Passports to Mecca (and safe travel)

In the past decade or so, the mainstream press has offered waves of news features that have attempted to explain the state of mind in our nation's growing Islamic population. The need for these stories is obvious, although most of them end up presenting a single, unified Muslim community that does not in fact exist. Come to think of it, do Baptists have one view of how things are going in America? Catholics? Jews? All together now: There is no one Islam. The realities of religious communities are too complex for that kind of language to be very satisfying. Consider the top of this typical Washington Post story, published as an advance story for President Barack Obama's major address in Jakarta (full text here).

Many at the ADAMS Center mosque in Sterling recall the pride and hope they felt when they heard President Obama's first major address to the Muslim world last year. Some quote parts of it by memory: "Let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America."

But what has followed has possibly been the toughest year yet for American Muslims -- marked by an outpouring of public hostility so unexpected and bewildering that it prompted Mohamed Magid, the imam at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, to start keeping a journal.

Sitting in his office on the third floor of the ADAMS Center, Magid has found himself copying down thoughts and memories between appointments, hoping to sort out his experiences. His efforts to make sense of it all come as Obama is poised to give a major speech ... at the largest mosque in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation.

OK, I have a confession to make.

None of these big, sweeping, vague stories has moved me as much as the following Washington Post report by Tara Bahrampour -- it ran in the Metro section, no less -- that offered a wealth of details into one specific case of a painful complication in the lives of some specific Muslim believers as they practiced their faith. Looming over this story is an era of complicated security realities in the lives of international travelers.

That's a given. But what about travel complications that could have, for devout believers, eternal consequences? Here's the top of the story, which ran under the boring headline, "Travel delays for Northern Virginia Muslims heading to Mecca."

For months, the 17 Northern Virginians had excitedly prepared for the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that is sacred to devout Muslims.

They had saved thousands of dollars for a package trip to Saudi Arabia, taken classes on the pilgrimage and promised to make prayers for friends and relatives. A California travel agency had arranged their tickets and gotten the visas for their passports, shipping them overnight via UPS. But according to the travelers, the passports, which were supposed to have all been delivered last Tuesday, never arrived.

"The UPS guy came," said Cemal Gumus, the imam at Dar AlNoor mosque in Manassas and one of the travelers. "I said, 'Man, where is my package?' He said, 'No, there is no package for you.' "

It took three days to track it down, Gumus said. At first, UPS said the package was lost. On Friday, hours before the group was scheduled to depart from Dulles International Airport, the group learned that the package had been seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. After a flurry of phone calls, the passports were released and arrived Saturday. But by then, all but one of the travelers had missed their flight.

"Grown men were crying," said Rafi Uddin Ahmed, vice president of the mosque and of the Manassas-based Muslim Association of Virginia. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Who knows if we'll be alive next year, and if they miss out on this one important tenet of their religion, they may not have another chance."

As this highly detailed story explains, the season for the hajj -- attracting about 2 million Muslims -- comes once a year, and "there is a limited window to enter Saudi Arabia before entries are cut off."

The door opens. When it closes, it closes for some people -- maybe forever. In this case, customs agency officials spent $34,000 to get replacement tickets, with Saudi Airlines keeping its end of the bargain.

What happened? You can imagine, can't you?

UPS spokeswoman Lynnette McIntire said, "We did inform the customer that that particular package had a 'government seizure exception.' " She declined to define the term. "We cooperate with government agencies on security matters," she said.

Customs spokesman Lloyd Easterling said he could not comment on a specific case but said in a statement that the agency "is committed to facilitating safe and legitimate travel while ensuring the safety of the traveling public." He would not comment on whether UPS regularly shares packages with the agency.

Now, do a Google News search right now for the words "Muslims," "terror," "airplanes" and "packages." Pick almost any combination of terms that you want. It isn't hard to do the math. The security community is being extra sensitive right now on travel to and from the Arab world and the United States.

Yes, this hassles Muslims who in no way deserve to be hassled. Security officers are, of course, looking for dangerous needles in a haystack of faithful believers. The tight security measures are meant to provide safety for Muslims who travel as well as for other travelers. We all know that.

But read this story. It shows the painful fallout for the ordinary believers. The details are there. The painful dilemmas are there -- affecting specific people. For me, these realities are much more educational and provocative than yet another vague trend story. Read it all.

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