A featured speaker for the Western New York Chapter of the American Muslim Council was headed to Buffalo on Saturday when he found himself detained at Baltimore-Washington International Airport because his last name is Khan, a name common in many Eastern countries.
Suhail Khan, a staff member with the White House's public liaison office, made his flight after being questioned by armed sky marshals for 10 minutes. He saved the experience to include in a memorable speech to the local American Muslim Council.
"I felt this was a challenge," he said, "a challenge for me as a Muslim."
Khan's experience echoed many of the worries shared by area Muslim residents. Those who attended the Muslim Council's third annual meeting Saturday were urged to pick up, near the entrance, a small booklet from the Department of Justice that outlined what they can do if they are threatened or become victims of violence.
In addition, the council president, Khalid J. Qazi, said three emergency meetings were held the weekend following the terrorist attack and were attended by hundreds of concerned Muslim residents from the area.
At each meeting, Qazi said, the reaction he got was one of incomprehension and disbelief that anyone could do such evil.
"People could not fathom this could happen," he said.
The bright side for Western New Yorkers, however, is that despite the more serious incidents of backlash against innocent Muslims in many parts of the country, Qazi said many members of the American Muslim Council have received an outpouring of support from friends, neighbors and strangers.
Some non-Muslims even have expressed embarrassment and grief over how some of their fellow citizens have behaved toward members of the Muslim community in this country.
"We had a few people stop by the mosque crying," he said.
Qazi estimated that more than 15,000 Muslims live in the Buffalo Niagara region and more than 150 families are active in the council, part of a national organization that promotes civic responsibility and empowerment of Muslim Americans.
Khan spoke to the membership about the efforts President Bush has made in understanding the Islamic faith and making the distinction between a war against terrorism and a war against Islam. He also urged audience members to do their part to educate their community about the tenets of their faith.
He referred to the airport incident as the kind of test that area Muslims can expect, tests that require a response given with dignity, compassion and honor.
After Khan's last name was flagged at the airport because it was similar to that of another terrorist suspect, an airport manager apologized that the brief interrogation was required, saying he knew the experience had to be humiliating.
Khan responded: "No, it wasn't humiliating for me. I was embarrassed for you."