Doubts haunt me, rattling my political correctness

A couple of days ago, I popped into a small, Arab-owned grocery store near my house. As always, the owner was friendly and courteous. His young son climbed on plastic buckets behind the counter, and the owner implored the child to be careful. I thought about the long hours this man keeps, how hard he works to give his son a life of promise in America.

I thought about the Arab-Americans and others who have been victims of hate crimes since Sept. 11. And I felt terrible that this soft-spoken shopkeeper who has sold me sundries on so many occasions could be similarly targeted.

Then my mind started wandering in another direction. Does this man practice Islam? If so, what does he think of martyrdom in the name of Allah? Does he see it as a twisted aberration of his faith? Or can he find some justification in Islamic holy verses for the murder of those viewed as infidels by the likes of Osama bin Laden?

Part of me wanted to ask him those questions, though I couldn't bring myself to do so. I paid for my groceries and smiled at him as I left. Walking down the street, I felt a sense of unease that's become familiar in recent weeks.

I don't like some of the thoughts that course through my brain these days. I want them to go away. But they don't, because war and fear and anger play strange tricks on the mind.

Until the recent attacks, the last time I'd given much thought to the Koran or the prophet Muhammad or a fatwa (Islamic religious decree) was in college.

As a Middle Eastern studies major, I took courses in Mideast history, geography, politics and religion. Along with Hebrew, I studied Arabic, hoping to one day use my language skills working in the foreign service as an Arab-Israeli specialist. I became a journalist instead.

But suddenly, like so many other Americans, I find myself paying a lot of attention to Islam. Who are Muslims? What do they believe? We're told the suicide bombers belonged to a fanatical minority. Watching swells of anti-American protesters on television, listening to repeated calls for jihad, I ask myself exactly how large that minority is. Are there those in my immediate midst who secretly regard bin Laden and his minions as heroes?

But somehow, what scares me most isn't the answer to that question, but the fact that I'm asking it at all. Because it's rooted in mistrust. And mistrusting the people who inhabit my day-to-day life is new to me.

I've worked on campaigns to defeat state anti-immigrant and anti-affirmative action propositions. The notion of discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation quickens my pulse. Yet am I not discriminating by making assumptions, however well-hidden they may be, about the owner of the corner store? How would I feel if someone presumed that because I am Jewish I endorse the militant philosophies of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane?

But here I am, facing my own niggling presumptions. It's funny how an event like Sept. 11 rattles my suppositions. A good solid Bay Area liberal, I've recently found myself nodding in agreement while reading columns from the National Review.

I know that many religions, including Judaism, contain extremists. One such extremist killed Yitzhak Rabin. Yet I find myself wanting to ask the Arab-speaking merchants in my neighborhood questions. About where they're from. What they believe.

I don't know exactly why I want to interview them. I suppose I want some sort of reassurance that they're on my side. That they don't see America as a land of corrupt nonbelievers. That they don't think, on any level, that America got what it deserved for supporting Israel, or that Tel Aviv should be hit next.

But I don't ask, because I know deep down the questions aren't fair. That asking them in the current climate is tantamount to an accusation and that having to defend the right to go about life as an American must be frightening and painful.

The other day I saw a bearded man in a turban drive by with an American flag waving on his van. I wondered how much of him decided to display the flag as an expression of patriotism and how much of him felt the need to display it as a defensive measure against the kind of people who killed the Sikh gas station owner in Arizona.

And I wondered if suspicious glances and queries cause a form of slow death to those on the receiving end.

I wondered, but the wondering didn't make my unsettling questions go away.

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.