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Arab- and Muslim-Americans, bracing for the worst

Double jeopardy

Arab- and Muslim-Americans, bracing for the worst after the World Trade Center attack, mobilize their communities while appealing to the fair-minded America for tolerance and restraint

"Sand niggers go home!" spewed one. "Bastards of Islam shall die!" declared another. Within just hours of the 11 September plane crashes into the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., the Internet was rife with postings of hate directed against Arabs and Muslims. Bias attacks quickly followed suit.

On 12 September in Bridgeview, Illinois, police stopped 300 marchers chanting "USA! USA!" as they tried to approach a mosque in this Chicago suburb. A 19-year-old marcher told the Associated Press, "I’m proud to be American and I hate Arabs and I always have."

In Gary, Indiana, a masked man fired 21 shots into the bulletproof glass of a gas station manned by a Yemeni-American. In Alexandria, Virginia, four bricks tore through the glass display of an Islamic bookstore owned by a Palestinian-American.

A Florida businessman taped a "No Muslims" sign across the plate glass window of his golf store. Six shots were fired into an empty mosque in Irving, Texas. In Wyoming, an angry group of shoppers chased a woman and her children from a Wal-Mart. On New York’s Long Island, a 75-year-old man tried to run over a Pakistani woman with his car in a shopping mall parking lot. "I’m doing this for my country," authorities reported the man as saying.

Even as American Arab and Muslim groups swiftly issued statements condemning the attacks in the strongest possible terms and warning against unjustified reprisals, the backlash continued. By 17 September, 352 reports of bias incidents were reported to the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

There were two shooting deaths in the spate of hate crimes. A Sikh gas station attendant in Arizona was shot dead on 15 September by a man who also fired on another gas station where a Lebanese-American clerk worked and a home where an Afghan-American family lived. The same evening, a Pakistani Muslim store-owner was shot and killed near Dallas, Texas.

As most Americans are beginning to slowly regain their sense of safety, Americans with origins in the Middle East and South Asia are growing increasingly apprehensive about reprisals, stigmatization, and ostracism from neighbors and co-workers. Violated once by an attack that shook their souls, those weary individuals are now being violated again by the aggression of some of their fellow citizens.

Children are especially vulnerable: not only must they cope like all American children with the terrifying images of the collapsing buildings broadcast over and over again on all TV stations, but many have had to endure the taunts of their classmates and the outbursts of their teachers.

Emira Habibi-Browne, founder and executive director of the Arab-American Family Support Center in Brooklyn reports that a co-worker’s child was told by her teacher that "you people did it." When the mother complained, all the principal did was offer to move the student to another class, but not take disciplinary action against the teacher.

"Our community is being demonized. Many parents are very frightened and don’t want to send their children to school," says Habibi-Browne, whose center was established in 1994 to assist Arab-American families with social services and integration into American life. As precautions, Habibi-Browne has had the Center’s sign removed and asked for a policeman to be stationed outside the door, but she is not giving in to fear. "I’m telling families that we shouldn’t hide behind closed doors. We’ve contributed lot to society and there’s no reason we should be targeted," she told the Cairo Times.

In places far more parochial than New York, community leaders are telling women with hegab to stay indoors. Mosques have been provided police protection. A Florida Islamic school witnessed a 65-percent absentee rate among its students. Authorities are urging all who receive death threats or are victims of bias attacks to report them to the FBI.

Despite the difficult days ahead, Arab-American activists are banking on the tolerant and democratic America that does not point fingers at innocents. "There are two forces at work here," says Jean AbiNader, managing director of the Washington, DC-based Arab American Institute (AAI). "Shows of support from public figures, community leaders, school principals, and so on. And the radio talk shows, editorials, and TV commentators trying to create stories where there aren’t any."

Unlike the aftermath of the 1993 World Trade Center and 1995 Oklahoma City bombings, awareness of bias attacks and harassment of Arab-and Muslim-Americans has reached the highest levels of government. Within hours of the attack on the Twin Towers, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani cautioned against vigilante action. Attorney General John Ashcroft warned that bias attacks would get zero tolerance.

President George W. Bush, speaking in a phone conference with the mayor and Governor George Pataki on 13 September said, "Our nation should be mindful that there are thousands of Arab-Americans who live in New York City, who love their flag just as much as the three of us do...we should not hold one who is a Muslim responsible for an act of terror."

On 17 September, Bush visited the Washington Islamic Center about two miles from the White House and condemned the bias attacks. Standing in stockinged feet, he read a passage from the Qur’an, adding, "Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace."

Official recognition has extended to national events mourning the victims. At a 14 September memorial at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. which drew the nation’s former presidents and top Congressional leaders, a Muslim imam from the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) said a prayer, followed by a rabbi and a priest.

Media reports have devoted airtime not just to the bias attacks but to interviews with prominent and ordinary Arabs and Muslims, from asking teenage girls in hegab what they feared the most to consulting Muslim imams and community leaders on the teachings of Islam. Town hall-type programs such as CNN’s Talkback Live have included young Arab and Muslim-Americans, many in hegab, talking about their experiences and dispelling any notions that they’re somehow alien implants in American society. According to the AAI, there are three million Americans with roots in the Arab world. CAIR estimates that there are seven million Muslims in the United States.

Credit for the heightened awareness in government and media circles must go to the effective organization and mobilization of Arab- and Muslim-American groups who have come into their own over the past 10 years, reaching new levels of political maturity. Walking in the footsteps of a long line of ethnic grassroots movements and civil rights organizations that began with the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, groups such as the Arab American Institute (AAI), the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the American Muslim Alliance (AMA) have established links to media outlets and government representatives, reached out to educators and community leaders, and addressed ordinary Americans, making a visible dent on the stranglehold placed by pro-Israel groups and interests on any positive or even balanced views of the Middle East and Arab-American issues.

"In the past, we were perceived as somehow outsiders," says Hussein Ibish, communications director at ADC. "Now we are larger, better organized, and speak in the American idiom. Our language is non-accented." Ibish pointed to the unanimous passing of a Senate resolution on 13 September condemning attacks on Arab-Americans as further evidence of the effective links his group and others have made to the American political establishment. Soon after the attacks on New York and Washington, ADC and other groups took out ads in major national newspapers strongly condemning the attacks, set up funds for the victims’ families, and participated in candlelight vigils and interfaith services. ADC is also reminding Americans that some 200 Arab-Americans died in the Twin Towers, in addition to Arab-American firefighters.

In their organization, funding, and operations, ADC and other groups mirror the stunning array of American interest groups, depending on dedicated members and a relentless pushing of their issues onto the national agenda. They have well-equipped offices, official stationery, publications, press offices, and even mugs and T-shirts. Now they’re also being swamped by media requests for interviews. Ibish has been working the phones non-stop since 11 September and appeared on several radio call-in shows (receiving death threats on the air).

AbiNader of the AAI says his group in conjunction with others is undertaking a national campaign directed at all major American cities to raise awareness of bias crimes. "We’re getting statements by mayors, programs in schools, distributing contact sheets for what to do if you’re the victim of a hate crime," he explained. ADC has set up a hate-crime hotline. Groups are also accelerating efforts already underway since this summer to form the Congress of Arab-American Organizations, coordinated by AAI and ADC. "This event has toughened our resolve and spurred us to go beyond sectarian differences," said AbiNader. A steering committee will have the Congress’ by-laws in 60 days.

The challenges they face are daunting. With FBI investigations linking the worst terrorist attacks on American soil to persons of "Middle Eastern descent" and pinpointing "sleeper agents," who were seemingly integrated into their communities as perpetrators of the attacks, Arab and Muslim interest groups have not only to guard against civil liberties violations in the name of national security but to come to grips with their neighbors’ and co-workers’ fears and suspicions.

However, if they are now forced to endure dirty looks, hurtful words, spitting, and even gunfire, the silver lining of this atrocious event for Arab and Muslim Americans could very well be the cementing of their status as full-fledged and legitimate participants in the American national community, with no turning back.

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