Jamal Mohamed was born in Lebanon, but he is an American. "I love the Beatles. I played rock and roll. I mean, I did everything Americans do; I just happened to be born to parents of Arabic extraction," Mohamed says, "and I happen to be a Muslim." At the moment, unfortunately, those two facts are enough to make Mohamed--a percussion instructor and dance musician at Southern Methodist University's Meadows School of the Arts who also performs with the Middle Eastern jazz group Beledi Ensemble and a number of bands in the area--a target for fear and suspicion. Since the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed on September 11 after a terrorist attack, frustrated citizens have sadly begun to take vengeance into their own hands. Anyone with a different skin color or accent is caught in the crosshairs of people who don't understand the Islamic religion. As Mohamed sees it, too many people have let their anger obscure one simple fact: All Americans are immigrants.
"Americans come in all colors and shapes and sizes and religions," Mohamed says. "There's Buddhist-Americans and Muslim-Americans. I have American friends who've converted to Islam--blond-haired and blue-eyed good ol' boys who just happen to follow the Islamic religion. I think it's just a lot of misunderstanding. It's this 'us against them,' and there is no 'them' except for evil, and we all need to fight against evil. The bottom line is, we're Americans, and we're just as much American as anybody else. Unless you're an American Indian, we all came from somewhere at some point."
Too many people don't agree or simply don't care. Instead, they're rushing to judgment. In Mesa, Arizona, Balbir Singh Sodhi, an Indian-immigrant gas station owner, was shot and killed on Saturday, and a Lebanese-American clerk at another Mesa-area gas station was the target for more gunfire later that day, though he was uninjured. Locally, a Molotov cocktail was tossed into the Islamic Society of Denton mosque about 2:30 a.m. on September 13; no one was inside the building, and the resulting fire did only minor damage. The Islamic Center of Irving and the Madinah Masjid in Carrollton had windows shot out the night before.
Mohamed has, so far, avoided much harassment, mainly, he believes, because of the more liberal atmosphere at SMU. "People that are artists, I think they tend to be a little more thoughtful before they rush to condemn people," he says. But he can feel it in the air and in the streets. And in the mail: Jamal's brother, Buddy Mohmed (who uses the traditional spelling of his surname), also a musician, had one of the CDs by his band American Bedouin anonymously returned last week. Mohmed, reached by e-mail, is much more cautious with his words than his brother, fearing the worst.
"I am not a Muslim--not that it's anybody's business," Mohmed begins. "I am a second-generation American. I abhor and condemn the terror perpetrated in New York, as well as the terror perpetrated daily across the globe. I am afraid to respond fully and openly. I know all of my correspondences and electronic communications are perused carefully, and the wrong word can lead to harassment, pain and even death. I feel like a black man in the South in the '50s must have felt."
As it was then, Jamal Mohamed believes people are acting on false stereotypes and ignorance, rather than hard facts and education. In the wake of the attack, President Bush repeated that our way of life is under attack. Now, the way of life for many Muslim-Americans is under attack as well.
"People, all of the sudden, are associating their religion or the ethnicity with this despicable thing that happened," Mohamed says. "I just ask people, after Timothy McVeigh did what he did, did we look at, 'OK, let's go after Christians? Or go after Americans?' I mean, he was an American Christian, but he was also a twisted, evil person, and there's twisted, evil people in every religion and every ethnicity. There's good and bad in everybody. Most people know that, and the people that don't understand that, I don't know what to do about that. Any thoughtful person can see these were evil people...I think there's a lot of misunderstanding about the Islamic religion, which is very disturbing to me.
"People should take the time to investigate the religion before they condemn it," he continues. "The people that perpetrated this have absolutely nothing to do with the Muslim religion. They might claim to be Muslims, but as soon as they did that, they're no longer Muslims, because in the Koran, in the holiest book that everybody follows, it explicitly forbids the taking of innocent life...That's all religions--Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism--any bona fide religion does not condone murder. It's just an obvious thing."
If only it were obvious to everyone...
"It's been a hard two days," Toni Isabella said September 12, her voice full of exasperation and exhaustion. Though she's on the other side of the country, the reverberations of last week's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon rumbled through her San Francisco office. As the general manager of 75 Ark, a West Coast hip-hop label, she's had to deal with reams of "crazy, crazy e-mail" from people who were outraged by an album cover she was only moments away from sending to the printer before the WTC and Pentagon were attacked. The cover in question is for Party Music, the latest from The Coup, on which the band is seen "detonating" the World Trade Center in what looks to be a scene lifted directly from the non-stop news coverage. The image is eerie, frightening: As the twin towers explode, front man Boots and DJ Pam are seen with huge grins spread across their faces. They look victorious.
"The Coup has always been very vocal about their anti-establishment views, and I support their music," says Isabella, who reminds that the image has appeared on the Web and in myriad music publications since June with nary a peep of protest. "This was merely symbolic of that. People see [the World Trade Center] obviously as a symbol of American imperialism, the financial dominance of America--everything. It really is that, and artists have used it in the past merely as a symbol, a physical symbol. It was never meant to be literal in any way. It's just an unfortunate timing."
Isabella first learned of the attack when two employees called her shortly afterward. They were panicked, wanting to know what they were to do about the Party Music cover, which was to go to press that afternoon. Boots was out of the country, so she made the decision herself to yank it. She also yanked the image from the label's Web site, but the band's publicity firm, Manhattan-based Girlie Action, wasn't open Tuesday or Wednesday, and the cover was left on their site for anyone to copy and paste and pass around the Internet. By Tuesday's end, Isabella was inundated with hate mail.
"It was just way too available for a day and a half for people to pass around, and that's what I object to," she says. "If you hate it so much, why are you passing it around? Everybody just wants to stir the pot...They just are angry, and who can blame them for being angry? But they have to throw it on us, and there's no response we can give or nothing we can do."
Except pull the image, which we've included here. Not that we're trying to stir the pot.
--Additional reporting by Robert Wilonsky