Backlash and Counter-Backlash

Arabs and Muslims Fend Off a Tragedy’s Aftermath

The black Bronco plastered with stars and stripes drove back and forth along Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge, blasting sonic revenge for all in the mosque to hear. The driver glared at staring Muslims from behind Oakley shades, singing "We will, we will rock you" along with Queen.

As the anthem filtered through the windows, Emira Habiby Browne of Brooklyn's Arab American Family Support Center (AAFSC) condemned the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and warned of the coming backlash against members of her community.

"We are Americans, and we are New Yorkers," the blond, blue-eyed Browne reminded journalists assembled upstairs from the mosque. An American flag was draped on the wall behind her. "But our community is being targeted because we are Arabs and we are Muslims."

Reports from across the country last week confirmed Browne's fears, following the dual jumbo-jet attack on New York City. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) said it has been flooded with e-mails and calls reporting bias incidents. The list is long, and details of attacks, real or otherwise, are being circulated nervously among Arabs and Muslims at a dizzying pace.

Among the notable incidents: An Indian Sikh, a Pakistani Muslim, and an Egyptian Copt, all males, were murdered in three different states last weekend in apparent bias attacks. Passengers sporting "excessive facial hair" were detained at JFK airport, and then released, according to The New York Times. An Arab American deli owner in Ardsley New York, was pepper-sprayed when he identified himself as an Arab. Two Muslim girls were beaten at a college in Illinois, and a mob marched on a mosque near Chicago. A Palestinian-owned rug company in Maryland was set on fire. The windows were shot out of an Islamic center in Texas. There are also reports that undiscriminating "patriots" have targeted Mexicans as well.

"There was indeed a backlash," said the ADC's Hussein Ibish. "And it's still going on."

In Brooklyn, home to many of New York City's Arab Americans, parents have been afraid to let their children go back to school, especially those easily identified as Muslim or Arab. "They are so scared—they don't want to send girls to schools. Girls have been hit, kicked, touched in places they don't want, and threatened," said Suad Abuhasna, a social worker at the AAFSC, who said women wearing the hijab, or Islamic scarf, were especially vulnerable. "They hit two women in Bay Ridge yesterday. But everyone is too scared to call the police."

So community members do what they can to stave off hostility, hanging billowing red, white, and blue amulets outside shawarma shops and on car antennas, and condemning terrorism loudly and at every opportunity. Arab American leaders also point out that Muslims and Arabs almost certainly perished in the collapsing twin towers, and that their communities share considerable grief with the rest of the country. And they are quick to dismiss media reports of Arab celebrations as false.

"The Palestinians I know are completely horrified about the attack," said Emily Jacir, a Palestinian artist who returned to New York from Bethlehem last week. Jacir, who could pass for Italian, has removed the Palestinian flags that normally adorn her knapsack. "It's because they go through the same thing on a daily basis, although on a smaller scale, that their hearts go out to the victims." Jacir added that many in the West Bank city of Ramallah have family in New York, and that candlelight vigils were being held there to remember the victims.

The atmosphere in the city reminded Catherine Fukushima of a different time. "I am the daughter of a Japanese American who was interned during World War II," Fukushima wrote in an e-mail to an Arab listserv two days after the bombing. "I have heard that Muslims are fearful to leave their homes, and with good reason. . . . I would be happy to accompany Muslim women to stores and public places, run errands, help with the media campaign. I don't know what to do, but I am willing to help."

The e-mail points to another story emerging from the tragedy, a more hopeful phenomenon that Hussein Ibish calls the "counter-backlash."

"A lot of people have been lecturing their fellow Americans," he told the Voice. "We've received at least as many calls of support as threats. And most of the media coverage of bias incidents has been disapproving." Ibish said that Attorney General John Ashcroft and Secretary of State Colin Powell both have made public statements warning the country against lawless retaliation. And on Thursday, President George Bush echoed the sentiment, saying that the nation "should not hold one who is Muslim responsible for an act of terror."

Arab American leaders also hope the tragedy forces Washington to change the way it deals with hate crimes. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, called his meetings in recent days with the Justice Department positive, and said he believes that the attorney general for civil rights, rather than the FBI, will become the first point of contact for reporting bias. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights set up a hotline for reports of bias: 1-800-552-6843.

"When my office was firebombed in 1980, I called the FBI," he recalled. "Forty-five minutes into the conversation, all the man wanted to know was who's who in the Arab community. It was unbelievable."

According to Zogby, recent immigrants from the Middle East feel uncomfortable calling the FBI to report bias against them.

"We've had a history of hate crimes," Zogby continued, "and no one's ever been indicted. I want to ask [the FBI] sometimes, why do you spend so much time violating our rights, and so little time protecting them?"

This time, the official response to the threat of bias attacks has been forceful and swift. A police officer watches the door downstairs from the AAFSC, greeting nervous social workers wearing the hijabas they emerge onto the street. A short distance away, officers are posted every couple of blocks down Arab Atlantic Avenue, and in other Arab neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens.

So the community, and everyone resembling them, endures the stares and much worse, and silently contemplates the massive military adventure to come.

"There should be a vigorous response, there is no doubt about it," said Hussein Ibish, who said he supports action against the guilty party. But the difficulty, he mused, will be in determining what action would be appropriate.

"We did lash out quickly the last time something like this happened, and we managed to deprive a large number of Sudanese suffering from meningitis of badly needed medicine," he said, referring to the Clinton administration's bombing of the al-Shifa Pharmaceutical plant in response to the bombing of the U.S. embassies in East Africa. "The Sudan action was ineffective and a mistake. If our response is patient, and directed at the guilty parties, we will support it strongly."

In the meantime, many Arab Americans and Muslims continue to shoulder myriad burdens. Ahmed Samhouri, a Palestinian American, works for Morgan Stanley, and escaped from his office on the 71st floor of World Trade Center Two after the second plane struck his building. "We all suffered that day," he said. "We were all victims." Members of his family were harassed this week. He is understandably depressed. "A lot of things don't feel right, right now. . . . Those people don't represent Muslims."

For Emira Habiby Browne, also Palestinian American, the load is especially heavy. Her daughter, a sophomore in college, tells her the school's large Arab population faces bias after last week's events. And Browne's son, a U.S. naval officer serving on a nuclear submarine, was called up for duty this week.

"I can't stand the thought that he'll have to fight," she said. "But if this goes further, who knows?"

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