He wanted a congenial space where people might gather, which is why Balbir Singh Sodhi was outside his Chevron station in Mesa, Ariz., two Saturdays ago, surveying the vinca and sage he had just planted. Says Guru Roop Kaur Khalsa, one of Sodhi's ministers: "Even though it was just a gas station, he saw it as a center of the community. He looked for innocence and sweetness and tried to capture it." Then, police allege, a man named Frank Silva Roque drove by in a black Chevy pickup and pumped three bullets into Sodhi, killing him almost instantly, mocking innocence and sweetness. Sodhi appears to have died because he looked Muslim. He was not. He was a Sikh, and his religion was born as a reform of Hinduism. But to some, the turban and beard that most Sikhs wear look like Osama bin Laden's. When the police caught Roque, they claim he explained his actions by saying, "I'm an American."
Imagine this: you wake up every morning nervous, stalked by faceless enemies. It is nothing personal; they just hate what they think you represent. The attack could come at any time, and there is virtually no defense. If that seems to describe all America at the moment, there is one group for whom the unbearable tension since the World Trade Center attack is doubled. If you are a Muslim or an Arab, or look like one to someone focused primarily on his own rage, you must fear not only bin Laden-style terrorism but also the insults, blows and bullets of your countrymen.
Last Thursday someone threw stone after stone through the windshields of cabs in Manhattan's Central Park, apparently targeting dark-skinned drivers. "A lot of cabdrivers are not driving," says Ali Agha Abba, a Pakistani-American taxi driver in New York City. "I can't afford to not work. So I have to take a chance." Last Monday a man drove a Mustang through the front entrance of the Grand Mosque in Parma, Ohio, the largest in the state. The Sunday before, a Muslim woman in Memphis was beaten on her way to worship. The day before that, a Pakistani Muslim store owner was shot and killed. The FBI called it a hate crime.
True, George Bush spoke out for Muslims at a mosque and before Congress last week, telling them, "We respect your faith. Its teachings are good and peaceful." Last Tuesday FBI agents began a round of bureau meetings with local Muslim and Arab leaders in various states, asking for their help with investigations and assuring their protection. Said a relieved participant: "We know we have the FBI behind us."
And yet...on Monday Louisiana Congressman John Cooksey told a radio show, "If I see someone come in that's got a diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over." (He later apologized.) On that same day, the pilot of a Delta flight in Texas had a Pakistani American removed before takeoff because he said his crew did not feel comfortable with the man aboard. Delta offered him a new ticket--on another carrier. (It later apologized.) In Lincoln, R.I., someone hit a pregnant woman wearing a hijab (head scarf) with a stone. She has been calling midwives to avoid giving birth in the hospital because "I don't want to go to any public place." A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of 1,032 adults indicated that 49% thought all Arabs--American citizens included--should have to carry special ID cards.