’s an eerie telecom greeting from Pala Koya, a self-proclaimed enemy of America who heads a hardcore Islamist outfit in Calicut, Kerala. But on the top floor I meet an old man who offers me masala chai. We drink and exchange pleasantries before he gleefully prophesies America’s demise.
Lately, I’ve spoken to a number of people who condone the killing of average Americans and say they celebrate 9-11 anniversaries with sweets. It’s disturbing talk, especially when they're so forthcoming with it to my face, as an American visiting them on their turf. But I’m not sure they mean it…
I remember hanging out with seven Britons underneath an awning in Blackburn watching rain pour onto an empty street. “I can’t imagine a Muslim doing something as terrible as 9/11,” someone starts out calmly. But as night falls, the conversation heats up. The group describes the plight of their friend who’s been detained for three years on terrorism charges. “He’s innocent and look what’s being done to him!” I even hear, “Someone kill Bush, please.” Then, “Americans deserve what they’re getting!” The following morning I met one of the men again. He’d been silent around the others, but told me one-on-one, “Don’t listen to them when they’re like that….They try to talk big when they’re all together.”
In India, I have again met young men talking big against America. Sitting before his elders at the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind party headquarters, a student rattles off a litany of America’s financial, cultural and political abuses around the world while his mentors nod approvingly at their bright student. But when our group interview ends, the student walks me out of the headquarters alone to smoke a cigarette. Idly he asks me, “Are American women fun to date?” Taken aback by the non sequitur, I just say, “Well, I’ve enjoyed them,” and then ask, “Would you date an American?” With a little grin he signals yes, and then quickly guides me to my car and watches me drive away.
These anecdotes don’t show underlying love for the U.S. Many grievances are very real, but I’ve noticed that anti-American language often dwarfs the personal complaints that drive it. In many cases the U.S.’s most vocal “enemies” have never visited America, met an American, or been directly impacted by its policies. However, they do live in social or political circles that bond over a shared animosity toward the U.S. Built up from news clippings, word of mouth, and domestic discontent, professing hatred for Americans can become anything from sport (I saw plenty of this in UK pubs) to a crucial way of demonstrating belonging. Group pressure can also lead individuals to mask their curiosity about the U.S.
But when there's a curious American sitting across the table writing down every word you say, the larger-than-life declarations of anti-Americanism get tested. Cracks open up. Even with Pala Koya, leader of the National Democratic Front, I sense political showmanship. He rallies his faithful with hour-long speeches about the “Imperial American Aggressor” and other similarly unfriendly labels. But in private, Koya’s casual manner and humor belie a more nuanced view of America than you’d get hearing him from the podium.
Behind his desk he sounds savvy, not zealous. It’s hard to break him out of political slogans about the Iraq war, Palestine and Bush. If I let him keep going, I’d get a hundred sound bytes -- that all say the same thing. But as I push back, he smiles strangely as if he’s trying to conspire with me, use me to amplify his rehearsed anti-American message. He guards his personal story and makes me wonder about his true beliefs. At the end of the interview I ask Koya, “Do you still think I’m CIA?” “Yes,” he replies, “but I’m not saying anything I wouldn’t want the Americans to hear.”
There are things he wants me to hear. His message is violent but not reckless; it’s carefully crafted. America is useful to him as a scapegoat for local discontents, like job loss due to globalization or the relative poverty of the Muslim population here. Anti-American language is far more useful to local politics than actually taking action against America overseas. I can't imagine Koya ever carrying out his threats of violence against America. He has never been personally affected by the U.S. and is too old now to act himself anyway.
But his language leaves room for some misguided or disgruntled members of his community to act violently. I wonder, as I jot notes, do I have a responsibility to resist or correct misconceptions? If I sympathize with anything Koya says -- maybe the plight of those unemployed after multinationals enter his town -- do I also bolster his less savory convictions? And by presenting his words on my site, am I playing into his agenda, increasing his domestic stature?
On this trip I am still learning how to be a journalist, what it really means to remain neutral in trying confrontational situations and when my personal identity becomes involved. I have an obligation to leave my subject willing to speak to future journalists under the presumption of their own neutrality. And I have an obligation to share with readers a balanced, accurate story, an obligation to try and figure out what is the politician's campaign message and what is the story behind it. I’m working on it, hopeful, and hopefully not naive. At least these professed anti-Americans are willing to talk to me; that's always a start.