Have you heard of Roger Stockham? You really should know his name by now.

Perhaps Stockham is a terrorist — he did drive from his home near San Diego, Calif. all the way to Dearborn, Mich., apparently to blow up a mosque. When he was arrested on Jan. 24 in the parking lot of Dearborn’s largest mosque, he was wearing a black ski mask, taking photos of the mosque and his car was packed full of “high-end” illegal fireworks.

But news outlets have also uncovered that Stockham has a history of mental illness. For example, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to threatening the life of former President George Bush in 2004.

But whether Stockham is a terrorist or simply a lunatic isn’t my concern at the moment. What he did after his arrest is far more interesting. In court for his arraignment on Friday, Stockham decided to fire his court-appointed attorney and asked the court to appoint him a new one. It’s not an unusual move for defendants to make, but Stockham’s reason was unique: He wanted to fire his attorney, Mark Haidar, because he claimed Haidar was a Shiite.

It’s not clear whether Haidar is actually a member of the minority Shiite sect of Islam; it could just be another voice in Stockham’s head. Regardless, Stockham certainly has the right to ask the court for a new lawyer, but his action raises an interesting conceptual question: If the court appointed attorney was in fact a Muslim, should that matter? Can’t a Muslim lawyer fairly represent a man in Stockham’s situation? Or is the “lawyer” part hopelessly hampered by the “Muslim” part?

Let me be clear about one thing: Even with the recent spike in anti-Islamic rhetoric — I’m sure the comments to this column will be a fine example — being Muslim in America is actually not that hard. Sure, there are the crazies who shout epithets and bully and harass Muslims, but these are rare instances. The more important problem I see is subtle: Muslims in America are being identified primarily, and only, by their religion. A nation that has always accepted outsiders for the commonalities that make us all Americans suddenly doesn’t give such benefit of the doubt to Muslims.

A Muslim politician/lawyer/professor/etc. is seen today by the average person as a Muslim first, with everything else faded into an obliviated backdrop. Regardless of what the person may be talking about, there remains a doubt in even well-meaning people’s minds about the person’s true motives. It’s no different from the anti-semitism that lurked in the world’s psyche for the better part of several centuries, the anti-Catholic sentiment in this country that was only overcome with Kennedy in power or the anti-black suspicions that still linger in significant pockets of this nation.

It’s natural to fear those who are different, but America has always been better than other countries in understanding that the differences between cultures and people can be accepted, and diverse people can live and work together in a productive society. This is a precious insight that much of the world lacks: Just look at the remnants of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, or the bitterness between India and Pakistan, where different peoples feel the need to wall themselves off, to disastrous result.

With a few glaring exceptions — segregation and Japanese internment, among others — America has generally been above such polarizing squabbles. But every principle, no matter how beloved, gets tested. There will always be a group that is just a little too different, that we just aren’t comfortable with.

Muslims today are one such group, but they’re not alone. Considering the baseless questions of neutrality raised about the (possibly) gay California judge who overturned the state’s gay marriage ban, it’s clear that Americans aren’t yet very trusting of gay people either. But why do we assume a gay person can’t fairly decide gay issues? By that standard, Justice Thurgood Marshall would have had a lot of explaining to do for every Supreme Court opinion he ever wrote.

Ideals are defined in the moments when they matter. Wilting even for a second in our enduring belief that all Americans — regardless of petty labels — are equally American will be the defeat of that great ideal.

And it would be a shame to lose it now, after all we’ve been through to protect it.

Imran Syed can be reached at galad@umich.edu.

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