Extremists win when innocent Muslims suffer

The Baltimore Sun

My country's war against terrorism is being fought in many places: places like Ramadi in Iraq, where al-Qaida extremists have won support from local Iraqi tribesman, places like the provinces of eastern Afghanistan where - dismayingly - the Taliban have been enjoying a resurgence against NATO forces. Like many Americans - perhaps more than most - I follow the latest news from these battlefields with great anxiety.

But my anxiety is a little different because I am a Muslim American, and, to my horror, a most important engagement with the enemy took place last week on U.S. soil. This battle lasted only two hours, and we emerged bruised. The enemy, al-Qaida and other extremist forces, emerged victorious. And you know what? They weren't even there. This battlefield wasn't in Iraq or Afghanistan. It was in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Last week, six Americans who are Muslim scholars were forced to leave a US Airways flight because their presence on the aircraft made some other passengers feel "insecure."

Two of the evicted passengers mentioned "Allah." One of them is said to have prayed in the airport before boarding the aircraft. A Christian may say the rosary before boarding a flight; a Jew may pray in the ancient way of his people - all without much of a reaction. But these five Muslims were kicked off the plane. They were even denied seats the next day on the same airline - although the FBI had cleared them - because the incident placed them on security list.

I am not sure what worries me more: the manifestation of public hysteria that led to the expulsion of the passengers, or the fact that an airline bearing the name of the nation - US Airways - could conduct itself in this manner with impunity.

Where, really, does the fault lie? I blame the media, which have failed to educate Americans in the difference between Islam and terrorism. In that, I include Hollywood, which seems never to miss an opportunity to portray Muslims as bloodthirsty, deranged psychopaths. Most important, though, the government itself - representative of all Americans - has failed to clarify the distinction between Islam and terrorism.

In the anti-Muslim paranoia generated by this failure, US Airways feels it can throw off Muslim passengers because their prayers and reverence of God made other passengers feel uncomfortable. Why didn't the airline suggest to the anxious passengers that if they were afraid, they could take another flight?

This week, America will celebrate a historic event in the advancement of civil rights in this country - the day more than half a century ago when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus because she was black. The bus driver certainly felt he was doing the legal and right thing by demanding that she move to the back of the bus, where blacks were supposed to sit.

So what does it mean that half a century later, an American Muslim can be ordered not to the back of the "bus" but to get off the bus?

I was born in the Middle East and have lived in this country for 32 years. I am a physician, working every day to keep people alive. I have an American-dream family: My son is a successful banker in San Francisco; one daughter is a brilliant, third-year medical student in a top university; my other daughter is a successful psychologist. We travel extensively. And, yes, if one of the five prayer times prescribed by our religion happens to occur while we are traveling, we pray then.

If we Americans, as a society, are not distraught over what happened to those six Muslims traveling on US Airways, we have failed a test as important as the one presented by Rosa Parks.

Dr. Hassan Makhzoumi is chief of pulmonary and critical care at St. Joseph's Hospital in Towson and is the president of An-Nur Islamic society and mosque. His e-mail is hmakhzoumi@aol.com.

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