“Tell your wife to take off her headscarf. Now.”
I met Joe Sheehan in the spring of 1993. You’d be hard pressed to find two people with more disparate backgrounds. I grew up on the plains of Kansas; he grew up on the streets of New York City. I was 6’3” and almost painfully introverted; he was 5’8” and almost comically gregarious. I had three siblings and two doting immigrant parents; Joe was the only child of a single mother. I was a pre-med student attending Johns Hopkins; he was a journalism major at USC. I was Arab-Muslim; he was Irish-Catholic. We had nothing in common.
Nothing, that is, except baseball. We were both utterly, hopelessly obsessed with it.
We had met online, in the primitive days of the internet, on a bulletin board dedicated to baseball discussion. Soon we were shooting each other emails several times a day, and talking by phone for hours at a time. We competed against each other in a fierce fantasy baseball league. We’d stay up until 4 in the morning debating ridiculous topics like whether Steve Sax or Fred Lynn had a better career.
By the fall of 1995, Joe and I, along with three other friends who all met online, decided to take our arguments public. We wrote a book, Baseball Prospectus, and sold it on the same online bulletin board where we had all met. The book sold less than 200 copies. We were so pleased with our success that we wrote another book the following year, and the year after that, and the year after that.
By 2001, the book had a real publisher, sales in the five figures, and a website that was the most popular independent baseball site on the internet. Joe and I still talked about baseball every chance we got. (If you haven’t listened to our conversations, what are you waiting for?)
We rarely talked about anything else. I honestly couldn’t tell you who Joe voted for in the 1996 and 2000 elections, or if he voted at all. I have no idea what his favorite color is, or his favorite meal. When I flew out to LA to visit him in 1996, I was shocked to find out that – growing up in the Bronx – he had never learned how to drive.
It wasn’t that we couldn’t talk about anything else. There was nothing taboo about discussing politics or religion or the weather. It’s just that, like a lot of hard-core sports fans, we derived so much pleasure from talking about baseball that any moment spent discussing something else was a missed opportunity. For eight years, our relationship had been walled off from anything that didn’t resemble baseball talk, and we were too busy to notice.
Until that morning, when those walls came crumbling down along with the Twin Towers.
I was a dermatology resident in Detroit at the time, and our morning lecture was wrapping up when an attending physician popped his head in to tell us that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. We crowded around the one small television in the vast clinic to watch the initial speculative reports – perhaps it was a small Cessna? – before patients started filing in. I went to examine a patient just moments before the second plane hit. I came out a few minutes later, to inform my attending that the patient had psoriasis, and to learn that America was under attack.
I left the office by noon, after the buildings had collapsed, after the Pentagon had been hit, after we learned that a plane that was probably aimed at the Capitol had crashed somewhere in Pennsylvania. By lunchtime it was apparent that no patients were coming into the office, and none of the doctors were in a state of mind to get any work done in the first place. I checked in with my parents, who along with my brother and sisters lived in northern Virginia, just miles away from the Pentagon. Everyone was safely accounted for. I drove the 45-minute commute home in a daze, with the same repetitive thought on my mind.
“Please, God, don’t let this be Muslims who did this.”
I didn’t have much confidence that my prayer would be answered.
Already, news reports strongly hinted at a connection to terrorists from Al-Qaida; by the next day, a link connecting the attacks directly to Osama bin Laden was almost an established fact. I spent the afternoon of 9/11 sitting on a couch next to my wife – herself home early from dental school – watching the wall-to-wall television coverage, and growing increasingly light-headed as the reality of the situation, and the identity of the culprits, fully sank in.
My state of distraction was interrupted by the phone. Joe was calling from LA. For a brief moment, I hoped against all reason that he was calling to talk baseball. I had just filed an article on Barry Bonds the night before. (It would be published when BP finally resumed operations the following week.)
“Tell your wife to take off her head scarf. Now.”
I guess not.
In my befuddled state of mind, I totally misunderstood the nature of the call. After knowing me for all these years, was Joe suddenly lumping me in with these psychopaths? Nineteen guys claiming to be Muslim flew planes into big buildings, and now Joe doesn’t think it’s appropriate for my wife and I to practice our faith the way we choose? For a split second, I felt a wave of anger and betrayal.
“Excuse me, Joe?”
“Tell Belsam to take off her head scarf. You have no idea what kind of danger you’re in right now. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
Anger and betrayal turned into embarrassment, that I would have not trusted a friend in my moment of need. Embarrassment, and gratitude, that with his country – and his city – under attack, Joe felt the need to reach out to me. That while Joe knew little about my beliefs, he knew enough about me to recognize that, whatever I shared with the 9/11 hijackers in terms of religion, I shared nothing with them in terms of my faith. That I had much more in common with him, as an American, than I ever would with the men who killed innocent civilians that day. That I was as much a victim that day as he, or any other American watching the proceedings on TV, was.
In the hours between the second plane crash and Joe’s phone call, all sorts of crazy thoughts had run through my head. Where are we going to move? Will Canada take us in? If I can last another two years and finish my residency, I should be able to find a job almost anywhere in the world, right? I hear Dubai is a great place to live. Or maybe New Zealand – that country looked gorgeous in the Lord of the Rings trailer.
I didn’t want to go anywhere. But watching the indelible images of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center, the terrible footprint the plane made in the side of the building in the frame before the explosion, the live camera shots of fires burning on a mountain of rubble in the heart of Manhattan, it was hard in that moment to imagine an America that would still embrace a Muslim like me as a native son.
Joe’s phone call snapped me out of reverie of self-pity. Even as he acknowledged the fear that the lives of American Muslims had been suddenly made much more difficult, he also reminded me of something very basic, yet very powerful: that whatever we were about to face, we weren’t going to face it alone. Maybe people on the fringe would blame all Muslims for what had happened, but most Americans were capable of differentiating between the Muslims who had come to America to hatch a plot of supreme evil, and the Muslims who had come to America to put down roots, live their lives, raise their children, and join the tapestry of our nation. And that for every American who would threaten the Muslim community in the coming days, there would be ten other Americans who would stand in solidarity with their Muslim neighbors.
I found myself in the strange position of having to calm down Joe’s fears rather than the other way around. I told him that my wife and I had already discussed whether she should temporarily remove her scarf if we felt like her safety was in jeopardy. “Islam considers a person’s safety a more sacred principle than its dress code,” I reassured him.
I got off the phone, and stopped making travel plans to Auckland in my head. Whatever happens next, we’ll get through this, I thought. We’re Americans. This is our home. We’re not going anywhere.
Over the next few days, my wife and I were warned by many of our non-Muslim friends and colleagues that we might be in danger. We received many unsolicited offers of protection. Don’t hesitate to call us if you need anything, our friends told us. There are nut jobs out there.
While we got a lot of offers of protection from nut jobs, what we didn’t get were glimpses of any actual nut jobs. We certainly heard about them, though. The mother of a close friend had racial slurs thrown in her face at the grocery store. Another friend had to rush to pick up his kids from their Islamic school after a bomb threat was called in. And around the country, there were scattered reports of Muslims being beaten up in reprisal for what happened. A Pakistani business owner in Dallas was murdered; in Arizona, a Sikh gas station attendant was shot and killed. And in Bridgeview, Illinois, the largest mosque in the Chicagoland area – a mosque I had visited once or twice – was set upon by an angry mob of about 300 people, and only quick police action prevented something really ugly from happening.
But in all honesty, it could have been much worse. I was frankly surprised that it wasn’t worse. In terms of danger to the Muslim community, there was a lot of smoke but very little fire. And my wife never did have to take off her headscarf.
The Friday after 9/11, a church in Ann Arbor held an inter-faith community event, inviting Muslims, Christians, and Jews to come together in solidarity. My wife and I sat down in a pew and were quickly joined by an elderly white couple. We made small talk before the program began. The husband, who with his shock of white hair resembled actor Peter Graves, quickly inquired about our well-being.
“I hope that neither of you have been troubled by anyone over the last few days,” he said.
Not at all, we told him. Once again, I was reassuring someone else, who was concerned about my well-being precisely because I shared something in common with the 9/11 hijackers. In the moment, it seemed such a casual, natural reaction by him that it was only afterwards that I realized how dumbfounded I should have been by this.
On the way home, I struggled to put into words how odd it was that most Americans were treating us as well as they were. “Honey,” I asked my wife, “Let me ask you a hypothetical question. Suppose 9/11 had happened in Syria instead.” Both of our parents had emigrated from Syria to the United States in the 1970s; we had both gone back to visit relatives several times. “And suppose it turned out that the hijackers were part of a small minority group that lived in Syria – let’s say the Kurds. How do you think the Syrian public would have reacted?”
She shuddered. “It would have been ugly,” she said.
“There would have been riots, wouldn’t there?” I asked. “Innocent people would have died?”
“Probably,” she said. She knew the country far better than I did; she spoke fluent Arabic, for one. “At the very least, the army would have to be called in to protect the Kurds.” (As you probably know, the Syrian government is currently murdering its people by the thousands, and not even for the crime of being a Kurd.)
I contemplated this as we drove home, uneventfully, without so much as a police escort.
That night, I emailed David Schoenfield, then the baseball editor for ESPN.com. Two years before, my writing for Baseball Prospectus had caught David’s eye, and he had invited me to write several freelance columns for ESPN. An invitation to write about sports for ESPN is sort of like an invitation to attend the White House from the President – barring a really, really, really good reason, you’re inclined to say yes. I had continued to write baseball columns for ESPN.com every few months since.
That night, I asked him for permission to write a very different kind of column. “I’ve never made a request like this before,” I wrote to him, “but then, nothing like 9/11 has ever happened before. I’d like to write a column about being a Muslim and being an American, about being a sports fan, about how sports unite us and how Muslim athletes strive for the same goals as their teammates and how…” By the end I was babbling. I didn’t really know what the hell I wanted to write about. I just knew that I wanted to write about something. I had to tell my fellow Americans that they could not let 9/11 define the way they looked at their Muslim neighbors, and that remembering the contributions of Muslims in American sports might make it easier to remember the contributions of Muslims in American life.
I didn’t hear back from David all weekend, and resigned myself to the fact that I needed to stick to writing about baseball. I spent the weekend trying to catch up on my dermatology textbooks, with little success.
Late Monday evening, I received a terse email from David. “You’re on,” he wrote. “I sold your idea to my bosses today. They were intrigued. Looking forward to reading it.”
I was flummoxed. I hadn’t heard from David for three days not because he didn’t like the idea, but because he liked it enough that he went to bat for me with his bosses, who wouldn’t know me from Ahmad. And they agreed. ESPN wasn’t in the business of writing about religion, but they were making an exception this one time.
I called Alice, my Chief Resident, and lied. “I need the morning off,” I said. “There’s something important I have to do for my family.”
“Okay.” There was a pause on the phone. “Is…everything okay? Do you need anything?” Add Alice to the list of people who were concerned for my well-being.
“No, everything’s fine, I promise.” And add Alice to the list of people I was reassuring instead of the other way around.
I woke up early on Tuesday, exactly one week after 9/11, and started typing. “As a nation, we grieve,” I began. “And we feel this as a nation, feel it in every community, regardless of race, regardless of religion, as united today as any time in our history.”
“I am a Muslim,” I continued. I wrote about the attacks on Muslims that had occurred around the country. “I am an Arab-American. And right now I am scared to death that in a country I have loved all my life -- in the only country I have ever called my own -- I am no longer truly free. I feel imprisoned by the hatred of others, those blind to the difference between a sick, demented terrorist and a peace-loving American.”
I disassociated Islam from the 9/11 attacks in the strongest possible terms. “So let me be perfectly clear about this: Islam does not condone terrorism in any way, shape, or form. Rather, it condemns it in the harshest possible terms. The killing of innocent civilians, no matter how desperate the plight of the perpetrators, no matter how meaningful their cause, is a capital sin.”
I told the story of the Muslim community in the language of America. “Muslims and Arabs did not come to this country to destroy it -- they came to embrace it. They came, like every other immigrant group to land on America's shores, to escape oppression and discover freedom. They came to forge their own destiny. They came to live the American dream.”
I tried to use sports as a metaphor to connect Muslims with the fabric of our country. “Today, I hope that the accomplishments of Muslim and Arab athletes in this country, both on and off the field, will help remind us of the basic humanity in people of all backgrounds. I hope that people might reflect on the charisma and genius of a Muhammad Ali, or the grace of a Hakeem Olajuwon, and understand that just as Muslim athletes are committed to the same goals, on and off the field, as their fellow athletes, so too are Muslims in this country as innately American as anyone else.”
I concluded with a prayer. “May God bless America. May God bless her with the strength to defeat evil, the courage to defend the good, and above all, the wisdom to tell the difference.”
I pressed send, and left for work.
I came home that evening, and sat down at my computer. I opened Microsoft Outlook and checked my mail.
I had over 300 messages. Most had subject lines like “Your ESPN article” and “I read what you wrote.” Some were “THANK YOU!” and “America Needs To Read This.” As I sat there, each minute another four or five emails would drop in.
Clearly, I had hit a chord. I clicked on ESPN.com and found my article prominently displayed; the editors had added photographs of Muslims praying for the victims of 9/11, and Sikhs holding a candlelight vigil for them. But what stunned me was what the editors had failed to add: my email address. Somehow, I had received 300 emails in the span of a few hours – some from as far away as Singapore – even though my contact information had not been given out.
Well, that wouldn’t do. I contacted Dave to ask him to append my email address to the article. He replied quickly. “We’re getting as much traffic to your article as we’ve had for any article at ESPN all year,” he told me. He also attached a large file to his email. “We’ve had a bunch of people – 128 and counting – email the website and ask us to forward their messages on to you.”
With my address now listed, the emails started piling in, hundreds every hour. Over the next four days I received over 6,000 emails. I had no choice but to create a form letter response.
“Thank you so much for your concern and for your support. I am confident that America will rise to this challenge as she has risen to so many before. But we have miles to go before we sleep.”
The form letter worked for almost every reply, because with few exceptions, the emails expressed concern and offered support. Some emails were more cautious, many of them asking questions about Islam, or asking why Muslims were so upset at America, and I did my best to answer those questions as best I knew how.
But only a few hundred emails expressed misgivings to a varying degree, ranging from “I’m sorry your people are being harassed like this, but you can’t blame people from reacting this way” to “All you Muslims are the same – go back to where you came from.” One email, in particular, threatened physical harm in a vague and grammatically incorrect way.
“I KNOW your a part of THIS – your going to suffer like all the other MOSLEMS will.”
One threatening email out of six thousand? That’s a ratio I could handle, especially when compared to about 5700 emails of support and encouragement.
My article was featured on the home page of MSN.com for a day. I did interviews with ESPN Radio. Fox Sports TV called. Somehow, just a week after Muslims committed an unspeakable act of violence on American soil, Americans were rallying to defend the safety and the dignity of the innocent Muslims in their midst. My prayer was already being answered. America did have the wisdom to tell the difference.
As a Muslim, I was deeply grateful. As an American, I was hardly surprised.
I have never been more frightened to be a Muslim than I was that week.
And I have never been more proud to be an American than I was that week.