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Off Target

Even a shopping trip can turn ugly for local Muslims

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In many respects, Dalia Mogahed couldn't have looked more American on that Tuesday afternoon in late June. She was shopping at Target with her 4-year-old son, who needed a new pair of shoes. But while Mogahed was engaged in this most patriotic of acts -- one endorsed after 9/11 by President Bush himself, you may recall -- her head-scarf attracted the ire of a female customer.

 

"Why don't you go to Iraq with the rest of the motherfuckers who keep chopping someone's head off every time you turn on the news?" Mogahed says the woman demanded.

 

 Mogahed does outreach for the Islamic Council of Greater Pittsburgh but says "This didn't seem like an opportunity" for it. The woman had a large man walking with her, and so Mogahed says she "just walked away. I pretended I didn't hear, because I did not want her to be provoked even by my turning around. But to do that so openly -- despite the fact that I had a 4-year-old in my cart -- was kind of amazing."

 

Her son had to wait for those new shoes.

 

Mogahed has heard of similar incidents in the area, like the woman who "was in a Pittsburgh mall and a woman actually came up to her and said, ‘Is that a bomb under your clothes, or are you just fat?'" The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) documented 93 hate crimes nationwide against Muslims in 2003, a small number but more than double the year before. The incidents range from minor to murderous, but it's striking to see an increase two years after 9/11. Either Muslims are becoming more assertive about reporting such crimes, or invading two largely Muslim countries hasn't satisfied some people's taste for revenge.

 

The irony is that Mogahed and other Muslims have denounced the beheadings as loudly as anyone. When the first victim, Philadelphia contractor Nick Berg, was beheaded, Mogahed's group issued a statement echoing the sentiments expressed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations: "We condemn this cold-blooded murder and repudiate all those who commit such acts of mindless violence in the name of religion."

 

The response when Americans commit atrocious acts, like the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses, is more nuanced. First we're horrified, then we watch them on TV 10,000 times. After that, we're numb enough to merely roll our eyes when right-wingers like radio host Michael Savage say the Iraqis have it coming. "We talk about fire-breathing Muslim clerics inspiring hate against America; what about fire-breathing commentators inspiring hate against Muslims?" asks Mogahed.

 

In fact, Muslims stand accused of spreading hatred when they say nothing at all. When Mogahed's group issued its Nicholas Berg statement, she told me it did so because "We hear constantly that all Muslims are guilty due to our ‘silence.' Other faiths don't suffer this guilt by association."

 

It's ludicrous, of course, that Muslims here should feel obliged to distance themselves from a fringe group of lunatics on the other side of the world. It makes as much sense as a Lutheran in Dusseldorf feeling obliged to condemn David Koresh's actions in Waco, Texas. But for some, Muslims are guilty until proven innocent. If they don't go on record opposing an act of inhuman cruelty, some will assume they endorse it.

 

We'd better be prepared to live up to that standard ourselves, because we haven't heard the last from Abu Ghraib. Seymour Hersh, the New Yorker reporter who first broke news of the prison-abuse scandal, has been saying the Pentagon is sitting on videotape of young Iraqi boys being sodomized. (The worst part, he told a mid-July gathering of the ACLU, "is the soundtrack of the boys shrieking.") And the outrage may well spawn a new round of vengeance, which will enrage us even further.

 

One striking thing about the war in Iraq is that while Americans are proud of freeing the country, some of us don't seem to understand much about its people. But if the air-conditioned aisles of Target can't insulate us from hatred, imagine how the Iraqis feel on the sweltering streets of Baghdad. If we feel threatened by a lone Muslim in a department store, imagine what it's like to live surrounded by armed troops from another country.

 

And if you're appalled by how that woman acted in Target, imagine how Dalia Mogahed feels by what she's seen on TV.

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