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Obama, please phone the Muslim 'street vendor hero' too

By Hamid Dabashi, Special to CNN
  • Hamid Dabashi lauds president for calling two street vendors who reported Times Square car
  • But, Dabashi says, a third vendor, a Muslim immigrant, says he was first to spot Pathfinder
  • Muslim-American hero defies the "terrorist" stereotype, he writes
  • Dabashi: Muslim Americans living with prejudice would be buoyed by Obama calling him

Editor's note: Hamid Dabashi is the author of "Iran: A People Interrupted." He is the Hagop Kevorkian professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York.

New York (CNN) -- Dear Mr. President: How good of you, sir, to have personally telephoned two New York heroes whose timely diligence prevented a lunatic from causing a catastrophe in Times Square.

We New Yorkers are happy to hear you called Mr. Lance L. Orton Sr. and Mr. Duane Jackson to thank them for their vigilance. But there is a third vendor, Mr. President, whom you forgot to call. His name is Alioune B. Niass, and he is an immigrant from Somalia who said he was the first person to notice the smoking Nissan Pathfinder.

"I thought I should call 911," Niass later told a reporter, "but my English is not very good and I had no credit left on my phone, so I walked over to Lance, who has the T-shirt stall next to mine, and told him. He said we shouldn't call 911. Immediately he alerted a police officer nearby."

Here in New York, Mr. President, we are not particular about which one of these great New Yorkers saw that deadly car first, alerted the police and prevented a disaster. The Big Apple has a big heart, and the magnificent city of New York has room for plenty of heroes. But we are also very fair people. So we would be grateful if you could kindly call Mr. Niass and thank him for us.

We are tired of feeling false guilt or shame every time a criminal among us does something insane.
--Hamid Dabashi

There is another reason besides fairness. Mr. Niass is a Muslim from Somalia, and some of us Muslim-Americans have a suspicion that your staff might not have brought him to your attention because the idea of a Muslim hero in New York does not quite dovetail with the stereotype.

If there is an American of Muslim descent who commits, or tries to commit, a criminal act, as Faisal Shahzad apparently did, we Muslims feel we are all suddenly suspects. We feel we need to explain ourselves. Yet if there is a hero among us whose love for our city does not fit the stereotype, he is ignored. This is not fair, and we believe you, as our president, can do much to alleviate this burden on us and our children.

Imagine millions of Muslim children who go to school across America every day, just like your own children. Imagine how proud they would feel if you were to call Mr. Niass. That pride of place, that we and our children deserve, would go a long way to alleviating the pain of the bigotry and racism that is aimed at us. We too would feel at home here and be even more diligent in safeguarding and protecting our cities from criminal atrocities.

You recall, Mr. President, during your presidential campaign you were, and still are, repeatedly "accused" of being a Muslim -- as if being a Muslim were a crime. We were hoping every time you denied being a Muslim that you would add, "and if I were a Muslim, there is nothing wrong with it."

Finally, it was former Secretary of State Colin Powell who came out and said so when answering people who claimed you are Muslim: "He's a Christian; has always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, 'What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?'" We were relieved and grateful.

We were hoping every time you denied being a Muslim you would add, "and if I were a Muslim, there is nothing wrong with it."
--Hamid Dabashi

We, too, Mr. President, are America. We have our share of criminals amongst us, as do any other people. But we are not all terrorists, and we are tired of feeling false guilt or shame every time a criminal among us does something insane and stupid. We are ordinary people -- soldiers and scientists, scholars and students, homemakers and teachers, businessmen and lawyers, physicians and engineers, greengrocers and vendors. And you are our president too.

We who claim Mr. Niass as one of our own also have a dream. We dream that our children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the faith of their forefathers but by the content of their character.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- the visionary who said these immortal words I paraphrase -- uttered that phrase for the first time in 1963, scarcely anyone could have imagined that you would be our president today.

But now you are and can do your share to change perceptions. It is possible that a Muslim might become president some day. For all we know, that president might be an American kid of Afghan, Pakistani, Arab, Iranian, Somali, or Indonesian parentage who is reporting to school this morning. Imagine how proud she would be if you were to call Mr. Niass today and thank him. His business is located on the corner of 45th and Broadway, two tables down from Lance's. I can give you his phone number.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Hamid Dabashi.