For American Muslims since 9/11, few acts could be considered more ill-advised or foolishly provocative than enrolling in flight school to get your pilot’s license.
Which is why Monem Salam had to do it. Well, proving a point wasn’t the sole reason. Salam has dreamed of being a pilot since he was a boy in Pakistan. He was drawn to Bellingham Airport by the same force as everyone in his beginner’s class. He wanted to touch the sky.
It’s just that the others didn’t have everyone they knew telling them they were nuts.
“I heard it over and over, from all the Muslims I spoke to,” Salam said recently from his Bellingham office, shortly after his noon prayer.
“They’d say: ‘Are you crazy, Monem? Are you trying to make trouble for yourself?’ “
Behind the doubts loomed 9/11. A sense that life for American Muslims fundamentally changed that day. Why poke that bee’s nest of suspicion? Why not lay low?
“And yet every non-Muslim I spoke to urged me to go for it, to follow my dream,” he said. “It made me wonder: Are we Muslims afraid of something that is not really there?”
So Salam, a 35-year-old adviser for an Islamic mutual fund, went to the airport to ask around about pilot training. Then he enrolled in a flight school, Bellingham Aero.
The next day, the FBI showed up, asking questions about him. He was the school’s first student ever to attract the scrutiny of the FBI. Even though he has been a U.S. citizen since 1986.