The beads fell out of the pocket of some pants I hadn't worn in awhile.
"Ah, man!" I said. The lucky charm I thought I'd lost was back.
The brown beads, called a sibhah, resemble a Catholic rosary or the "worry beads" Greeks and Turks rub through their fingers. They were given to me two years ago by the Iraqi drivers in the McClatchy Baghdad Bureau after my first six-week tour there. I carried them in a pocket with my wallet ever since.
They come from Karbala, one of Shia Islam's holiest places. It was a moving and meaningful moment when they handed them to me as we said goodbye. We didn't know if we'd ever see one another again. So I've carried them ever since -- not for any religious purpose but because people who took care of me during a war gave them to me.
So when I found the beads after they'd gone missing, they reminded me of my Muslim friends. And of the recent local response to the whole question of Islam in general and, in particular, Muslims in Merced.
We published a story about the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, and a gallery of photographs about it. Online comments and letters to the editor flew hard and fast, demanding that our local Muslim residents "denounce" radical Islam. Several commenters attacked the whole "Muslim world" while baying at the imam who wanted to put a community center and mosque two blocks from ground zero in Manhattan.
This is dangerous. We've been down this road too many times before. We've got to get a hold of ourselves and think through what some of us are saying. How can we Americans, a nation founded on the principle of freedom from and of religion, tar more than a billion-plus believers as subhuman zealots?
Do I think putting a community center and mosque that close to Ground Zero is dumb? Yup. Would I have changed the plan when so much resistance was raised? Yup, again. But it's a giant leap from one guy's tone-deaf construction blueprint to desecrating the religious beliefs of one-fifth of our planet's population.
Are there wing-nut Muslims? Sure. Do some pose a threat to the U.S. and Western countries? Some do. Should we take effective precautions to keep Islamic terrorists from hurting us again? No doubt about it. Just as we did after Tim McVeigh and the Unabomber.
But we can't blame an entire belief system for the insane actions of a few. Which too many Americans -- and Mercedians -- are doing nowadays.
Do we blame all Catholics for the sins of a few pedophile priests? Do we blame all Jews for the collective punishment inflicted on Palestinians by some Israelis? Do we blame all Protestants for the Westboro Baptist Church whose members gather near the graves of soldiers killed in action and chant, "God hates fags!" because of the Don't Ask/Don't Tell Pentagon policy about gays?
We've been down this road too many times before. Just take a look at the solemn memorial at the fairgrounds commemorating the Japanese-Americans who were interned there in 1942. Page through some of the old newspapers Sarah Lim keeps at the Courthouse Museum about "the yellow peril" posed by the Chinese in our town early last century.
Some folks hereabouts still bristle when called "Okies," remembering that in the '30s it was a slur against those who crossed half the country looking for work in the Valley's farms and fields.
As professor Juan Cole notes in his excellent "Informed Comment" blog at www.juancole.com: "Even though the United States was founded by a ragtag series of religious heretics seeking freedom to worship as they would, even though the constitution enshrines freedom of religions, even so, periods of religious intolerance have reared their ugly heads repeatedly in American history."