Comedian | Professor | Writer
(& Smartest) Arab
On September 11, 2001, I was 24 years old. I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and I woke up on that Tuesday morning around 9:15. I did what I did every morning at that time in my life. I turned on ESPN and saw the Twin Towers billowing with smoke. I thought it was a movie. I started surfing through the channels, only to find the same scene on every one. I quickly turned to CNN and started to ingest what was happening.
As the eldest son in my family, I frequently held the responsibility of taking visiting relatives to American tourist attractions. I can remember one time, a few years before 9/11, when I took three relatives to New York City. We visited Fifth Avenue, Rockefeller Center, and had a late lunch on a Manhattan pier before heading to the World Trade Center to finish our day.
As I grew up in Philadelphia, I visited New York City often, and I would seldom go without climbing to the observation deck of the Twin Towers. I could never get enough of that view. And this day was no different. I can remember my youngest cousin crying in defiance. She was terrified. The sheer sight of the towers from the ground was enough for her. Nevertheless, as she tightly grasped her mother’s hand, we headed up and captured that spectacular view. Like any American, I always felt a bit of ownership over those buildings. They were a part of my culture, a staple of American magnificence.
In December 2001, I flew for the first time after the attacks. I was flying from Detroit to Los Angeles to appear on Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect.” The staff of the show reserved my ticket the day before I left. I was flying first-class, and only staying in Los Angeles for a few hours to do the show before I returned to Detroit. Things did not look good for me. I fit the profile. As I checked in, the friendly young lady behind the ticket counter told me, with what I now realize was a scared smile, “Security is right over there, sir. You may be selected for random screening.” As I walked through the metal detector, I was delighted to hear no buzzing. As I started to gather my belongings, a female security representative looked straight at me, pointed, and forcefully announced, “Male possible!” (I think that’s code for “male possible terrorist”) I was highly offended. I looked back at her, pointed below my bellybutton and loudly proclaimed, “MALE DEFINITELY!”
9/11 changed the way we lived, thought, and talked. Previously unknown phrases became part of our everyday vocabulary:
“Random Security Check”
“They hate our freedom”
“You’re either with us or with the terrorists”
And my personal favorite… “Not all Muslims are terrorists.”
For the last 10 years, we’ve heard it all the time… “Not all Muslims are terrorists.” It is, of course, a true statement. And everyone loves saying it. “Not all Muslims are terrorists.” Of course they’re not. But we applaud people when they utter it. It’s funny how speaking an obvious truth can cause us to call someone a hero.
“Hey, Obama said ‘Not all Muslims are terrorists.’ How courageous!”
Arabs and Muslims say it too. “Not all Muslims are terrorists” is frequently a prelude to some sort of educational diatribe about Islam by someone who usually has no idea what he’s talking about. Right-wing pundits, though, love it too. You can routinely find someone on FOX News proclaiming “Not all Muslims are terrorists” right before he tells you how Islam is a dangerous threat to Western civilization. In other words, “Not all Muslims are terrorists… but be careful, some of them are!”
Whenever I hear someone say “Not all Muslims are terrorists,” I look him right in the eyes and say, “Thanks, idiot.” Imagine someone kicking off a speech by saying, “Before we get into this discussion about race, let me first say that not all black men are drug dealers… oh, and all Latinos aren’t illegal immigrants, and all Indians don’t own 7-Elevens.” It might sound a little racist. “Not all Muslims are terrorists,” on the other hand, garners applause.
Are we that defeated? Or are we just that dumb? Have we been so programmed into proving our patriotism that we’re thankful when someone pronounces a manifestly true statement? Saying “Not all Muslims are terrorists” might make people feel good, but it’s not courageous. Courage is not about speaking the obvious truths… it’s about speaking the hidden ones.
I still get profiled every now and then. Sometimes they’ll even take me off the plane to question me after I’ve gotten comfortable. Now, after they let me back on, I just look at the white guy who was already sitting next to me, sigh loudly, and say, “Not all Muslims are terrorists.” He looks like he feels better, smiles… and doesn’t talk to me for the rest of the flight.