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A recent ABC News story about opposition to the building of a mosque brought again to national attention the extent to which “Islam” is deemed threatening. The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, which has had a center in the small Tennessee town since 1997, planned to build a larger facility. At a county commission meeting where over six hundred residents turned out to express their concerns about the new mosque, Allan Jackson, the pastor of World Outreach Church, said, “We have a duty to investigate anyone under the banner of Islam.” Of the Muslims living in Murfreesboro, one resident was quoted as saying, “They seem to be against everything I believe in, and so I don’t want them necessarily in my neighborhood.”
I have no doubt that I experience less discrimination now (especially on airplanes) in large part because there is little about my appearance or manner of dress that labels me a Muslim. I look Arab. That’s undeniable. I have the dark hair and dark eyes, and the stereotypical Middle Eastern nose and bushy eyebrows. But more than Arab or Middle Eastern, the markers that the fearful and the reactionary and the ignorant and the bigoted among us are looking for are Islamic. An irony of all this is that for a very long time now, people from all walks of life have worked hard to explain and make clear the distinctions between things Arab and things Islamic; many people are now finally making distinctions, but for all the wrong reasons.
A few hundred Arab Muslims gather, elbow to elbow. The atmosphere is that of a fair. There are signs in the prevailing languages, rows of newspaper boxes, magazine stands, smells of food in the air, smokers arguing politics around ashtray stands, garbled announcements made over loud speakers, flashing lights and sirens, carousels, and, every few minutes, on center stage, an airplane touching down or taking off.
The flight, which originated in Mecca, finally lands and the crowd erupts with cheers. Several of the Arabs and Muslims, young men, join hands and raise them high above their heads and dance in a circle. Later, as the arrivals they’ve been waiting for begin exiting customs, a chorus of trills fills the terminal.
We’re in the Michael Berry terminal of the Detroit Airport. I’m with my parents. We’re standing next to a young woman with braided blond hair. She is wearing a Star Wars T-shirt and dark blue jeans. If her hair were just a few shades darker, she’d look like Brooke Shields in the famous Calvin Klein ads. My mother turns to her and asks, “Who are you here for?”
“My boyfriend,” she says smiling.
“Ah. Was he on the Hajj?”
“The … ?”
“I don’t think so,” she says with a degree of uncertainty and tugs at her hair. “He’s on American Airlines.”
“Oh, I thought…”
But before my mother has a chance to explain or change the subject, the woman looks away, taken by the scene the Muslims are making, which is boisterous, carefree, and jubilant, as if they are celebrating a marriage, not the arrival of a flight. A minute or two later, she turns back around.
“Can I ask you something?”
My mother nods her head.
“These people coming off the plane,” she says, and once more she gives the crowd a long hard look and takes a deep breath. “Are they all like famous movie stars or something?”
In 1982, a young woman mistakes a mass of Muslims and Arabs for celebrities. This is one of the most vivid memories I have of Detroit in the pre-9/11 world — that of airports and air travel, of the way that some people saw Arabs and Muslims. How much has changed? Today, I simply cannot imagine a few hundred Arabs and Muslims descending on a major US airport without incident. When I travel by airplane, I present myself accordingly. Before leaving for the airport, I shave so not to resemble too much the physical profile of a hijacker. At the airport, I never request last-minute changes to my itinerary so as not to send the wrong message. At security, I smile and make pleasant chitchat but I don’t overdo it. I keep my small talk to “Hello” or “Good morning” or “Have a nice day.” I don’t want to give anyone any excuse to single me out. I wear shoes without laces so I can pass quickly through security, and I never wear my favorite T-shirt, which has on its front the stylized McDonald’s M, and just beneath the golden arches, the fast food giant’s name spelled out in Arabic. Years ago, my fellow passengers might have found the graphic amusing. Now, it would probably alarm them, so I leave it at home. My goal is to reach my destination on time. The last thing I want to do is encourage security personnel to have an extended conversation with me about who I am or what I am, or what I am not.
I liked going to the airport once. I met people there — grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins — for the very first time. My family got dressed up to meet airport arrivals. Sometimes, we drove to the airport early to eat dinner there. The airport was fun. When I was a boy, I thought of the terminal as a kind of playground. I played games with other children — races up and down the escalators, hide-and-seek in the visitor waiting areas, and when no one was paying attention we rode the baggage carousels. Even as an adult, for a few short years at least, I liked going to the airport. So much so, now and then I would receive phone calls from friends who were stuck in the terminal during a layover, and I would drive out to meet them for a drink at the airport bar.
Not anymore. That chapter of American life is over. Gone with it, I suspect, is the innocence of the young woman who asked my mother about the men and women returning from the Hajj. She expressed not fear but something like exhilaration, even wonder, at being surrounded by so many Arabs and Muslims. She wasn’t threatened. She didn’t immediately arrive at the worst possible conclusions. She didn’t think terrorists or hijackers or villains. She thought movie stars.