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For Arab Americans, a Familiar Backlash, Hanna Rosin
13 September 2001
Harassment, Threats Prompt Police to Provide Extra Security for Mosques, Islamic Centers
Arab Americans throughout the nation woke up yesterday to find bullet holes in their mosque windows, bricks with death threats attached, obscene graffiti and voice mail blaming them for Tuesday's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Almost as soon as the name "Osama bin Laden" flashed in the headlines as a likely culprit, Arab Americans braced for the backlash, which came overnight. By yesterday evening, Muslim groups in the United States had received more than 100 reports of harassment against women in head scarves, men in Muslim dress or people who merely looked Middle Eastern.
Although authorities yesterday had named no suspects in the airborne attacks, American Muslim leaders found themselves rehearsing a drill familiar from past terrorist attacks. Virtually every Muslim and Arab American group, even those that have resisted repudiating Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel, lined up yesterday to condemn the attacks on American targets.
Leaders defended Islam as a peace-loving religion and insisted that their hearts and national loyalties were with America, not with foreign extremists.
Some of their fellow Americans moved beyond suspicion and stereotype. In Oklahoma City, where locals remembered how Muslims were harassed in the hours after the 1995 bombing of the federal building there, 500 people showed up for an interfaith service led by a Muslim cleric. President Bush also advised Americans not to rush to judgment.
Still, many cities were not taking chances. In Atlanta and Chicago, police cars were stationed outside mosques and Islamic centers to provide extra security. Muslim schools in Detroit and Los Angeles closed for fear of attacks. And a coalition of Muslim leaders for the first time considered asking imams to cancel Friday worship services or to ask Muslims to pray at home.
Up to six shots were fired at an Islamic center in Irving, a suburb of Dallas. Worshipers arriving yesterday morning discovered the damage at the center, which is part school and part mosque. No one was hurt.
"It is frustrating," said Abdul Raouf of the center. "We are citizens of this country, and we share in the sorrow and sadness."
Hazim Barakat arrived at his Islamic bookstore in Old Town Alexandria to find two bricks thrown through the window, with notes tied to them. One was addressed to "Arab murderers"; the other opened with an obscenity and "You come to this country and kill. You must die as well."
"To tell you the truth, I expected it," Barakat said. "Because of the media. They have nothing to say except 'Islamic terrorist, Muslim terrorist.' But we Muslims are not terrorists. Those people [the terrorists] are crazy. We are ashamed of them."
The Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church was shut yesterday and Friday services were canceled after mosque leaders received threats against the facility.
Other incidents were common. A sign announcing the new home of an Islamic community center near Dulles International Airport was defaced with profane, anti-Muslim sentiments. The door of a mosque in San Francisco was splattered with blood. About 300 people tried to march on a mosque last night in suburban Chicago. And anti-Muslim slurs led to a prison fight in Washington state.
Members of the Islamic community center in Sterling showed up extra early yesterday to get on a bus they had chartered to take them to a Red Cross center, where they planned to donate blood for victims of the attacks. They found their hallway spray-painted in thick black letters, several feet tall, spelling out: "Die Pigs" and "Muslims Burn Forever."
"People should understand, we live here. We didn't do this," said Mohammed Khan, who emigrated from Pakistan to Sterling 16 years ago.
National Muslim leaders reacted swiftly. A coalition of Arab leaders who had been scheduled to meet with Bush yesterday and air their complaints about the treatment of Muslims and the American stance on Jerusalem switched gears and instead mounted a public relations campaign promoting the charitable efforts of Muslims.
Standing outside the Red Cross building in downtown Washington, Arab American leaders found ever-harsher words to condemn the attacks: "despicable," "appalling," "horrifying," "an act of war," Aly Abuzaakouk of the American Muslim Council said.
They then announced they would donate blood to "show their solidarity with the victims of the attack," said Nihad Awad of the Council on American Islamic Relations. For the rest of the afternoon, leaders stood in a long line outside the Red Cross with Muslim students, some for five hours, to donate blood.
Some Muslims rejected their leaders' standard line and ventured to, if not defend the attackers, at least offer to explain their actions.
Ashraf Sabrin is an emergency medical technician in Arlington, assigned to one of the firefighting companies that rushed to the burning Pentagon on Tuesday.
"I'm not saying it's okay," he began. "But there's a reason these people are angry. A reason why they bombed America. It's because Israel oppresses the Palestinian people and America tries to cover it up. Nobody listens to these people. They don't have a voice. So they act out of their frustrations."
On Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a street lined with Lebanese restaurants and Palestinian-owned health food stores, Sabrin's views were echoed. Outside a shop called Paradise Clothing, a man in a gray tunic stood facing the mirror, brushing his beard, getting ready for afternoon prayers.
"If America didn't encourage Jews to kill Arabs, then no one would come here to make all these tragedies," said the man, a Moroccan who identified himself only by his first name, Houssain.
But most were conciliatory. Even though a woman spray-painted the word "murderers" on the walls of the King Fahad Mosque in Culver City, Calif., and a passerby screamed obscenities at Tajuddin Shuaib, the mosque's director, Shuaib will not press charges. The woman "was overcome by emotions," he said. Of the terrorists, he added: "They don't represent all Arabs, let alone all Muslims. It's not Islamic to kill innocent people."
Hanna Rosin, Washington Post Staff Writer © 2001 The Washington Post Company