World

The Terror Faced by Arabs and Muslims in the Aftermath of 9/11

In an excerpt from "A Country Called Amreeka," navigating an environment hostile to muslims, a priest takes heart when a piece of history emerges from the rubble.

Editor's note: the following is an excerpt from A COUNTRY CALLED AMREEKA by Alia Malek. Copyright c 2009 by Alia Malek. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Monsignor Ignace Sadek was where he always was on Tuesday mornings: in the rectory of Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral in Brooklyn, New York. He was in his quiet office buried within the recesses of the church, preparing his homily for the midday mass.

Around 10:00 a.m., he decided to check on the young gardener tending to the grounds that surrounded Our Lady of Lebanon on its shaded block at the corner of Henry and Remsen Streets in Brooklyn Heights, separated from Manhattan by the East River. As he came out into the daylight, he noticed that the sky had changed -- no longer was it the clear blue day that he remembered; instead, it had become clouded by debris.

In front of the church he bumped into a parishioner, a gentleman his age from Lebanon, who anxiously asked him in Arabic, “Did you not hear? Are you a stranger to Jerusalem?”

Ignace explained he had been at work in his office, away from the radio and television.

“Two airplanes have hit the Twin Towers, and they are falling down!” the parishioner exclaimed.

Ignace had been to the towers just two weeks before, when his friend, a bishop, had come to visit him. He often took visitors to the Twin Towers for their views, so high in the heavens that people below were rendered the size of ants. They had waited nearly two hours on line to ascend to the top.

Ignace began to shake.

What can I do? he asked himself. I am a priest, I have to do something!

His seventy-one-year-old legs began to move quickly, and he almost ran toward the Promenade, a scenic overlook on the East River with views of lower Manhattan and its skyline dominated by the Twin Towers. When Ignace arrived, he could not see a thing. He could not see whether the towers had truly fallen or whether they were hidden behind the curtain created by the wind chasing debris across the river.

As he stood on the edge of Brooklyn, the waters of the East River obscured but restless below him, the black suit he had worn since he was twenty and his own signature black beret which he had worn since he was twenty-five turned the color of the white collar he wore around his neck.

***

In the airplanes, in the field in Pennsylvania, in the towers, Our Lady of Lebanon in Brooklyn lost eight souls on September 11, 2001. They were Robert Dirani, Catherine Gorayb, Peter Hashim, Mark Hindy, Walid Iskandar, Jude Moussa, Jude Safi, and Jacqueline Sayegh.

Ignace presided over no funerals for the eight that died because there were no bodies to be buried. Instead he said a memorial service for those whose families requested it.

Some of the victims were part of the larger community of the church; others, Ignace knew quite well personally.

He had baptized Catherine’s infant daughter just two Sundays before. During the baptism, he had noticed that Catherine had cried through the entire ceremony. He had wondered why then, and after she died, he said to himself that she must have been touched by a prophecy that she would soon lose sight of her daughter.

Jude had been raised in the Brooklyn church. Though his mother was Druze, he was a dedicated and joyful member of the congregation, who always had a hug and a kiss to share.

And Jacqueline had contacted him Friday evening just before that horrible Tuesday, telling Ignace that she was engaged! She had asked him to prepare a copy of her baptismal certificate, which was required so that she could marry her fiancé in his church. She had told Ignace that she would come by on Monday morning to pick up the paper; when she didn’t, he had told himself she would be by on Tuesday. Now, he didn’t know what to do with the envelope, so he left it where it had been waiting for her, in the sacristy where the priests vest.

Just beyond the church’s doors, all of America was reeling as well, and some New Yorkers sought scapegoats among themselves in Brooklyn. On the other side of Atlantic Avenue, the executive director of the Arab American Family Support Center had quickly yanked the group’s name off the front door right after the attacks; she had bolted all the doors that led to her office, barricading herself inside with a legal pad and telephone. She fielded two sorts of calls -- threats of violence from outside the community and desperate pleas for help from within.

At the Dawood Mosque on Atlantic Avenue, people spat and cursed at members. The Brooklyn Islamic Center was the target of a firebombing attempt. Someone hurled a Molotov cocktail at a mosque in Bensonhurst, while pork chops were flung over the back fence of the Al-Noor Muslim School in Sunset Park. In Park Slope, a motorist blocked the path of a cab driver, yelling “Get out of the car, Arab,” pounding on the hood as he shouted, “You are going to die, you Muslim.”

And a Bangladeshi mail sorter coming home to Brooklyn on the subway was knocked to the train floor and kicked and punched repeatedly by anonymous men.

New York police officers were soon standing sentry outside many of the city’s mosques, and Atlantic Avenue and Steinway Street in Astoria -- a Queens neighborhood also home to many Arab Americans -- were both lined with police. A man stood outside a Steinway Street mosque holding a homemade placard that read “get out of our country.”

Outside New York, the trauma played out similarly. A mosque in suburban Dallas had its windows shattered by gunshots; in San Francisco, a mosque found on its doorsteps a bag of what appeared to be blood; in Virginia, a vandal threw two bricks through the windows of an Islamic bookstore with threatening notes attached; and in Chicago, a mob of hundreds set upon a mosque shouting “Kill the Arabs,” while an Assyrian church on the north side and an Arab community center on the southwest side were damaged by arson. Women reported having their head scarves yanked off or being spit at, businesses were vandalized, employees were suddenly fired or demoted, and children were bullied by classmates and teachers alike.

In some cases, individual Arab and Muslim Americans responded by taking off their hijabs, keeping the kids home from school, displaying the American flag everywhere, and changing their names to something a little less “foreign.” Institutionally, every major Arab and Muslim organization immediately denounced the attacks; national leaders who had gathered in D.C. to prepare for a meeting with President Bush the afternoon of September 11 refocused their efforts on releasing such a statement the same day. Other Americans -- neighbors, friends, colleagues, classmates, lovers -- reached out in solidarity.

The federal government quickly released statements warning that any violence or discrimination against Arab or Muslim Americans or anyone perceived to be so were wrong, un-American, and unlawful. Within one week, nearly a thousand incidents of hate and bias were reported; several Sikhs -- non-Arab and non-Muslim South Asians who wear turbans -- were murdered or attacked. Investigations and prosecutions quickly followed.

But while one government hand had given, another was taking. Immediately following the attacks, over 1,200 resident aliens in the United States from Arab and Muslim countries who were not named or charged with crimes disappeared without notice to anyone into undisclosed detention centers.

Suggestions were made that camps be established for U.S. citizens from the Arab- and Muslim-American communities, while the denaturalization of naturalized citizens from these groups was also considered.

Arab and Muslim Americans and legal residents were pulled off planes in front of other passengers and subjected to interrogation; some were allowed to board eventually, many weren’t. Polls in September found that a majority of Americans favored the profiling of Arabs, including those who were American citizens, and subjecting them to special security checks before boarding planes.

The attorney general -- who earlier in the fall had attended a Ramadan Iftar -- ordered the “voluntary” interviewing of 5,000 legal residents from Arab and Muslim countries and singled out for arrest another 5,000 Arab and Muslim immigrants who did not leave the country after being ordered deported, though they represented only a fraction of the 320,000 people of all backgrounds who violated deportation orders. The issuing of visas to people coming to America for business, school, and tourism ground to a halt.

Fearing that harm could come to his parishioners, Ignace decided to hang the American flag outside Our Lady of Lebanon. He also cautioned his flock not to speak Arabic audibly outside the safety of the church.

***

In early 2002, Ignace received a call from Bovis Lend Lease, the construction company that was clearing the World Trade Center site. They had been told by the chaplain of St. Peter’s Catholic Church, near the foot of the towers, to contact him. Workers had come across something in the wreckage of stone and steel that might interest him.

As soon as Ignace fully grasped the meaning of the chaplain’s words, he responded, “I’m leaving immediately!”

The destruction of the towers had unearthed the cornerstone of St. Joseph’s Maronite Church, the original parish from whose rib Our Lady of Lebanon had been founded.

With the help of four men, Ignace transported the 400-pound cornerstone across the East River to his church in Brooklyn, making the same journey most of the inhabitants of Little Syria had made a hundred years before.

The bruised cornerstone was placed in the church’s vestibule on a marble pedestal made by a parish member. A survivor of the attacks, its engraved testament reads for anyone to see: SANCTI JOSEPHI, ECCLESIA MARONITA, ROMANA CATHOLICA.

***

After the attacks of September 11, the United States declared war on terrorism. In addition to the men and women already on active duty, the government called 41,392 Reserve and National Guard members out of their civilian lives to serve in the country’s armed forces. Securing the homeland would involve leaving U.S. borders, and on October 7, 2001, the United States began its military attack against Afghanistan, where the Taliban regime was playing host to al-Qaeda and its leader, Saudi-born Osama bin Laden.

The greater war on terror also had a concurrent domestic front. Of the 1,200 Muslim and Arab noncitizens arrested and detained within weeks of the 9/11 attacks, none were found to have any direct links with the terrorists or their actions. In addition, the Department of Justice summoned for voluntary interviews 5,000 noncitizen men in the United States on nonimmigrant visas from Arab and Muslim countries suspected of harboring terrorists. Only five people declined to be interviewed, and 104 letters were returned because of incorrect addresses. Although the interviews yielded no information relating to the terrorist attacks, Justice indicated soon afterward that it would be contacting another 3,000 young Arab men for more voluntary interviews. Major Arab and Muslim organizations, initially supportive of the government’s efforts to combat terrorism, widely condemned the continued singling out of their communities and indicated they were no longer willing to cooperate with such tactics. To this changing America, another 31,362 Arabs immigrated in 2002.

Overseas, the Taliban were effectively ousted in three months, though Osama bin Laden eluded capture, and by the end of 2001, there were only 2,500 U.S. service members on the ground in Afghanistan. Then, in January 2002, the world’s attention spun around the globe to Cuba, as news began to emerge that the United States was detaining alleged Taliban fighters at Guantanamo Bay.

Both these domestic policies and events around the world meant Americans were ever more aware of Arabs and especially Muslims and Islam. But this newfound visibility after September 11 meant not only scrutiny and suspicion on behalf of Americans toward Arabs and Muslims, but also newfound interest in and curiosity about things Middle Eastern. Thus Arab- and Muslim-American communities saw an opportunity to share their experiences and perspectives -- which had often been excluded -- on the culture, politics, history, and religion of the Arab and Muslim worlds. In many cases, community activists and advocates had been trying for years to elicit such interest from institutions that had closed their doors to Arabs in the past, and ironically, because of the al-Qaeda attacks, they finally found receptive audiences. Following an initial shrinking away after the attacks -- many Arab- 
or Muslim-themed events, concerts, and lectures were canceled -- groups refound their footing and organized or participated in a variety of, for example, campus teach-ins, public education efforts, and film and literary festivals. At the same time, Arab or Muslim characters 
were included in pop culture mediums, from the sophisticated -- like Russell Simmons’s Def Poetry Jam -- to the more common -- like the family drama 7th Heaven.

Arab Americans also became visible and vocal contingents in progressive movements, such as those focusing on civil rights and liberties. And of course, in the antiwar movement, which began to gain vigor as the United States set its sights on its next global target in the war on terrorism -- Iraq. In February 2003, with nearly 10,000 troops already in Afghanistan, 90,000 U.S. troops were deployed to the Persian Gulf, and on March 20, 2003, the United States invaded Iraq.

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Alia Malek has written for Salon, The Columbia Journalism Review, and The New York Times. She is currently editing the next volume in the Voice of Witness series, a collection of first person oral histories from communities impacted by post 9/11 backlash. Her website is http://aliamalek.com.