This September and October, Americans mark the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the ninth year of war in Afghanistan, respectively. This war has become arguably the longest in our history. Given the jihad-until-doomsday rhetoric of the Islamists, the war on terror will probably stay with us in one form or another for the foreseeable future.
As the costs mount in blood and treasure, little wonder that the war corrodes the way we think about Muslims and Muslim countries. After all, the worst attack on American soil was hatched in Afghanistan, allegedly planned by a Pakistani, and carried out mainly by Saudis.
It is admittedly tempting to let conflict define our relationship with Muslims. Controversial bus ads about Islam in several US cities are forcing an uncomfortable conversation about this relationship. For those of us who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, it becomes personal. Nobody likes getting shot at.
Firsthand experience in a Muslim country
But several years ago, I had a different kind of experience in a Muslim country – one I like to recall in contrast to the events that dominate the news today.
On the first flight of my deployment, our Air Force C-130 cargo plane lifted off from Dhaka, Bangladesh. Water the color of mocha rippled beneath us, inundating slums and hovels, streets and fields. Bangladesh was suffering a flood of historic proportions.
Unlike most floods in the US, where a river overflows its banks and runs swollen along its course, the Bangladeshi flood had no identifiable river channel. Just a flat, drenched expanse – miles of it. As we climbed, the water stretched to the horizon. It was like an inland sea, dotted with treetops and shanty roofs. Tarp shelters clustered on the few patches of ground high enough to remain dry.
We carried about a dozen Bangladeshi air force cadets; it was the first time most of them had ever flown. Several minutes after takeoff, an oil pump failed. In less than 90 seconds, all the oil from one of our four engines spewed and misted into the floodwater. We shut down the engine, declared an emergency, turned around, and landed back at Dhaka. Muddy water lapped at the airfield’s perimeter.
I apologized to the cadets for their short and perhaps nerve-wracking ride.
They did not seem fazed.
“Not a problem, sir!” one of them barked, locked at attention. We could not get those guys to relax, but even through extreme military protocol, they exuded goodwill. “Thank you for the experience, sir,” another offered.
Due to the flood, our mission to demonstrate the capabilities of the C-130 Hercules quickly turned into a real-world relief operation. Working with Bangladeshi civilians and military personnel, we delivered food and medical supplies to places where floodwater had cut off highways. The Bangladeshis ended up buying four refurbished C-130s for just that purpose.
Not a single moment of hostility
We encountered not one single moment of hostility, not from anyone anywhere in that devoutly Muslim country. It was 1998.
I still have fond memories of the Bangladeshis, their delightfully subtle sense of humor, and their grit and creativity in the face of adversity.
Heartbreakingly poor, they knew how to get the most from whatever they had.
“Sir, we must save the fuel in this generator if you really do not need electricity now,” one soldier told me. Second to Islam, the guiding creed of Bangladeshis seemed to be common sense.
Granted, this was all before 9/11, but it shows that Americans and South Asian Muslims are not necessarily natural enemies. Bangladesh does have its radical Islamists, but the country has never become a major schoolhouse, refuge, and transit point for them like its historical cousin, Pakistan. Islam alone is not the problem.
In the post-9/11 world, it’s way too easy to get sloppy in our thinking and extend our anger over terrorism to Muslims in general.
I understand the root of this anger: My wife works in the Pentagon. In 2001, I worked as an airline pilot – friends of friends were on the hijacked planes that slammed into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. On my first missions in Afghanistan, I carried in my flight suit pocket an outdated navigational chart that depicted the Twin Towers.
Yes, I still harbor anger about 9/11. I get angry about continued efforts to attack the US, such as the attempted Times Square bombing earlier this year.
I get angry when I hear of soldiers maimed by improvised explosive devices. I get really angry when my aircraft’s cargo compartment contains flag-draped boxes.
But when I feel that anger metastasize into prejudice, I try to remember that Bangladesh mission, when the allies were Muslim, and the only enemies were hunger and waterborne disease.
Thomas W. Young is a flight engineer with the West Virginia Air National Guard, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the author of the “The Mullah’s Storm,” a forthcoming novel set in the Afghanistan war.