Pledging Allegiance

All of a sudden, some immigrants are compelled to show their patriotism

Sep 19, 2001 at 4:00 am
With all the media hand-wringing over 9-11 day, about how America Under Attack/ America on Alert/America United/America Rising would never be the same, all appeared quiet on the Midwestern front last week. Mayor Francis Slay, with distant cousins back in Lebanon who know all about the results of terrorism, held a City Hall multifaith news conference complete with a rabbi, a priest, a minister, a sheik, two imams and a police chief.

His goal, Slay says, was to keep the domestic peace. "We have a lot of Muslims, a lot of Bosnians who are Muslims," he says. "We're not fighting each other; we're fighting these terrorists who are not representative of the Islamic community. To vent our anger, vent our frustrations against innocent people within our community, would only play into the hands of the terrorists who are trying to divide us."

No, the only local example of anti-Islamic prejudice that flared up was not the handiwork of terrorists; it turned out to a creation of the media -- and a few ignorant radio listeners. A caller to WIL (92.3 FM) said she had overheard Muslim clerks at the 7-Eleven at Morganford Road and Juniata Street saying America had gotten what it deserved. That triggered threatening calls to the store, as well as another call to the station from someone who got on the air to say he had been refused service at the 7-Eleven because he was an American.

Apparently radio's seven-second delay is used to prevent the broadcast of profanities, not to regulate cretins. Of course, the charges were a hoax and a fraud. What fool would say, or believe, that a 7-Eleven in South St. Louis would refuse service to Americans? How long would it stay in business if it waited for turban-wearing Taliban members to stop by for a Slurpee, a bottle of Boone's Farm kiwi-strawberry wine and a bag of barbecued pork rinds? That and maybe a copy of the Evening Whirl.

Plainclothes police checked out the charges by showing up at the store as customers. They were served. They checked the video-surveillance tape. Case closed.

The Muslim clerks at 7-Eleven weren't the only anxious immigrants subjected to scrutiny. In what promised to be a brief diversion from the frantic and redundant media coverage of the obvious, Larry Conners and Julius Hunter of KMOV-TV (Channel 4) hosted an in-studio guest -- Arsalan Tariq Iftikhar of the St. Louis chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations -- on Thursday's 6 p.m. newscast. Iftikhar, seated next to the Channel 4 graybeards, was fresh from an interfaith vigil at Washington University and seemed ready to accentuate the positive.

But Hunter quickly cut through any pretense of insight by asking him a variation on a When did you Muslims stop saying death to the infidels? question. Julius wanted to know: "How can Osama bin Laden and his apostles, his disciples, where in the Quran can they take their venom and their feeling they must kill?"

Iftikhar replied that such justification exists "nowhere in the Quran" and that the Islamic holy book "condemns and forbids" the killing of innocent people. "Osama bin Laden's actions were about as Islamic as Timothy McVeigh's actions were Christian," he said, adding that most of this country's 7 million Muslims are "numb from what happened." Iftikhar did allow that Muslims worldwide have issues with America, including the effects on Iraqi children of the trade embargo on their country, the U.S.'s constant support of Israel and the contention that in Africa, the U.S. is either missing in action or insensitive to Islamic interests.

Conners, ever polite and oblivious, was unmoved. He reached for a question reminiscent of what CNN's Bernard Shaw asked candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988. (In one of the presidential debates, Shaw asked Dukakis whether he'd still oppose the death penalty if his wife were raped and killed. A robotic Dukakis said he would still oppose it -- and later lost the election.) With Iftikhar asserting that American Muslims want "swift and expedient justice done" to whoever orchestrated the suicide attacks, Conners wanted to see just how patriotic Iftikhar was.

"I'm going to take it one step closer to you on a personal level," warned Conners. "You have family still back in that area -- if they suddenly become targets of American fighters, inadvertently, are you still going have the same feelings?"

"It's a tough question," Iftikhar replied. "Fortunately enough, I come from a Pakistani origin, and I read on BBC News before coming here that the Pakistani president has offered his unflinching support of Bush in whatever methods he deems necessary." Conners plowed ahead anyway: "But if your relatives and friends become targets, sir, even if they are -- 'collateral damage' is the phrase that's thrown around, unfortunately?"

"Hopefully they're far enough away so that it won't happen," Iftikhar said. "Only time can tell what's going to happen."

With local news anchors in effect probing the loyalty of American citizens, is it any surprise that some immigrants felt it necessary to pledge their allegiance in a public way? On Sunday, about 50 Vietnamese-Americans holding South Vietnamese flags walked along South Grand Boulevard near Tower Grove Park to demonstrate their support of America. It was a curious and encouraging sight, with 58-year-old Lan Tran stopping several times to say through a bullhorn: "We support President Bush and all the government people in fight against terrorists." People passing by in cars gave as many confused looks as they did shouts of support; there were only two or three American flags in the mix.

As the group started to break up at Arsenal and Grand, a woman on a bike got in a brief discussion with several of the Vietnamese about how they shouldn't really push for war. Hoa Tran, a 49-year-old former helicopter pilot for the South Vietnamese Army, walked away from the advice shaking his head. He served nine years in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp and came to America in 1984.

"I don't want a war," he said. "We don't want to take another country. We want to defend our country."