Obama, please phone the Muslim 'street vendor hero' too
By Hamid Dabashi, Special to CNN May 11, 2010
Editor's note: Hamid Dabashi is the author of "Iran: A People Interrupted." He is the Hagop Kevorkian professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York.
New York (CNN) -- Dear Mr. President: How good of you, sir, to have personally telephoned two New York heroes whose timely diligence prevented a lunatic from causing a catastrophe in Times Square.
We New Yorkers are happy to hear you called Mr. Lance L. Orton Sr. and Mr. Duane Jackson to thank them for their vigilance. But there is a third vendor, Mr. President, whom you forgot to call. His name is Alioune B. Niass, and he is an immigrant from Somalia who said he was the first person to notice the smoking Nissan Pathfinder.
"I thought I should call 911," Niass later told a reporter, "but my English is not very good and I had no credit left on my phone, so I walked over to Lance, who has the T-shirt stall next to mine, and told him. He said we shouldn't call 911. Immediately he alerted a police officer nearby."
Here in New York, Mr. President, we are not particular about which one of these great New Yorkers saw that deadly car first, alerted the police and prevented a disaster. The Big Apple has a big heart, and the magnificent city of New York has room for plenty of heroes. But we are also very fair people. So we would be grateful if you could kindly call Mr. Niass and thank him for us.
There is another reason besides fairness. Mr. Niass is a Muslim from Somalia, and some of us Muslim-Americans have a suspicion that your staff might not have brought him to your attention because the idea of a Muslim hero in New York does not quite dovetail with the stereotype.
If there is an American of Muslim descent who commits, or tries to commit, a criminal act, as Faisal Shahzad apparently did, we Muslims feel we are all suddenly suspects. We feel we need to explain ourselves. Yet if there is a hero among us whose love for our city does not fit the stereotype, he is ignored. This is not fair, and we believe you, as our president, can do much to alleviate this burden on us and our children.
Imagine millions of Muslim children who go to school across America every day, just like your own children. Imagine how proud they would feel if you were to call Mr. Niass. That pride of place, that we and our children deserve, would go a long way to alleviating the pain of the bigotry and racism that is aimed at us. We too would feel at home here and be even more diligent in safeguarding and protecting our cities from criminal atrocities.
You recall, Mr. President, during your presidential campaign you were, and still are, repeatedly "accused" of being a Muslim -- as if being a Muslim were a crime. We were hoping every time you denied being a Muslim that you would add, "and if I were a Muslim, there is nothing wrong with it."
Finally, it was former Secretary of State Colin Powell who came out and said so when answering people who claimed you are Muslim: "He's a Christian; has always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, 'What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?'" We were relieved and grateful.
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