Things not to say if you are a Muslim in America

January 12, 2009|By LEONARD PITTS JR.

Today's column is presented as a public service for Muslim readers. Call it a list of Things Not To Say If You Are Muslim.

The need for such a list is illustrated by a New Year's Day incident at Washington's Reagan National Airport. An AirTran Airways flight was delayed two hours and a group of nine Muslims - eight family members and a friend - was refused permission to fly after two teenage girls overheard a member of the group say that sitting near the engines would be particularly unsafe in the event of an accident.

The girls told their parents, who told flight attendants. Next thing you know, 104 passengers are cooling their heels as the plane and all its baggage are rechecked by security officials. Even after the plane was cleared to fly and the group - eight of them native-born U.S. citizens - was determined to be no threat, they were still not allowed back on the plane. They wound up paying for seats on another carrier.

So there you have No. 1 on the list of Things Not To Say If You Are Muslim: Do not say anything about air safety. Granted, that's a staple, albeit morbid, topic for skittish fliers the world over, but you are not "the world over." You are Muslims in America, post 9/11. If you discuss air safety even to defend it, we will have to conclude that you are a terrorist.

No. 2. Do not use "gee" words. Do not say jeepers, gee-whiz, Jesus or Jehosophat. Someone listening in may think you said "jihad" and we will have to conclude that you are a terrorist.

No. 3: Do not say jihad. If you do, we will have to conclude that you are a terrorist.

No. 4: Do not discuss movie history. Eventually, someone will observe that Ishtar was one of Hollywood's all-time biggest bombs. Someone listening in will report that you plan to blow up Hollywood and we will have to conclude that you are a terrorist.

No. 5: Do not talk sports. Somebody might say, "Boy, I hate the Dolphins." Then the Department of Homeland Security will have to shut down SeaWorld, Shamu will have to be guarded by unsmiling men in sunglasses, and we will have to conclude that you are a terrorist.

No. 6: Do not discuss the weather. If someone says, "I can't believe it's raining again today" and someone else says, "Weatherman says it's going to be even worse tomorrow," and then the first someone says, "Any more of this and we're all going to drown," someone listening in will report a plot to blow up the levees and flood the town. And we will have to conclude that you are a terrorist.

Indeed, it occurs to me that it might be easier to list the things that are safe for you to talk about, that won't make some eavesdropper think you an evil, America-hating outsider. There are two things. The first: lawsuits. There is nothing more reflective of American values than suing the so-and-sos who have mistreated and embarrassed you. Indeed, one of the detained Muslims told The New York Times, "We have not ruled out the possibility of legal action." It struck just the right tone, saying to skeptical fellow Americans in no uncertain terms: Hey, we are just like you.

The second thing on the list of safe topics: baseball. Yes, I know what I said about sports. Baseball isn't sports. It's hot dogs, blue skies, home runs, Americana at its most iconic. Besides, it's OK to say you hate the Yankees. Most people do.

Yes, you may think it pathetic that Americans have become such a skittish, paranoid lot that you can only talk about lawsuits and baseball without arousing suspicion. But look on the bright side: Spring training begins next month.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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