Praying or Plotting?

By Mohammad Ali Salih

"May Allah guide you in whatever you do. May Allah protect you from evil. May Allah destroy your enemies."

These were the words I heard from my eightysomething father one recent morning as his frail voice came over the phone from a Sudanese village about 6,000 miles away. To each sentence I replied "Amen," and as I hung up, I felt the soothing effect of his prayer come over me at the start of another day.

But at the same time, as I readied myself for work here in the tension-filled capital of the United States I couldn't help but wonder: What if the National Security Agency were listening to my phone calls to Sudan?

My father, who is barely able to read a newspaper and never went to a modern school, learned about Islam and basic Arabic in his village khalwa (an Islamic school or madrassa). He grew up to be the village's Sharia expert and its shaman, healing patients with religious rituals and native medicine.

His everyday conversation has always been peppered with Islamic words and phrases such as " Allahu akbar " (God is great), "jihad" and "infidels." Thirty years ago, when I married an American Christian, my father objected, saying she was an infidel.

But he mellowed a few years later and now, whenever we talk on the phone, he sends his best wishes to her and our three children (he also prays for them). But he still expects that one day I will leave "Dar al-Harb" ("the land of war," i.e., the West) and return to "Dar al-Salam" ("the land of peace," i.e., Muslim countries).

My father is not an extremist, just a product of his environment, education and age. And although some say that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States "changed everything," they did not change my father. They did not change the way he talks.

But they did lead the NSA to begin spying on overseas phone calls and e-mail messages. The agency is reportedly using computers to search for key words to pick up and track certain phone calls. Words such as bomb, explosives, jihad and infidels.

My father uses some of those words.

I need my father's prayers (all prayers, really) to calm me down while the United States, the greatest nation in history, is caught up in a state of fear. My feelings about this fear have evolved from amazement to sadness and recently to anger. Not anger at the American people so much as at President Bush, whose strategy of endless war against an unidentified enemy has frightened everyone.

But sadly, my father's words can now raise red flags in the United States. The last time I spoke to him, he said he was going to send me a long written prayer in a letter. I said that regular mail would take too long and suggested instead that he give the prayer to one of his computer-literate grandchildren to e-mail to me.

But now I worry: Can NSA computers tell the difference between a prayer and a terrorist plot?

Mohammad Ali Salih is Washington correspondent for the London-based Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat and other Arabic publications.

 2006 The Washington Post Company