12 September 2010: To Be a Muslim in America
How to commemorate 9/11? I wore black and attended a film and panel discussion at the DC Jewish Community Center focused on a worldwide disease called Islamophobia. It is a direct product of 9/11, equating the terrorists who executed the lethal project with all of Islam and every Muslim. Prior to 9/11, keynote speaker Ambassador Akbar Ahmed told us, at the worldwide level "Muslim was out of radar. The Muslims weren't creating enough bridges." (For more on Ahmed, see my blog entry/Opednews articleof 10 July 2010, "Journey into America."
I believe that Islamophobia existed before then in the guise of xenophobia--anyone who dresses in a non-Western manner is a stranger. Since most Arabs are Muslims and even before 9/11 opposed the state of Israel,many American Jews who supported Israel were Islamophobic. And as much as this antagonism existed, it seems that many Muslims believe that all Jews support Israel. In this context, the term "anti-Semitic" seems both applicable and ironic, in that both Jews and Arabs are Semites.
But this issue aside, the film shown yesterday, the documentary On a Wing and a Prayer, was about a Muslim resident of the small city of Bellingham, Washington, who took flying lessons and learned how to pilot a two-passenger Cessna. His father had been a pilot. His was the only Muslim family in Bellingham, and frequent footage of his wife and three young children reacting to Dad's decision and interacting otherwise in a storybook American (if not universal) style--too good to be true--add an additional and tragic dimension. Muslims are just like the rest of us, with or without hijabs. The family was normal and adorable and predictable. Who wouldn't shiver at the thought of flying lessons--so many of us fear airplane travel?
The first flight school the protagonist Monem Salam approached turned him away. It was revealed later that the school reported him to the FBI for being Muslim and seeking flight lessons. The second, more humble and less well-equipped school, the only other one in the area, accepted Monem gladly and warmly. The rest of the curriculum is absorbing and harrowing as the audience accompanies him on one flight lesson after another, and only mild turbulence presents an obstacle, rather than worse weather or engine trouble. Monem's religion does not once become as an issue.
The film ends with Salam's wife finally summoning the courage to fly with him, safely. But as moderator Stephen Stern pointed out, a transcendent metaphor resonates far: the will to enter into a territory feared by many, the sky, and the will to surmount fear and preconceptions to pursue a dream and succeed. The sky becomes Muslim, in another dimension, and fear of flying becomes Islamophobia.
I was angry that the film had to be made altogether, and it did, among the many now being shown to combat Islamophobia, along with many projects. 9/11 this year coincided with two events that shook the world, thanks to the media. In lower Manhattan a Muslim imam and activist decided to build a Muslim community center, which included a prayer room, arousing rampant and bigoted opposition and also some high-level intervention. Religious freedom is a founding principle of this country and the main catalyst for its origins in the early seventeenth century. At issue was the placement of the center very close to Ground Zero, whose attackers had all been radical Muslims.
But a Muslim I know has objected along with the bigots, because there are at least two "topless" bars in the vicinity, hardly an appropriate location for such a holy shrine. Nonetheless, President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, General Petraeus and a host of other enlightened Americans and others the world over objected to the bigotry and won.
Meanwhile, in the southernmost state in this country, a pastor of a Protestant congregation of fifty decided to commemorate 9/11 by burning copies of the Holy Qu'ran. But in Islam there are not really copies--each book is sacred as the literal words of Muhammad transmitted to him by Allah. So the event would represent intolerable sacrilege. The dignitaries who contacted the minister pointed out to him the dire consequences that the burning might incite among extremists.