Is It Safe Yet?

For Muslims in St. Louis, politics gets personal as fear dominates their lives

Haijer has listened ruefully to America's new obsession with terrorism, afraid to remind anyone that in her homeland, it's a daily concern. "My cousin's 23-year-old brother was killed just because he tried to help someone injured," she says. "He took him inside his car to try to take him to the hospital, and they shot him. Then they destroyed his house with bombs from U.S.-made Apache helicopters."

Haijer insists she's changed nothing in her own life since Sept. 11 because she has done nothing wrong. "Islam means peace," she emphasizes. "Instead of 'Hi,' we say, 'Salaam alaykum,' 'Peace be upon you.'"

"Do you go out as much?" Nadine interrupts softly.

Osama Elfar: "The FBI asked me who I knew and how I  came here."
Osama Elfar: "The FBI asked me who I knew and how I came here."
Osama Elfar: "The FBI asked me who I knew and how I  came here."
Osama Elfar: "The FBI asked me who I knew and how I came here."

"Well, no," she admits, then adds in a rush: "Last week I was shopping at Schnucks, and suddenly I heard people around me talking about terrorists and where they came from and the way they wear clothes. I am embarrassed -- I couldn't wait to go out of that store. I used to walk around the block every day, but since then I stopped." She takes a deep breath. "Every time I go out, somebody looks at me different. The first time, I thought I didn't care, but when I went home and started praying, I started to cry."

Hedy nods, thinking of the times she's been vilified by her own people for her support of Palestinian rights. On Sept. 25, after a meeting of the Holocaust Commission, another member looked right through her to address a mutual friend. The next morning, Hedy called her: "She apologized, but then she went into all the things that I have done, the vigil I helped organize, and she said that I am anti-Semitic, that I cause anti-Semitism. She said, 'I know you have the right to say what you want -- but don't.'"

The next Sunday, Hedy went to the Jewish Federation for a screening of a film about a German doctor involved in Nazi experiments during the Holocaust. Afterward, she stood, eager to tell the audience about a phone call she'd received two weeks before from one of a pair of twins experimented on by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. "She told me she had interviewed this other doctor and that at the end of their conversation, she forgave him. She said he was an old man, and she wanted to ease his last days." Hedy's story was met with a wave of fury. "One woman listed all the people she'd lost in the Holocaust and said, 'I will never, ever, ever forget.' Another said, 'Yeah, 6,000 people were lost in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, but we lost 6 million.' A man said he was a veteran of World War II and he wished we'd dropped the atomic bomb on Germany and killed all the Germans. The moderator, who is Jewish and from Germany, said, 'I am glad that this bomb was not dropped, because my wife is a German Christian.' But even that didn't stop them."

"You can imagine what they'd want to do to us," Nadine inserts ruefully.

"I want Israel to exist," continues Hedy, "but not in its current form. I feel in many ways some of the persecutees have become the persecutors." When Jewish friends, terrified of losing the homeland they've created, counter with their own version, she tells them it's revisionist history: "It's Israel right or wrong. They are unquestioning. I'm afraid that perhaps it's a human trait."

"There are a lot of things I'm afraid to question right now," confesses Nadine. "I think whoever did this, we need proof, and I am afraid to say that, because it sounds like I'm harboring the enemy. If I say something like 'Iraqi oppression,' I'm a radical, I'm trying to stand up for Saddam Hussein. If I say we have to ask ourselves why this happened -- it isn't because we have swimming pools and we wear bikinis, it isn't because we're more beautiful; we have to look at our foreign policy -- if I say that, it's going to sound like I'm one of them. And I'm not, and I never will be."

Basia Waite-Wright directs health and mental-health services at the International Institute and conducts in-depth, long-term therapy with survivors of war trauma and persecution. For them, the continuous, graphic, immediate coverage of "America's New War" is merging the terrors of the past with those of the future. "At the beginning," Waite-Wright says, "when the president was saying, 'Don't worry, it's not going to be a war in the conventional sense,' the Bosnians said, 'It's just like it was with us. They were telling us, "Don't worry, it's not going to be a war." Then, once the reports started to come out about the terrorists' being Muslims, that triggered a terrible fear of persecution."

Waite-Wright tried logic with her clients: Yes, incidents had happened already, but it could have been much worse; these were not mass assaults, and this was not an officially sanctioned view. "They agree for a moment," she says, "but then they talk about the times when it was enough just to have a Muslim name or Muslim clothing. They say, 'Will my child be discriminated against? Will I be the first to be laid off from work?'"

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