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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.

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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.

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