America's reputation as land of the free looking increasingly tarnished

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MUHAMMAD Abdul Bari, deputy secretary of the British Muslim Council, summed things up nicely when he referred to America’s deportation on Wednesday of Yusuf Islam, the singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, as "a slap in the face of sanity".

Islam had been travelling to Washington on Tuesday on a United Airlines flight. But when Homeland Security officials noticed his name on a terrorist watch list, the plane was diverted 600 miles to Bangor, Maine, and Islam was delivered into the hands of the FBI for questioning.

In a statement so vague as to cover a multitude of completely innocent as well as possibly baleful deeds, a spokesman from the Homeland Security Department claimed the singer was on the list: "because of concerns about activities that could potentially be related to terrorism".

Whatever information the department was acting on, however, clearly failed to nail Islam. Instead of arresting him, officials lined up to get his autograph - I’m not joking.

From Britain’s perspective, the whole incident looks like a terrible embarrassment for America. Islam/Stevens is a British national treasure, writer of such iconic songs from the 1970s as ‘Morning has Broken’, ‘The First Cut is the Deepest’ and ‘Wild World’. Since turning his back on the music industry, which he regarded as irreconcilable with his new faith, he is also now a well-known Muslim moderate.

Islam’s views have often been sought as an antidote to extremism. After the twin towers fell in 2001, he denounced the attackers for trying to "derail humanity", saying: "The whole idea of killing innocent women and children has no place whatsoever in Islam." More recently, he has spoken out against the perpetrators of the Beslan massacre.

Islam’s reputation as a peace activist dates back to his pop music days when, like John Lennon and other politically motivated songwriters, his lyrics were imbued with a world-loving, tree-hugging humanitarianism. "I’ve been smiling lately, dreaming about the world as one," he sang in ‘Peace Train’ - a record he re-released last year to express his opposition to the war in Iraq.

But it is his charitable work with education, as head of the Islamia Schools Trust, that has earned him the respect of the great and good, not to mention photo opportunities with Tony Blair and Prince Charles.

In spite of Islam’s impeccable credentials, America is unrepentant. There has been no apology from the US leadership, which doesn’t even appear to be embarrassed. While it has been widely reported that Jack Straw upbraided Colin Powell over the matter, no one has recorded Powell’s reply. Did he hang his head in remorse, or shake it disdainfully, passing the buck to John Ashcroft?

Then again, did he spin Straw, albeit in modulated tones, the line taken by Thursday’s New York Post, which trumpeted: "Officials needn’t bother answering silly questions from Muslim groups about the actions that were taken regarding Islam’s flight. There’s a war on. America has a right to defend itself. Case closed."

The incident involving Islam isn’t the first time a respected Islamic moderate has been booted out of the US. Earlier this year, Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-born intellectual, imam, and one of Europe’s most prominent Muslim reformers, had his visa revoked just days before he was due to begin teaching Islamic philosophy and ethics at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for Peace Studies. As in Islam’s case, a national security issue was cited and no further explanation offered.

Given the shaming results of the inquiry into why US officials failed to act on substantiated intelligence reports about known al-Qaeda operatives living and working in the country in the run up to 9/11, it’s hard to put a generous gloss on the incidents involving Islam and Ramadan. It’s as if America’s response to having failed to apprehend anyone before the fact is to apprehend everyone after it.

Is America merely failing to distinguish between hardline Muslim fundamentalists and well-known moderates? Or does it not care?

America seems content to treat one Muslim like any other. This puts me in mind of the immediate post-9/11 climate, when the odious phrase "towel head" entered circulation, heaping together under one banner every shade of Eastern distinction. Living in San Francisco at the time, I remember thinking how apt it was that the more or less indiscriminate use of "towel head" as a casual pejorative coincided with a rash of attacks on ordinary Arab citizens in which dozens of Sikhs got beaten up too. Did anyone apologise to them?

Unfortunately there is historic precedent for America’s zero tolerance towards ethnic minorities in times of perceived national crisis. I’m referring to the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II - some of whom had themselves served in the American military, and many of whom had never set foot on Japanese soil. Unlike German or Italian Americans, who remained free, Japanese Americans were thrown into labour camps regardless of their individual beliefs, patriotism or identification as American citizens.

Even today, many Americans will say that although their country was wrong to intern Japanese Americans, its actions were understandable in the circumstances. To which I’d respond: pinning moral issues on historical contingency is not good enough. Either America is a democratic country that enshrines individual freedom, or it isn’t.

Sixty years on America ought to know better. It ought to recognise that befriending, promoting and supporting Muslim moderates lies in its own best interests and encouraging Muslim representation at the highest levels of American society, as in Britain, is the best way of countering mindless Islamophobia - a relatively modern condition of groundless fear which is said to be rife in today’s America.

Americans ought to build bridges, not burn them. Then again, how much real hope is there for progress, given that the American constitution, which famously declares all men are created equal, was drafted almost solely by the white slave-holding elite of the day? America, it seems, has always regarded some people as more equal than others.