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Accepting contradictions to survive

A new Gallup poll of Muslims in the Middle East and South Asia reveals overwhelming disapproval of the United States and deep skepticism that Arabs were behind the attacks of Sept. 11.

So begins the latest expression of contradictions. Israel's Mossad intelligence agency masterminded the World Trade Center bombing, according to many Mideast and South Asian Muslims, but Osama bin Laden is a hero for attacking the Great Satan. Americans hate Muslims, but that is because of the international Jewish conspiracy. The United States is a terrible country _ but can you help get me a visa?

I know these contradictions well. I grew up inside them, as a child in Iraq. I came to the United States 10 years ago to escape them, but now, after Sept. 11, they have followed me here.

Accepting contradiction is a simple survival mechanism under tyranny. When you do not know what you are supposed to say or believe because the mood of the government can change at any time, accepting contradictions becomes the only way to keep your options open. You see that people who are not willing to embrace contradictions or to be flexible in their beliefs disappear, and you learn quickly.

One classic contradiction was the way we talked about the Holocaust:

It never happened; Hitler was a great man; American leaders were like Nazis. Even as a 9-year-old, I sensed something was wrong. When my third-grade teacher told our class that Hitler was a hero, I asked her why.

"Because he burned the Jews," she told me. I had never met any Jews, but I pictured children with their skin on fire.

"How can this man be good?" I asked again. "Burning someone is terrible."

My teacher had never been challenged like that before. She told me to shut up, and I did.

But today, living in the United States as an American, I cannot be quiet. I have to tell my fellow Americans that, for many Muslims, the United States is a great symbol of freedom. And I have to tell those who perpetuate these contradictions that it is time to leave them behind.

Colin Powell may go on Al-Jazeera and explain how the United States has rescued Muslims in Kosovo, Kuwait and Afghanistan. But the contradictions will continue. Many will still resent the United States for supporting oppressive regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan _ and for fighting oppressive regimes such as those of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.

Reasoning will not quickly change many minds. When contradiction is planted at an early age, it remains baggage you carry your entire life.

Some Muslims who are not open-minded come to the United States and actually find their contradictions reinforced _ like the guests I sometimes see on Al-Jazeera claiming that the Jewish lobby controls everything here. For these people, conspiracy helps eliminate the contradictions.

Yet, as someone who emerged from a childhood of contradictions to become an American who treasures our country's freedom and diversity, I have hope. Many Muslims arrive here and come to terms with the world left behind by seeing its contradictions. The rhetoric we learned simply makes no sense.

We are the ones who must bridge the gulf between America and the Muslim world _ by confronting truth. If we want Islam to mean peace, freedom and tolerance, then we must denounce those who advocate jihad, oppression and hatred in its name. If we value our freedom, then we must speak out.

The United States is guilty of contradictions. We champion freedom and individual rights, yet support dictators. We liberated Kuwait from Saddam Hussein, only to restore the old monarchy and a system in which women cannot vote. We encouraged the Iraqis to rise up against Hussein in 1991, yet allowed him to crush their uprising. But unlike in the Muslim world, American contradictions are exposed and debated.

Americans should not let the new Gallup poll stop us from standing up for what is right. Surrendering to the contradictions of some will hurt everyone. We should instead dedicate ourselves to building social and economic justice in the Muslim world. Vigorously promoting liberty, dialogue and tolerance is the best way to erode the grip of contradiction.

Zainab Al-Suwaij is executive director of the American Islamic Congress, a privately funded group in New Haven, Conn., formed after Sept. 11 to increase understanding of Islam.

Hartford Courant