The People's Right to Know

Scripps-Howard News Service 9.18.01
Balint Vazsonyi

"It is very important," Vice President Dick Cheney lifted a finger for emphasis on NBC's Meet the Press last Sunday, "that we do not convey an impression as if we had declared war on Islam."

He was just one in a long line of men and women who warn us about blaming Arabs or Muslims. The other night, Tom Brokaw's voice reached fever pitch as he called those engaged in finger pointing "bigots, bigots, bigots."

It is very commendable and very American that we want to guard against harm coming to innocent Arabs and Muslims, especially when most of us have a good idea about the bloodbath, were the tables turned.

But I believe we might have the entire question upside-down.

Americans may have reason to believe that it is Islam that has declared war on the rest of us. Many have given passionate assurances on television that the events of September 11 represent an aberration of Islam. The trouble is that the people I have heard were neither Arab nor Muslim. Americans need to hear such disclaimers from the source. Yes, expressions of "regret about the loss of life" have come our way, but a word from the Imam at Friday's national prayer meeting, asking Allah to forgive the crimes committed in his name, would have lent much more substance.

Instead, he pleaded that we protect his brethren from harm.

The Arab community and the Muslim community now have a unique opportunity to line up with America in an unequivocal manner. They also have, I think, an urgent necessity to do so - here is why.

Of the nineteen highjacker/mass-murderers, nineteen were Arab Muslims. Not eighteen, not seventeen - all nineteen. Not one Norwegian, Bushman, or Tibetan among them. And Arab Muslims have been attacking civil aviation over a period of thirty years by now. We may not approve of ethnic/racial/religious profiling, but they have done their own.

Now to a more distant, though no less relevant, story.

It is Thanksgiving 1990. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are spending it in Saudi Arabia, invited by its rulers to protect the country - not against the infidel, but against a fellow Arab Moslem, Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Having raped Kuwait, Iraqi forces were poised to storm Saudi Arabia, a country unable to defend itself.

President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush, arrived to share the Thanksgiving meal with the armed forces whose Commander in Chief he was. Upon arrival, the Saudi hosts informed him that the sight of a banquet connected in any way, shape or form with Christian traditions, giving thanks to God, was so hateful to Moslems that the president and his lot would have to repair to the high seas, far from the shores that would be soiled, defaced, desecrated by their act and presence.

(Astonishingly, the President of the United States complied.)

The foregoing did not happen in Islamic fundamentalist Iran, or under the Mullah of the Taliban regime in fanatical Afghanistan. It did not happen in communist South Yemen. It happened in enlightened, America-friendly Saudi Arabia, whence princes of exquisite taste come to be celebrated among the playboys of the Western world.

Here then is a question Americans are entitled to have answered. When Arabs and other Moslems arrive and settle in America, when and how does the miraculous transformation occur whereby the Christianity - or Judaism - that surrounds them ceases to offend?

The job for a Ted Koppel today is to assemble a group of serious representatives and scholars of Islam who are leaders of their communities in America. We would like to hear from them, first hand, readings from the Koran, and from the works of distinguished Islamic scholars, in which specific teachings are promulgated about religious tolerance. We need to know whether the willingness to live in peace with others is viewed as a temporary concession or a permanent state.

A few suggestions for making the event a success.

Please, on this occasion, try not to lecture us on the Palestinians and Israel. The slightest attempt at justifying the events of September 11 renders all further discussions moot.

Bear in mind that our own commitment to religious tolerance is enshrined in the supreme law of the land - it is independent of all religions.

If you propose that Jews, Christians and Muslims all believe in the same God, please explain why we cannot give thanks to our shared God in Saudi Arabia.

I do not envy our Arab and Moslem neighbors. Given their realities, it is hard to see how they can distance themselves from the "Arab Cause" - which is simply to drown every Israeli man, woman and child in the sea off Haifa. Our reality is that, protestations notwithstanding, Tuesday's attacks were committed on behalf of the "Arab Cause."

On Sunday, Tim Russert looked Vice President Cheney straight in the eye. "The first confirmation of highjacking occurred at 8:20," he said. "The Pentagon was hit at 9:40. How could that much time not give us the opportunity to act?"

Mr. Cheney hung his head. "Americans," said the Vice President of the United States, "are not trained to destroy civilian airliners."

Apparently, Arabs are.

The people have a right to know whether or not Arabs and Moslems who live in our midst are different.

Only they can give us that assurance.