The Dangerous Life of the “Other”

This country justifies casting more suspicion toward Muslims through a national tone that has opened a floodgate of xenophobes and vigilantes masquerading themselves as American patriots.

Ayman Gheith, Kambiz Butt and Omar Chaudhary were our recent poster boys of what it means to be “traveling while Muslim.” At a Shoney’s restaurant in Calhoun, Georgia, just two days after the one-year anniversary, patron Eunice Stone heard the three men unabashedly discuss their supposedly conspiratorial plot to detonate a bomb in Miami. Stone heard, “Do you think we have enough to bring it down?” And she heard another guy say, “If we don’t have enough, I have contacts. We can get enough to bring it down.”

And Gheith, who has a long beard and wore a Muslim skullcap, cemented Stone’s suspicion. “She saw obviously the way I was dressed, and maybe she put a little salt and pepper into her story,” Gheith told reporters.

Being a good Samaritan and patriotic, Stone unthinkingly alerted Georgia authorities. “I only know what I heard, and it was in my heart to do what was right. . . If people were going to discuss that I was nuts, so be it.”

Be that as it may, Stone’s nuttiness was taken seriously. Several hours later with more than 100 law enforcement personal responding to her report, the three men were detained for 18 hours on Interstate 75, known as Alligator Alley — an east-west thoroughfare that runs through the Florida Everglades between Fort Lauderdale and Naples.

Of the many frightening references Stone said she heard the men make, the one about “bringing it down” called her to act on their threats. But in fact, the men have since told the media that they were discussing bringing one of their cars down to Florida.

This country justifies casting more suspicion toward Muslims through a national tone that has opened a floodgate of xenophobes and vigilantes masquerading themselves as American patriots.

Stone reminds me of a rumor I once heard about three African-American men on an elevator with a white women who heard one of the men say “Hit the floor.”

In a ritzy New York hotel in the 1990s, a white woman boarded an elevator. When the elevator door opened to her floor, to her surprise she realized that three very tall, big, and dark-skinned African-American men would be riding with her to the ground level. Realizing their size, the three African American men courteously moved further into the elevator to accommodate the woman. With the white women standing next to the elevator buttons and the door not closing, one of the men asked her to “hit the floor.” Assuming that this was a holdup, the white women got on the floor. Puzzled by the woman’s behavior, another man asked her what was she doing. In a trembling voice she said to the men, “You can take what you want, just don’t rape me.” When the elevator came to the ground floor, the woman leapt to her feet and immediately reported the incident to the hotel manager.

Who are these ominous men?

And who gave others the popular belief that all Muslims are terrorists and all African-American men are rapists?

Ayman Gheith, Kambiz Butt and Omar Chaudhary — the three men at Shoney’s — are U.S. medical students. They were going to see an apartment before starting at Larkin Community Hospital in South Miami for medical training. But their hopes to start their internship were immediately dashed due to this highly publicized detention that made both national and international news. With the hospital receiving hundreds of e-mails and phone calls threatening the financial livelihood of the hospital and the safety of the students, the hospital president, Jack Michel, asked the three Muslim men to transfer elsewhere.

As for the three very tall, big and dark-skinned African-American men, their fate remained unchanged. They were professional basketball players who too sought to report the incident. Popular folklore has it that the incident was about basketball legend Michael Jordan and two of his teammates.

Realizing their size, the three African American men courteously moved further into the elevator to accommodate the woman. . . In a trembling voice she said to the men, “You can take what you want, just don’t rape me.”

Prejudice is what drives people like Stone and the woman on the elevator to unabashedly act the way they do. And the reprisal toward the suspected person can be as devastating as the loss of their life or the loss of a coveted internship, as in the case of the three Muslim men.

It would be too simplistic and morally irresponsible to summarily justify these fears and acts of prejudice on the dangerous times we now live in or to place the blame on a few paranoid individuals. Thus, we are not examining what brings about these dangerous times, and at least, one of its root causes: Islamophobia.

On a national television talk-show last month, Christian fundamentalist, the Rev. Jerry Falwell unapologetically stated, “The Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, was a terrorist . . . a violent man, a man of war.”

While many of us can dismiss Falwell’s Islamophobic diatribe, we cannot ignore, however, centuries of polemical Christian Orientalist literature that excoriates Muslims. Viewed as a people of the anti-Christ who are theologically misled, Muslims are viewed as a fanatically violent people of faith journeying on the road to Hell.

And, for many Christian preachers, theologians, and writers, Hell is the place where Muslims belong.

One such writer of that view was Dante Alighieri. In his classic text, The Divine Comedy, Dante reflects the attitudes and Christian views about Muslims during the Middle Ages, and those views, we find, have not altered that much today. Dante depicts Hell as a hierarchy of evil, consisting of nine circles. With his views of Muslims as the sowers of scandal, schisms and heresy to the Christian faith, Dante places the Prophet Muhammad and his disciple Ali in the eighth circle, just one above Lucifer. Today’s attitudes about Muslims would now place them in Dante’s ninth circle.

With his views of Muslims as the sowers of scandal, schisms and heresy to the Christian faith, Dante places the Prophet Muhammad and his disciple Ali in the eighth circle, just one above Lucifer. Today’s attitudes about Muslims would now place them in Dante’s ninth circle.

In an interview on CNN, Ayman Gheith said, “I learned that injustice, regardless against whom, is wrong. It is against us today, tomorrow it could be against you.”

As I ask myself the question Gheith poses about who will be America’s next suspect I am reminded of the pink triangle, a symbol known to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community worldwide. The pink triangle dates back to the Nazi Holocaust when gay men were prisoners and confined to death camps because of their sexuality. Relegated to the lowest rung in the death camps’ hierarchy, gay prisoners were forced to wear the symbol which signified their rank; thus, making them among the first to die.

I see the symbol of the pink triangle everyday on a poster on a wall beside my computer. Beneath the symbol are the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller. Niemoller was once an early supporter of the Nazis, but who eventually led the church’s opposition to Hitler. He wrote:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.

Suspicion of the “other” has always abounded in the psyche and soul of this country. And oddly, the suspicion of the “other‚” does not have to be a person who is an alien to this country or a person who is stranger to this country’s morals or mores. Suspicion of the “other” is simply predicated on just being different.

And being different, these days, exacts a particular toll not just on Muslims, or African Americans or LGBT people, but it exacts a toll on us all. And for it to stop we must all speak out.

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