Compassion, prejudice and American Muslims

By Walied Shater
Saturday, May 15, 2010

I woke up early on Sept. 12, 2001, to get ready for work. I put on my best suit, my only custom-made shirt, my most expensive Nordstrom tie. I shined my shoes. I was tense and nervous and did not know what to expect from my co-workers. I had, by chance, been off duty the day before, the day of the horrific attacks on the United States, and of course by late evening on Sept. 11, the names of the suspected hijackers began to come out. All were Arabic or Muslim names like mine.

Since January 2000, I had been assigned to the most important division in the U.S. Secret Service: the Presidential Protective Division, commonly known as PPD. I held a top-secret clearance, reported to the White House daily, and traveled routinely on Air Force One or Marine One with the president. I loved the experience. I had never felt discriminated against at work or socially, except for a few "terrorist" jokes. I was a welcomed and trusted member of the division.

Sept. 12 was different, though. Nineteen men had killed close to 3,000 Americans the day before in the name of my religion.

As I entered the White House, I prepared myself mentally for the verbal barrage to come. I had grown up a tough kid in Brooklyn and had been raised a proud American Muslim.

As I walked to the office for agents on the president's detail, I was intercepted by a supervisor named Ron. When he asked to speak with me, I said I had to put my equipment bag in the office and would come right back. I was trying to buy time to get ready for what might come. As I approached Ron, a tall and strong man in his early 50s, I thought, "Here it comes, stay cool."

Ron put his hand on my right shoulder and said: "Walied, I am glad you are here with us today." My defenses crumbled, and my eyes welled up at this simple act of compassion. I said thanks and excused myself.

Ron stood up as a preemptive strike to anyone who might have said something to me that day. He told me I belonged. He embodied what was great about America. As the day went on I felt ashamed of the fears I had felt earlier.

When I concluded my five-year assignment on the PPD in 2005, managers told me I had led more presidential security advance teams than any other agent since 2000. My wife and I were proud of my work and proud for a nation in which an American Muslim can achieve anything. That is America.

Today, though, American Muslims feel under siege. Too many feel the American dream is not for them. For a few, radicalization is the next step. Anti-Muslim rhetoric has reached epic proportions in broader U.S. society -- largely tolerated, rarely condemned. While "terrorism experts" cite frequent travel to Muslim countries or Internet videos as primers for radicalization, the core primer, which is largely unremarked upon, is the siege mentality surrounding American Muslims.

Many factors contribute to this mentality, including rhetoric from fringe hate groups, the demonization of Muslims by Hollywood and repeated questions of loyalty by (conservative)

commentators. Nothing is more debilitating to the psyche of American Muslims than to have those in positions of authority remain silent after such

comments or, worse, contribute to the hostility.

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