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Life Support: Fingerprinting a faith

Suspicion falls on millions of Muslims in America who are nothing like the bin Laden stereotype

Thursday, March 06, 2003

By Mona Eltahawy

So, have you turned yourself in yet?" my brother's friend asked him, with only a hint of a laugh.

Daniel Marsula, Post-Gazette

They are Egyptian, and between now and March 28, they must register with and be fingerprinted by the U.S. government under the Justice Department's "special registration program."

They had heard, of course, of the hundreds of men and boys from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Sudan who had reported voluntarily to be registered in California in December, only to be arrested and shipped off to detention centers. Many of the arrested were in the United States legally, awaiting final decisions on their green-card applications.

Males 16 and older from 25 nations -- all Muslim or Arab, with the exception of North Korea -- must register under the program, which began in September. It is aimed at temporary foreign visitors who present "increased national security concerns."

I know I speak for millions of Muslims in this country when I say I feel a disconnect between what our beliefs and lives are actually like and what we hear they are like in government statements and news reports.

My brother and his friend are residents in internal medicine at a university hospital in Michigan. They were both named junior residents of the year, and yet their achievements and work mean nothing to the Justice Department, which sees only their religion and ethnicity and equates them with increased security concerns.

Similarly, I've had to remind myself over the past few days what hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage, means to me and other Muslims for whom it is one of the highest pillars of our religion.

When Attorney General John Ashcroft raised the country's alert status from "elevated risk" to "high risk," he made the connection between terror and hajj and the holiday that marks the end of the pilgrimage season, Eid al-Adha.

"Recent reporting indicates an increased likelihood that al-Qaida may attempt to attack Americans in the United States and/or abroad in or around the end of the hajj, a Muslim religious period ending mid-February 2003," Ashcroft said as he announced that the country was on Code Orange alert.

With that sentence, the attorney general took the highlight of the Muslim calendar and rendered it a blip on the terrorist radar. Never mind that 2 million Muslims converged peacefully on Mecca and its environs for the five-day ritual that symbolizes spiritual cleansing and rebirth.

Once again, because of the 19 men behind the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001, our faith is relevant only for its terror quotient.

This year my parents, sister, aunt and two cousins were among those 2 million. I could hear their excitement and exhaustion when they called my brother and me from Mecca to wish us a happy Eid.

For us, Eid was not associated with any of the colors of the attorney general's terror chart. We spent the first evening of the holiday at the home of other Egyptian Muslims in Michigan, where we greeted each other with "Kul sanna wentom tayyebeen" -- May you be blessed and well every year.

Conversation was much the same as at any other holiday party. There were jokes about a traffic officer who had given my brother two speeding tickets in as many weeks. My sister-in-law, an ob/gyn resident who is five months pregnant, explained how she had performed an ultrasound on herself a couple of days earlier. My soon-to-be niece had moved her arm, but the way we saw it was: "She waved!"

One of the single men told the group he'd just come back from Cancun, spurring the married men to joke that they should take a husbands-only vacation south of the border. We all worried about the impending war. "Why isn't anyone talking about Iraqi civilians?" one of our friends asked.

Everyone ate too much and the conversation lost out to the children, who took over by putting on a "Harry Potter" movie.

The next day, when Osama bin Laden's latest statement dominated the headlines, my sister-in-law and I groaned, "Oh, no, not another one."

We feel stuck between, on the one hand, U.S. officials who we worry may be planning to count every mosque and fingerprint every Muslim and Arab man, all the while linking our holidays with terrorist attacks, and, on the other, Osama bin Laden, seemingly bent on fitting every stereotype in the book.

Yes, there are people out there who want to harm America, and some of them are Muslim. Yes, some of those who want to harm America live here or will try to enter the country. But making every Arab or Muslim man register and be fingerprinted and counting minarets is not the way to find them.

Meanwhile, Muslims go to work, celebrate their holidays and hope that they won't always be between that rock and hard place.

Mona Eltahawy is a New York-based writer. She wrote this for The Washington Post.

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