New York City sustained another terrorist attack this morning, a mercifully failed bombing at

New York’s Port Authority, a major commuter and travel hub. No one was seriously injured and the bomber was burned and lacerated but survived.  He’s most certainly going to wish that he did not.

Akayed Ullah, a 27-year-old originally from Bangladesh, was clearly responding to the call from ISIS to attack New York City during the holiday season.

I heard the news, freaked out, calmed down, then started thinking about why these solo terrorists, who are not only willing but want to incinerate themselves in the name of ISIS, are able to persist.  My mind wandered for a second to the NYPD’s constant reminder to New Yorkers “if you see something, say something.” Then, a question popped into my head that I’ve pondered before but haven’t vocalized in my efforts not to be incendiary. I guess Ullah’s actions this morning tipped me over the edge.

With the strong caveat that this is a question (actually a two-part question), not a condemnation, I want to know:

  • Why are Muslim communities, particularly the ones that are not fully assimilated, not “seeing something and saying something?” There is no way that a tightly-knit group of people would have zero idea about what’s going on in their midst. And suppose the law-abiding community members really don’t have any specifics, there’s no way they aren’t noticing, at the very least, suspicious looking people.  For God’s sake…I live in Manhattan, there’s no shortage of people who would inspire you to get out of an elevator if they stepped in.
  • How can non-Muslims in this country distinguish between normal, lovely, everyday people of the Muslim faith and ISIS nut jobs? What criteria should be used?  I’m reiterating, this is a sincere question. How do we get people who really know nothing about Islam or the Koran to have a sophisticated enough view of a community, that identifies by its religion, to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys? We are taught as kids not to judge a book by its cover; as adults, we try to apply the same principle to people.  If the usual criteria (clothing, religious accoutrements, facial hair, no facial hair….) can’t be used for fear of victimizing an innocent person, how can people outside the Muslim community “see something and say something” if they have nothing concrete on which to base their fears?

If you’re still reading and haven’t decided that this is a veiled attack on Islam, thank you.

As I mulled my two questions over, I came to the conclusion that the answer to the question likes within the question.

The only way to get non-Muslim people to know the difference between what I’ve simplified as the good guys and the bad guys is this: actions.  Appearance doesn’t work as a distinguisher.  Racial profiling, particularly in ethnically diverse areas, leads to unjust violence, discrimination, and unfair treatment. We are living in a moment in time that is defined by the phrase, “actions speak louder than words.”

What action or actions can be taken?  The only way for any community that is suspected of harboring terrorists, criminals, whatever…is for that community to police itself.  If a group of people that is suspected of nefarious acts doesn’t want to be seen as a monolith, it can’t act like a monolith.  The community must show outsiders that they themselves have drawn a distinction between what is acceptable and what is not.  That community must show that once it has identified its members who do not behave in a law-abiding way, who do not behave ethically or with respect for human rights and safety, it will shun them.

Right now, in this moment in time in our country, shunning means ejecting.  Those who want to demonstrate that they are righteous must eject the wrong-doers from their midst.  (Yes, that sounds a bit Old Testament-ish. So be it.) More specifically, ejecting means turning suspects over to the police, FBI, whatever law enforcement agency can be most easily accessed.

All of this rumination leads back to a simple question for Muslim communities that are being unfairly targeted for their faith. How can you help your fellow citizens to treat you fairly and with reason?  

I know there’s a way.  Perhaps it’s what I’ve suggested above.  Maybe it’s something else.  What I do know is that Akayed Ullah, failed suicide bomber, is a NYC cab driver. I take a lot of taxis. I really don’t want to judge books by their covers, or get nervous about the specific guy in the front seat who’s driving me to my next destination.  I want to, without a second’s hesitation, greet him warmly with, “Hail fellow New Yorker.”  All I need is the map to get there.

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