Thursday, August 31, 2006

My proudest day as an American Muslim came in 1999 when I was sworn in at the State Department to be this nation’s ambassador to Fiji and its Pacific island neighbors Tonga, Tuvalu and Nauru.

Almost 30 years earlier I had come to the United States as a student from my native Bangladesh. Now, I was the first Muslim U.S. ambassador to serve as chief of mission. I swore to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution with my hand on a copy of the Koran.

My pride in faith and country remain rock solid. But my real life American dream often feels more like a nightmare these days. Renegade members of my faith are committing horrendous acts of global terrorism, and I am left embarrassed and angry.

I am embarrassed when I read the names of the terrorists in the newspaper. What must non-Muslims think when some criminal claiming to act in the name of Islam and bearing the same name as the Prophet Muhammad is arrested?

I am also embarrassed that not all American Muslims do all they can to expose those in our community who would commit mayhem or would give succor in any way to those who would cause harm. Too many American Muslims hold back from publicly speaking out against extremist ideologies that threaten us all because they fear being stigmatized by their coreligionists for cooperating with security agencies.

Why is this? In part it is because some Muslim immigrants are relatively recent arrivals from nations in which security forces were corrupt and could not be trusted. Some shy from cooperation because of their immigration status or the status of those around them. Still others hold back because they disagree strongly with American foreign policy. They truly believe that the current administration is fighting a war against Islam under the guise of fighting terrorism. Regrettably, this sentiment is widespread among Muslims, more so abroad but to a substantial degree in America as well.

Our government may act incompetently and unwisely. But I’m confident that it holds no animosity toward Muslims simply because they are Muslims. Sadly, it is Muslims who perpetrate most of the worst terrorist attacks today. As we approach the fifth anniversary of September 11, this reality must be acknowledged by all Muslims.

American officials are beside themselves trying to prevent a reoccurrence of September 11. Profiling of Muslims at airports, however, is not the way to go about this. I am a middle-aged man who travels with all the credentials of a former American ambassador. Yet because I possess dark skin and have a Muslim name even I am sometimes singled out for special attention by airport security.

I understand why this happens, so I put up with it. But imagine how such treatment feels to Muslims less sophisticated than I am in the needs of government? Is it any wonder that law-abiding Muslims are offended and recoil from cooperating in any manner?

Instead of profiling, airport security officials should concentrate on behavioral patterns. Does a passenger seem unduly tense? Is their body language awkward? Do they sweat in an air conditioned airport? Intelligence combined with technology would be more efficient.

Yes, American officials sometimes act as if they are going out of their way to upset ordinary Muslims just going about their business. However, that is no excuse for not fully cooperating with the authorities.

If Muslims are to gain the full confidence of non-Muslim Americans they must come forward whenever they sense an extremist presence in their midst. If anything, we must go the extra mile in these suspicious times.

American Muslims, like all Americans, are a privileged people. We live in a land rich with opportunity. Our political freedoms are envied worldwide. American religious pluralism allows us to practice our faith in ways prohibited to us in some so-called Muslim nations.

It’s often said that freedom is never cheap. For American Muslims, the price we must pay is taking responsibility for serving as sentries in our community. Our primary communal allegiance must be to the nation in which we thrive.

In no way do I mean to imply that the American Muslim community is ridden with potential terrorists or that extremist ideologies dominate. But we fool no one, and certainly not ourselves, if we fail to admit that within our ranks are at least some individuals who have the potential to turn on America.

There is no better time to act on this truth than the fifth anniversary of September 11.

Ambassador M. Osman Siddique served the United States in Fiji, Tonga, and Nauru and Tuvalu. He also is the former chairman and CEO of ITT/Travelogue.

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