Us, them, and me

A decade and a day ago, you could describe a guy as being tall,
Muslim, from the Bronx, and no one’s eyes would start darting.

Back then, the word “Muslim” was merely an adjective.

Today it’s an accusation. An allegation. An affront.
One that we as Americans actually feel compelled to respond to, like cooties on the playground. An allegation that, if it’s actually true, makes you want to hang your head in shame, like being called a fatso.

Our President was repeatedly accused of being Muslim. Whole foods was recently accused of celebrating Ramadan by introducing its “Saffron Road” line of halal frozen dinners. Hard to imagine thinking Americans like us tolerating someone being accused of being Irish Catholic. Or Safeway being accused of selling Christmas cookies. Or my son’s second grade soccer team being accused of pandering to Jews because there’s no game on October 8, for Yom Kippur.

Yet allegations of Islam are made with impunity, because 9/11 happened. But more importantly, because we Americans accepted the easy answer about why it happened: Islam. We took off our thinking caps, hung them up by the border, and simply accepted that it was the world’s second largest religion that blew planes into buildings on that horrific, bloody day.

We didn’t question – was it really this religion that hijacked these planes, or was this religion itself hijacked by these terrorists, whose agendas were political, economic, personal? It hardly seemed necessary to dig deeper into what motivated these particular people to do these particular things. Who among us even remembers their names?

All too often, when something explodes, the first thing out of a reporter’s mouth is, “Well, we don’t know if it’s a Muslim, but inside sources tell us we can’t rule it out.” If you’re only looking for someone muttering to himself in Arabic, then you’re not looking for Anders Behrin Breivik. Or Timothy McVeigh. Or Ted Kaczynski. Or Seung-Hui Cho. Whose religions, by the way – and rightly so – I have not seen on trial. But had they been Muslim, the questions would simply have ended. The proof would have been in the prayer rug.

Islam is something we tolerate being mocked. Somehow we think it’s ok to laugh – or just look away – when late night talk show hosts joke about Islam. But we’d be storming the network – justifiably – if they slung the same slur at Jews or blacks or gays. Few feathers are ruffled when a politician compares Muslims to Nazis, or mocks Islamic laws, or says he’d never let a Muslim into his cabinet if he won the election. But let someone make a comment about the hair of black women, and resignations are forthcoming.

You know how people ask, “Why do they hate us?” Well, my kid asked me the same question, but he was talking about his fellow Americans. When I explained about 9/11, he replied, “Well, don’t they understand that that’s stereotyping? We’re not terrorists.” Somehow things seem simple when you’re 11.

Perhaps things would be – and still could be – different if instead of delegating our thinking to the makers of sound bites, we chose instead to pick up a Qur’an (translated by someone who knows it, like Yousef Ali), or listen to a Muslim scholar (like Muhammad Alshareef, at or Nouman Ali Khan on YouTube) – to check if Muslims really are commanded to commit holy wars against innocent civilians.

I’m Muslim. I follow the five pillars of my faith: I believe in one God (same one that Adam and Abraham and Jesus and Moses worshipped). I pray five times a day. I fast during Ramadan. I donate 2.5 percent of my savings to charity every year. I’ve performed Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Yet – I haven’t blown up any buildings. Does this mean that I’m simply not… devout enough?

I’m also American, born in DC and bred in its suburbs. The chances of my family being blown up by a terrorist are exactly the same as yours. When that unbearable massacre was inflicted on my country – on my countrymen – ten years ago, I wept and grieved and bled inside, like you did. I ran around bewildered, rounding up and counting my loved ones, like you did. And like you, I’m terrified of such a monstrosity ever happening again on land that I love, to people that I belong amongst.

But I’ll tell you this – I’m equally afraid of some of my fellow Americans. I’m afraid that I’m just a few blown up buildings away from something really bad happening to me. When the earthquake rattled my house last week, my first thought was, “Please don’t let a Muslim be the reason that Bethesda is shaking.” A Christian friend told me, unbidden, “When they come for you, you can hide in my house.”

I’m afraid to leave a Qur’an showing in my parked car. I’m reluctant to travel because I got ‘randomly’ stopped five times when flying to the Caribbean. I was pulled over by a DC cop who wanted just to ask me: “Do you have any bombs in your car?” It took my breath away when I saw a sign at a 7-11 in Columbia, forbidding headcoverings in the store – with a drawing of a Muslim woman wearing a scarf.

In the wake of every explosion, our blind hunt for a brown man reminds me of when my neighbors in D.C., Maryland and Virginia glared suspiciously and self righteously into the windows of every white van in town. To the point where people became afraid to drive their white vans. And meanwhile, the sniper kept right on gunning and sneering from his blue Chevy sedan.

Recently I listened as Toby Keith crooned to “them” on my car radio: “We lit up your world like the fourth of July. Uncle Sam put your name at the top of his list. The Statue of Liberty started shaking her fist.” My sweet little Rockville-born, homework-doing, ice hockey-playing sons piped up from the backseat: “Who’s she shaking her fist at, Mom?” I had to stop myself from replying, “Um, you, Sweetie.” Luckily my hand found the radio dial before Keith got to, “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.”

As an American, I gotta say – given the chance, it might not be her fist that Lady Liberty would be shaking. It might be her head. And perhaps not so much at “them,” as at us.

Reshma Memon is a freelance writer based in Bethesda, MD.

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