The emotional conversation Americans are having about constructing an Islamic center near Ground Zero brings to mind a talk I gave to a River Forest grade school class a few weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The school teacher was concerned that his students were developing an anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bias in the aftermath of the attacks. He asked me to talk to his class in hopes that I, an elected official with an Iraqi Muslim father and an American Christian mother, could counteract the biases that were developing.
I started my talk by discussing Timothy McVeigh, the perpetrator of the 1995 terrorist act in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people. Timothy McVeigh’s race was caucasian; he was a United States citizen; he was raised in the Catholic faith; he had served in the U.S. Army; and he grew up around Buffalo, N.Y.
The students agreed that it would be silly to fear all white people because Timothy McVeigh was white. They also agreed that it made no sense to fear Catholics, people named Timothy, U.S. soldiers or residents of western New York on account of Timothy McVeigh. In the context of an American society that the students knew well, it was clear that Timothy McVeigh was an aberration.
Then I asked the students to look at a list of four Arab names that were very different from the names they were used to. Three of the names were of the terrorists that attacked the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. The fourth name was mine.
After the exercise involving Timothy McVeigh, it was clear to the students that they should not be afraid of me just because my name had similarities with the names of the Sept. 11 terrorists. But without the McVeigh example, the exercise with the Arab names would have been more difficult. This is not because of any bias on the part of the students, but rather because many of the students had only heard of Arabs and Muslims in association with terrorist attacks. Thus the students did not know that terrorism is not normal behavior among Arabs and Muslims.
A similar lack of knowledge about Arabs and Muslims lies behind today’s fears about an Islamic center near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks. Some say that an Islamic center near Ground Zero would be insensitive to the pain caused by Islamic terrorists. But this view assumes that al-Qaida’s murderous attacks against innocent people represented the wishes of all Muslims. This view is belied, however, by the fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not commit murder.
Timothy McVeigh’s act of terrorism represented nothing but his own twisted view of the world; the same is true of al-Qaida’s terrorist acts. It would be terribly unfair to attribute McVeigh’s actions to Catholics, soldiers or New Yorkers. It is equally unfair to lump the world’s one billion Muslims into the same category as the 20 who carried out the attacks of Sept. 11.
Through my father’s friends and family, I have met numerous Arabs and Muslims. I have found great diversity in the personalities of these people, just as I have found great diversity in the personalities of the members of other groups whom I have known. Arabs and Muslims do not all think alike, and neither do members of other groups. This is why it is important not to assume that the act of one Muslim represents the wishes of all others.
The Arabs and Muslims who seek to build the Islamic center had nothing to do with the al-Qaida attacks. They should not be criticized as being insensitive to the pain suffered on Sept. 11 merely because they and the perpetrators of the attacks have a common ethnicity and religion.
Ali ElSaffar is the Oak Park Township assessor, but he wrote this letter as a citizen who lives in Oak Park. This piece originally appeared in the Southwest News, a local newspaper covering Bridgeview, Orland Park and other southwest suburbs.