Voice of Power Threatens Voice of Dialogue

We may never know the truth about Aafia, but the image of a malnourished and devastated mother of three will remain among the increasing number of symbols used to uphold an image of oppression.

They always come at night, George Orwell told us. You wake up to find people holding flashlights and surrounding your bed.

This image always reappears during times of tension and mistrust around the world—the faceless secret agency whisking off the unsuspecting to unspecified horrors because of the way they look or their refusal to conform.

For many, this image overshadows the controversy surrounding the July arrest of Aafia Siddiqui in Afghanistan and her Aug. 5 court appearance in New York. She is charged with attempted murder of an American interrogator while in custody in Afghanistan where she was allegedly detained for acting suspiciously and carrying suspected bomb-making materials, instructions, and a guide of New York landmarks in her handbag.

Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman listed by the United States in 2004 as one of seven suspected Al Qaeda associates feared to be planning an attack, disappeared with her three small children in Karachi in 2003, and reappeared suspiciously five years later in New York with the hollow look of a concentration camp prisoner on her face.

What happened to Siddiqui and her children during those five years remains a mystery. Her sister Fauzia alleges she was abducted and taken into secret custody by the United States. The United States denies any knowledge of her whereabouts during this time, although many Pakistanis believe that she was kidnapped and spent those years in a secret prison for Muslim militants in Afghanistan before being transported to the United States to face charges.

The speculation surrounding this case reminds me of a recent Pakistani movie, Khuda Kay Liye (In the Name of God), directed by Shoaib Mansoor. The protagonist, Mansoor, is arrested in Orwellian fashion following the events of 9/11.

His character could be seen as a model for contemporary Muslims, as well as a victim of the system. He was unlawfully detained, repeatedly questioned by American authorities ("What is your relationship with Osama?") and tortured—a clear allusion to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

The film reflects general fears that are present in the world at the moment—the fear of an evil "other"—for whom one's name and skin color may be sufficient to blame you for conspiracy against the "free world."

Mansoor represents the absurdities of miscommunication between Muslim societies and the West, fueled by the fashionable Huntingtonian division of the world into groups that seek not to communicate with and understand one another, but to confront one another, thereby widening the supposed chasm between nations and people who in fact have so much in common.

Khuda Kay Liye demonstrates that such incidents put prospects of mutual understanding into question and emphasize the division between "us" and "them." No wonder there are so many who believe that Islam is under siege.

It was not long after the huge success of this movie in Pakistan that Aafia Siddiqui finally surfaced publicly.

Oftentimes, in matters such as this, truth and justice are lost in a political and legal jungle of conflicting agendas. We may never know the truth about Aafia, but the image of a malnourished and devastated mother of three will remain among the increasing number of symbols used to uphold an image of oppression.

Can we, the inheritors of the past century's legacy of brutalities, not learn from the wars, conflicts, and torture of our own and past generations? We must realize the controversy, speculation, and inadequate evidence surrounding the Siddiqui case is just the type of thing that pushes us further away from the hope of mutual understanding.

How many stories like this will we, co-inhabitants of this small world, bear witness to before we stand up and demand a better way of doing things?

Whether or not Siddiqui is found to have been held in a secret prison in Afghanistan, and whether or not there is truth to the charges against her, recent events have resulted in a loss of trust between the United States and many of the world's Muslims.

We are faced with an ethical dilemma. Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo Bay. Shocking arrests and mysterious disappearances. Extraordinary renditions. These are not fictional plot lines. Will these initiatives, conducted in the name of security, really make the world a better place, or will they contribute to irreversibly dividing it, feeding on our anger and distrust?

Everything is in our hands.

Can we remain silent in the face of processes that threaten to divide our world and lend credence to the argument of a global conflict of identities?

Today, the voice of power is much louder than the voice of dialogue, and our hope is that someday the latter will dominate both politics and public perception. We must join those who are trying to pull down the wall of ignorance that is being built between Muslim societies and the West.

Sharunas Paunksnis is pursuing a Ph.D. in social theory and Asian studies at Vytautas Magnus University in Lithuania. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service.