Anti-Arab Backlash Grows

News & Politics

In America's zeal to find and punish those responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11, the focus on Arab and Muslim suspects may be causing a wave of jingoism and scapegoating. Threats and hate speech have been directed against Arab Americans, transmitted in anonymous phone calls, email messages and websites.

In one case, gunshots were fired into the windows of an Islamic center that includes a mosque and a school in Richardson, Texas, a Dallas suburb. Attacks like this have put many Arab Americans on alert.

"We brought the police in today and we also hired private security," James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, a Washington-based political and policy organization, told Reuters. "Our hope, of course, is that it doesn't get worse, but we just don't know."

Sam Hamod, President of the American Islamic Institute, said that threats have been made to mosques in Ohio, San Diego and Detroit, but he said that as far as he knows no one from the Arab and Islamic communities has suffered bodily harm.

"The vast majority of the American people have been sane," said Hamod. "But there is always a crackpot fringe in every society and in every ethnic and religious group."

In addition to Americans of Arab descent, the scapegoating has targeted Islam as a religion. Muslim leaders in some areas have cautioned congregants who wear traditional Islamic clothing -- such as veils on women -- to stay at home, rather than face possible misplaced retaliation.

And some fear that the legitimate search for the culprits could become a witch-hunt in which everyone's civil liberties are trampled. "The biggest danger is that a state goes beyond the limit of acceptable precautions in the name of security, and tries to safeguard itself by scrapping the very freedoms and principles it's trying to defend in the name of counter-terrorism," Peter Chalk, a Rand analyst who specializes in domestic terrorism, told the San Jose Mercury-News. "Plenty of states have done that."

Indeed, reports Wednesday of a man being detained on a train outside Boston developed into a story of false identification - the man, a Sikh, was seen as "suspicious" for wearing a turban, traditional for men in his culture. Many expect such profiling to increase in the wake of Tuesday's events.

For Hamod, a man of Lebanese descent and a practicing Muslim, the threats, accusations and blame being pointed at American Muslims and Arabs is sad and misplaced. Born and raised in Gary, Indiana, Hamod taught American history at Howard University in Washington, DC, for many years. The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon violated his freedom as an American, he says, adding that true Muslims would never have committed such a devastating crime.

"If someone who calls themselves Muslim did this maniacal deed, they are not behaving like Muslims," said Hamod. "They are behaving like animals."

Hamod goes on to say he wants the culprits found and punished quickly - but he doesn't want his neighbors to view him as the enemy because of his religious and ethnic heritage.

"I am just as American as the next person, because I was born here just like anyone else," said Hamod. "I have probably educated some of their children in universities where I was a professor. Anyone who discriminates against someone else because of their ethnic background, race or religion is anti-American, because we are a nation of immigrants."

While America may be a nation of immigrants, last week's horrific events have provided an excuse for many Americans to express hatred toward Arabs and Muslims. In the days following the attacks, bomb threats shut down several Arab American charter schools in the Detroit area, home to one of the largest Arab American communities in the nation. On Wednesday night, 300 people - some carrying American flags - were stopped by police in the Chicago suburb of Bridgeview, Illinois, after trying to march to a mosque.

In San Francisco, a plastic bag labeled as pig's blood was thrown through the front door of Minority Assistance Services (MAS), an organization serving mostly Middle Eastern immigrants. According to San Francisco police, someone called the MAS office and said the package was "for your brother Osama bin Laden."

These events are not going unchallenged by Americans who feel that this xenophobia can be poisonous. Figures from all over the political spectrum, including President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft, have denounced the scapegoating of Arabs and Muslims.

"We must not descend to the level of those terrorists by targeting Americans based on race or religious origin," Ashcroft said in a press conference. "That is in direct opposition to the ideals that America stands for."

Congressman David Bonior, a Michigan Democrat, echoed this theme, saying that anti-Arab bigotry needs to be fought and challenged. "I come from Michigan, home to hundreds of thousands of Arab Americans and American Muslims," Bonior told Reuters. "Already, leaders in the community there - patriotic Americans who every day give so much to this country, who have condemned these attacks, and who are as sickened by the carnage as everyone else - have been getting death threats. Such hateful prejudice offends us all."

Immediately following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, many American Arabs and Muslims came under attack when it was still widely believed that Muslims or Arabs were responsible. This pressure and hostility would last until Timothy McVeigh, a white American, was found, charged and convicted of the bombing, which was until last week the biggest act of terrorism ever committed on US soil.

The American Civil Liberties Union has set up a phone line for Arab Americans to report threats, violence or violation of their civil liberties. "We want to collect information and take appropriate action if necessary," Dorothy Ehrlich, executive director of the San Francisco office, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

This may relieve some of the tensions felt by many American Arabs and Muslims, but many say the crimes, threats and anger directed against them must be fought and spoken against by all Americans.

"Those who commit these crimes against American Arabs and Muslims are anti-American and anti-democratic," said Hamod. "The people doing this are as much a part of the lunatic fringe as those who committed those maniacal deeds in New York and Washington."

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