Of Terror Scares and Stereotypes

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On September 13, two days after the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks, three Muslim men were detained by Florida law enforcement officials on suspicion of plotting a terrorist attack. A customer in a Georgia restaurant, 44-year-old Eunice Stone, told police that she overheard a conversation in which one of the men said Americans had mourned on September 11 and would mourn again on September 13. That was enough evidence to move law enforcement officials to track the three medical students, shut down a stretch of highway in south Florida for several hours, and search their vehicles with both sniffer dogs and a robot. In fact, live television showed a bomb squad team blowing up what appeared to be a backpack. After 17 hours of detention, the three were released without being charged.

Contrast this false alarm with another case, also from Florida. In August, police arrested Dr. Robert J. Goldstein and charged him with possession of a non-registered destructive device and attempting to use an explosive to damage and destroy Islamic centers.

Deputies found more than 30 explosive devices, including hand grenades and a 5-gallon gasoline bomb with a timer and a wire attached, and a licensed cache of up to 40 weapons, including .50-caliber machine guns and sniper rifles, during a search of Goldstein’s Seminole home. They say they also found a typed list of approximately 50 Islamic worship centers. Almost immediately, the judge in the case ordered that the doctor undergo psychological testing.

Why? Is it because Muslims are considered to be violent by their very nature, and potential acts of terrorism by non-Muslims must be, a priori, due to some mental deficiency? It seems so, unfortunately. Although Dr. Goldstein openly admitted he wanted to kill, in his words, “Islamic rags,” his mental state has become a major issue from the very beginning of the case. For why else would a non-Muslim American want to terrorize other Americans if he were not mentally ill? Yet, no one questioned alleged shoe bomber Richard Reid’s mental health. Would not attempting to detonate a bomb in one’s shoe be a glaring sign of mental illness? Not for a Muslim, apparently. The Muslim medical students were considered terrorists until proven innocent. It is a disturbing double standard, but it illustrates how entreched is the notion of Arabs and Muslims being terrorists.

I do not blame law enforcement officials. Their response may have been a bit exaggerated, but it is their duty to follow up on potential threats to our safety. I am thankful that they released the men after finding no evidence against them. Many Muslims have expressed anger at Ms. Stone’s action. This is only natural as every American Muslim can see this happening to them (and you wonder why Muslims are wary of Operation TIPS).

Surprisingly, the three students are not angry with Ms. Stone, and we should follow their lead. Anger is the wrong response; education is the answer. I strongly doubt Ms. Stone ever met a Muslim American before this incident. I would be delighted to see the Muslim community reach out to Ms. Stone, teach her about Islam, and show her the humanity of her American Muslim neighbors. Such a gesture will make our country a better place for everyone. Without education and outreach, I fear incidents such as these becoming more commonplace, tearing at the very fabric of our unity as a people. This is what the terrorists who attacked us wanted to happen, and we cannot let them win.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and columnist for Beliefnet.com and the Independent Writers Syndicate.é He is also contributing author to the forthcoming book Taking Back Islam: American Muslims Reclaim Their Faith, due to be released by Rodale in November 2002.

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