Veteran Arab journalist: If coronavirus gets me, I'm going back to the White House

I held a lonely vigil outside the White House for years, until Trump scared me away. It may be time to go back

Published June 7, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

Mohammad Ali Salih on the Lafayette Square side of the white house on 1/15/10 to run with his oped on his "jihad" in front of the white house (Getty Images/The Washington Post)
Mohammad Ali Salih on the Lafayette Square side of the white house on 1/15/10 to run with his oped on his "jihad" in front of the white house (Getty Images/The Washington Post)

I am almost 80 years old, with diabetes, high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol. I'm a little overweight, I had recent heart-stent surgery and I live in Fairfax County, Virginia, which has the highest rate of coronavirus cases in the state. Also an African, I feel that the virus circle is slowly tightening around me.

Recently, I wrote a will to my family: If the virus attacks me, I wrote, "Please stay away from me, alive and dead." We will pray for the last time at a six-foot distance. I will drive my car to nearby Fairfax Hospital, report to the emergency office and start texting — no emotional phone calls — about the developments.

If I die, I told them, please make arrangements for my cremation: no funeral, no burial and no mourning gathering. When the virus disappears, please bury my ashes in a grave in the Muslim section of King David Memorial Garden in Falls Church, Virginia.

But then, a few days ago, I remembered a public promise that I made 12 years ago.

In 2008, as George W. Bush was leaving and Barack Obama was entering the White House, I started an irregular and lonely vigil that I called "silent jihad" in front of the White House, carrying a large banner with "WHAT IS ISLAM?" on one side, and "WHAT IS TERRORISM?" on the other side.

In small print on each side it read: "Obama wants to improve America's Image in the Muslim World. I want to Improve Muslims' Image in America. I will be here Until I Die!"

A journalist all my adult life, and a full-time correspondent in Washington since 1980 for major Arabic publications in the Middle East, I have always been a reporter. Those signs were the first time I had indulged in spreading an opinion. After a few years covering the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, and the subsequent U.S.-led Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) that involved the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, I became convinced that the GWOT had — has — been but a subtle and indirect war on Muslims, if not on Islam.

It became endless, aimless and frontline-less; about a million Muslims have been killed so far; millions of Muslims have been arrested, tortured, chased, harassed, insulted and humiliated all over the world. And the word "terrorism" became synonymous with Muslims, probably forever, or at least for a long time.

But in 2016, I completely ended the irregular vigil, although I had faced few harassments and only one physical attack that was immediately thwarted by the White House security guards. I was scared by the rise of presidential candidate Donald Trump and his campaign against foreigners, black people, Latinos and Muslims.

A "quadruple minority" (Muslim, Arab, African and foreign), I became afraid, not of a physical push or damage to my banner, but of someone who would come close to me, take a pistol from his pocket and shoot me in the face.

That fear did not come out of nothing: Extreme white supremacist groups were not only attacking Obama because of his color, but also appearing at some of his rallies carrying guns. After the Charlottesville riots of 2017, I knew the danger had been real.

Enter the coronavirus, and my new plan.

If I become infected, instead of driving to Fairfax Hospital, I shall bring up the banner bag from our basement, take a dark suit, a few clothes, some cash, a toiletries bag, a few blankets, and my many prescriptions — ready to live in my car somewhere near the White House.

As before, I will not be a stereotypical demonstrator: No shouting or marching. No chaining myself to the White House fence. No talking, except brief answers if I am asked direct questions. Believing that my appearance is part of my message, I will wear no T-shirts, shorts or jeans, but a dark suit — now with a mask.

Every morning, I shall take out the long golf bag that I bought in 2008, with the four-by-two-foot plastic banner inside. I had the words printed at a FedEx store, and bought wooden posts, clips and screws at Home Depot to hoist the banner. I also attached two wheels to the bottom of the golf bag, to make it easy to roll it with the heavy load inside it. In the bag, there is a small foldable stool to sit on. I didn't use that before, but I probably will this time.

If my health deteriorates, I may be taken to a hospital by ambulance, or I may collapse in front of the White House — both serve to move toward fulfilling my promise.

Now, as I wait, I have mixed feelings.

On one side, in addition to the fear of death, I feel sad to die soon because I am working on a memoir project, and because I planned to return to my White House vigil when Trump leaves, or moderates his policies.

On the other side, I feel the responsibility, and the importance, of the promise I made in 2008: "Until I Die!" I remember relatives, friends and internet followers who supported me, and expressed their respect. This makes me feel calmer, and prouder of myself.

By Mohammad Ali Salih

Mohammad Ali Salih has been a Washington correspondent for Arabic-language publications in the Middle East since 1980.

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Barack Obama Commentary Coronavirus Donald Trump Editor's Picks Islam Muslims Terrorism