It’s just after 1 p.m. on day two of “Attack on America,” and Sarah Eltantawi is talking, rapid-fire, into one phone, while grasping another that has a call on hold. Hanging up, Eltantawi turns, hustles through the huge anteroom of the Islamic Center of Southern California and bounds up an ancient wooden stairway. At the top, she enters a sparse conference room dominated by a long, utilitarian table.
Already seated as she pulls up a chair are four men and four women, two of them wearing traditional Muslim scarves, all of them here to take part in another of a series of informal “emergency meetings” that the 26-year-old Egyptian-American — dressed today in a modest brown pantsuit, her brown hair pulled back in a no-nonsense bun — has been attending throughout the day.
A self-possessed woman with classical features, Eltantawi, who grew up nearby in Arcadia, is the communications director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council — an advocacy and public information group focused on countering distortions and prejudice against Muslims. An air of controlled intensity permeates the room. And not without reason. Of all the American innocent, it is Muslims who have the most to lose as the nation‘s thirst for revenge unfolds over the next months. And they know it.
Last night, Eltantawi went to bed at 2 a.m. Her morning began with a 6:30 interview, and she just came back from a well-attended interfaith press conference.
“We’re concerned about backlash and profiling,” Eltantawi told me as we climbed the stairs from the anteroom. “We‘ve been getting threatening phone calls and e-mails. So what we’re trying to do is let people know that we‘re as American as anyone else, that most of us were born here, and that we’re horrified by what went on yesterday. People want to associate us with the bombings. But we‘re not associated. What happened was done by a group of violent criminals. There’s nothing in Islam to justify what they‘ve done.
”But just yesterday I was on a talk show on KFI, and I got a death threat on the air. ’I wish I could come over there and kill you,‘ this woman said. You should have heard the callers. ’Muslim women are trash, not human beings.‘ It was unbelievable.“
Chairing today’s meeting is Aslam Abdullah, the editor of the monthly Islamic magazine Minaret. Abdullah is a portly brown man of about 45, who today is wearing a rumpled blue suit and closely trimmed beard. ”When the numbers [of dead] start coming in, it will be hell for Muslims,“ says Abdullah. ”Every family will be affected . . .“
”But right now,“ interjects Dr. Nayyer Ali, an intense, youthful-looking 38-year-old M.D., a Pakistani-American who grew up in Long Beach, ”this is a national tragedy. The focus shouldn‘t be on our community. Whatever we do, whatever we write, should be focused on yesterday’s tragedy . . .
“We have to confront the fact that anyone who looks like us and sounds like us is going to be a walking target,” Abdullah continues. “Our children are going to be subject to ridicule in the schools. A lot of them will come home crying. How do we answer those kinds of situations?”
“We can stand up and say we‘re Americans just like you,” Ali says, “but I can’t see the average American making that distinction.”
“Well, guess what?” Abdullah says. “CBS interviewed some unknown Egyptian guy on the street, who said that these bombings are something that should have happened a long time ago.”
This gets Eltantawi riled up. “CBS is really taking it to another level,” she says in disgusted frustration. “This morning they showed Christians and Jews worshiping. And what did they show for Muslims? Me and [Abdullah] getting yelled at on KFI. I called them and left a message that this is beyond ratings, that they‘re inciting people.”
“We have to be concerned about the safety of people on the street,” says Edina Lekovic, the managing editor of Minaret. “Two women in scarves in Washington, D.C., were assaulted in a mall. Taxi drivers in New York are being pulled out of their cabs and beaten. We shouldn’t be living in fear.”
“Look,” says Ali. “There‘s no way that you or I can stop somebody from being a jerk in the street. But we can document it, and make sure that when something happens the authorities take appropriate action, that the situation doesn’t degenerate into vigilantism.”
A few minutes later, Ali, in obvious anguish and seemingly out of the blue, declares: “I just want to say something personally. Something‘s gone wrong in our religious community. It allows people to distort what is the strongest prohibition against suicide of any religion — the Koran says very clearly that if you take your own life, you go to hell. That it’s the one sin that‘s unforgivable. Yet our religious beliefs have been twisted so that these people believe that if they commit suicide they go to heaven. At some point we need to address that.”
“We should just cut them off,” says Eltantawi heatedly.
“We don’t have the right to say who‘s Muslim and who’s not,” a women draped in a long black scarf replies. “They‘ve acted against God, that’s what we need to emphasize. We can‘t forget that this isn’t about us. It‘s about those people who were alive, and are now just gone.”
After the meeting, however, Eltantawi mentions in passing that it is, in reality, about more than that. “I live right behind a racetrack where the Japanese were interned,” she tells me. “That was the first thing I thought of when I woke up yesterday.”