Wearing religious garb on public transportation has a beautiful history in Memphis, Tenn. For generations, Catholic nuns simply stepped on streetcars or on public-transit buses and rode free.
It was the city’s gesture of appreciation for the women religious who refused to leave Memphis during the yellow fever epidemics in the late 1800s. Dozens of nuns remained in the city to nurse the stricken, while even physicians fled. (The custom has faded as few women religious wear habits and few ride public transportation.)
Recently, wearing religious garb on public transport became history again in Memphis when two Muslim clerics clothed in long gowns with skullcaps, heading for a Muslim conference in Charlotte, N.C., were ordered off a Delta Airlines flight at the airport.
Both had cleared airport security without difficulty. Neither had a history of being anything other than law-abiding. They were bound for a legitimate, and peaceful, religious meeting.
Protests understandably were raised that Catholic religious and Orthodox Jews wearing special garb routinely are accepted aboard U.S. commercial flights. After the incident, the airline apologized and put them on the next flight to Charlotte, but it arrived too late for them to attend their conference’s opening session.
This incident occurred not long after the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. His death brought back to center stage the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001, when so many innocent people died at the hands of terrorists guided by bin Laden. As a result of bin Laden’s death, security officials put facilities in the United States on high alert, lest a reprisal occur.
Memphis International Airport, an important commercial aviation crossroads and world headquarters for Federal Express, and Delta Airlines, a major carrier with many U.S. and international flights in and out of Memphis, especially would have been on the alert.
So, admittedly, nervousness was present. Still, the decision to remove these Muslim clerics from the plane is a signal that two currents are moving in American popular opinion, and somehow public security will have to be assured without trespassing upon legitimate personal rights.
One current is concern about public security. While the tedious security precautions are becoming ordinary, few Americans forget why they have to remove their shoes at checkpoints in airports or why shopping malls urge customers to watch for anything suspicious.
Terrorism is real. All Americans worry about the next attack. Radical Muslims are known to have inspired, and conducted, past attacks. Perhaps not totally surprising, too many Americans are succumbing to fear, branding all Muslims as evil, and in the process discarding American, and Christian, values. The other current is that millions of patriotic, peace-loving and law-abiding Americans are Muslims. Not all Muslims are radicals.
How should Christians react? Use common sense. Keep our basic national values. All human beings deserve respect. People’s religious convictions deserve respect, notwithstanding deviants among them. People are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Memphis always has been 10 to 15 percent Catholic. Catholic schools and hospitals have enhanced the Church’s image. Catholics often have held leadership roles in business and politics. But Catholics have never been in a majority. Yet, overall, the people of Memphis always have respected the Catholic Church, in part because of those nuns in the epidemics. By respecting others, and living up to their values, Catholics bring goodness to societies.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.