At Starbucks in downtown Rochester today, I met an old acquaintance, a Somali immigrant who is Muslim. I last saw him more than six months ago, just before I published a long article in Minneapolis City Pages about a local woman who claims she met one of the 9/11 hijackers in a downtown Rochester bar in August, 2001.
I was previously on friendly terms with this fellow, but apparently no more.
The minute he saw me, he started yelling. People in the coffee shop were turning around. "What do you mean by publishing that article?" he demanded. "What do you mean by that? That article hurt every Muslim who lives in this city!"
After it was published, several Muslims wrote to City Pages to say the article was unfair because it suggested that all Muslims who live in Minnesota are possibly terrorists. Needless to say, I had tried to write the article in such a way that it wouldn't inflame this concern. I had done a great deal of research and not only believed the woman was telling the truth exactly as she remembered it, but also that there was a very strong circumstantial case that she was correct. I believed then, and believe now, that the hijacker named Mohand Al-Shehri likely visited Rochester just weeks before 9/11.
"That woman, what was she doing in a bar so late at night?" my acquaintance demanded. "She was drunk! She was dating Arab men! This is not a good woman!"
I interjected that in the United States, the fact that a woman goes to a bar for a drink after work does not make her a bad woman. He brushed the comment aside.
"Why did you print what she said?" he yelled. "Now every person in Rochester thinks that every Muslim who lives in this town is possibly a terrorist!" By now a mutual friend of ours, also a Somali Muslim, was trying to pull the man away from me. More people turned their heads to stare.
"Did you read the 9/11 Commission Report?" my accuser demanded.
"Yes," I said.
"Did it say that a 9/11 hijacker ever visited Rochester?"
"No," I said.
"So you know more than the 9/11 Commission?"
"Yes, in this one detail I think I do," I began to say, but at this point the man's cell phone went off and as he answered it my Somali friend hustled him out the coffee shop door, on the pretense that it would be quieter to talk on the phone outside. I gathered my newspaper and left while the getting was good.
The moral of the story? I'm not sure yet, but the encounter left me depressed.
I know the situation in town is not as bad as he paints it. I have other Muslim friends here who, while they are definitely concerned about stereotyping Muslims, are not upset to this degree and don't believe my article was racially irresponsible. Still, to come face to face with such raw anger -- a seething raw anger that spans the globe -- is sobering and scary. This is a glocal reality. I am determined to the degree possible to try to understand -- and as a journalist to report and explain -- the legitimate concerns being expressed.
But at some point the dialogue turns ugly and scary and one simply has to turn away. One needs to wait for a cooler moment to continue the dialogue. Will that moment ever come between this man and me? And how? (Published 2/17/2005)