The attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre on September 11 have caused a wave of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hatred, bigotry and intolerance all over the Western world. Particularly hard-hit are American Muslim and Arab communities, as well as other dark-skinned groups. They have been subjected to a barrage of verbal and physical assaults as their fellow Americans lash out in temper against those they blame for the attacks. The resulting atmosphere of hate and fear has made the recent attacks doubly traumatic for members of the Arab and Muslim communities in the United States, especially those who have lost relatives and friends in the disaster.
By September 24, less than two weeks after the attacks, some 625 anti-Muslim hate-crimes had been reported around the United States, according to the Washington-based Islamic advocacy group Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). Such incidents have continued despite warnings by US government officials, including President George W Bush and attorney-general John Ashcroft, not to blame Arab- or Muslim-Americans and to treat them, in the words of Bush, “with the respect they deserve.”
Countless mosques and other Muslim and Arab institutions, as well as community members, around America have received numerous harassing calls and emails, ranging from spiteful, profane and foul invective to death-threats. There are also reports of vehicles being rammed into Islamic centres in Cleveland, Ohio and Indiana. In Texas and Virginia mosques were shot up. For a while mosques and Islamic centres in many places in America were put under 24-hour police guard. In a suburb of Chicago, Illinois, where an Arab-American community centre was firebombed, police had to turn out in force to disperse some 300 people, some waving American flags and shouting “USA! USA!”, who tried to storm a mosque in the southwest of the city. Three demonstrators were reportedly arrested. “I’m proud to be American and I hate Arabs and I always have,” said 19-year-old Colin Zaremba, who had taken part in the march, as the Associated Press reported.
If only it had ended here! A Pakistani Muslim storeowner in Dallas, Texas, was fatally wounded on September 15 when a gunman fired at his store. Egyptian-born Adel Karas, a Coptic Christian shopkeeper in Los Angeles and father of three children, was reported shot and killed the same day.
The spate of hate crimes, verbal abuse, harassment, threats, discrimination and violence has also affected minorities that are neither Arab nor Muslim. Non-Muslim individuals and places of worship were not spared the racist hooliganism of those described by Bush as “the worst of humankind.” In one incident in Mesa, Arizona, 49-year-old Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh who owned a petrol-station, died when a gunman drove into his service-station and fired three shots. Because they are dark-skinned and wear beards and turbans, Sikhs are often mistaken by the ignorant for Muslims or Middle Easterners. The alarming number of attacks on American Sikhs led their community organizations to run public-service announcements on American TV channels. In a telephone conversation shortly after the attacks Atal Behari Vajpayee, India’s prime minister, pleaded with Bush for protection for Indian citizens living in the US.
Media coverage of Bush’s new “crusade” on terrorism has been inflaming anti-Muslim hysteria. Various media outlets have demonstrated a disregard for the security and safety of American Muslims by insisting on using emotionally charged terminology such as “Islamic terrorists”, “Arab terrorists”, “radical Muslims”, “Islamic extremists” and so forth in their coverage of the attacks and their aftermath. So-called experts on terrorism and the Middle East, many of whom have deep-seated prejudices against Muslims and Arabs, have fed the frenzy with speculations about hypothetical future attacks in the US. The result has been a subliminal message of “go get the Muslims/Arabs”.
As the wave of apprehension and fear swept through American Muslim and Arab communities, their members were made to feel acutely vulnerable. So they have been taking unusual measures to protect themselves. The fear of bigoted violence and reprisals has disrupted the lives of members of these communities. Muslim women, especially those wearing hijab, a number of whom have reportedly been subjected to verbal and physical abuse, have been avoiding going out, confining their movements to their immediate neighbourhoods. A Pakistani woman miraculously survived when a 75-year-old drunk tried to run her over in the parking lot of a shopping mall in Huntington, N.Y. The man, one Adam Lang, then followed the woman into a store and threatened to kill her for “destroying my country”.
Some parents have reported that their children are refusing to go to school after the attacks for fear of what other students might do to them. Islamic and Arab community centres, institutions, schools and mosques have asked for police protection or made arrangements for private security. In many mosques around the country, Friday prayers have since been held behind police cordons. Community publications, leaders and organizations have encouraged community members to travel in groups to avoid physical attack and to prepare themselves for harassment at airports and by authorities. Several judges around the US have postponed trials of Muslim defendants, pleading concern that the Muslim suspects are unlikely to receive fair trials in the anti-Muslim atmosphere prevailing in the country at the moment.
Several senior American officials have issued statements warning their citizens not to blame Muslim and Arab Americans for the attacks and to desist from targeting them. On September 17, President Bush paid a visit to the Islamic Centre of Washington, a mosque in the US capital. In his speech at the mosque, Bush said that “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam,” adding that “those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America and they should be ashamed of themselves.” Aside from falling on deaf ears, these pleas are well short of what is needed to push the genie of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hatred back into the bottle. Bush’s statements did not stop John Cooksey, a fellow Republican congressman, from telling a local radio station in his home state of Louisiana: “If I see someone come in that’s got a diaper on his head and a fan belt wrapped around the diaper, that guy needs to be pulled over.”
Obviously, the anti-Muslim and anti-Arab backlash in America involves hate-crimes and requires a law-enforcement strategy to deal with it. Such a practical strategy is nowhere to be seen in the rhetoric and policies coming out of Washington these days. If anything, there are indications that Muslims and Arabs will pay for the fortress America whose legal foundations are now being laid down in a number of proposed anti-terrorist legislations. The department of justice is trying to fast-track an anti-terrorist bill that would expand the power of the law-enforcement authorities to use wire-taps and surveillance of internet-surfing and of electronic mail, as an emergency wartime measure. The bill would effectively remove the requirement for a warrant based on probable cause for such surveillance, a requirement enshrined in the Fourth Amendment of the American Constitution. The bill would also give the INS and other law-enforcement authorities the power to detain legal aliens in the United States whom they claim are implicated in terrorism by the results of their investigations. Remarkably, the courts will not have the authority to examine these detentions, which could conceivably impose long or even life sentences without parole. With no chance of judicial review, the potential that Muslims and Arabs will be subjected to abuses of power on the part of the American authorities is immense. This is especially true because of the current practice of racial profiling whereby Muslims, Arabs and dark-skinned people are being unfairly scrutinised at American airports and ports of entry.
The fact that the attacks against the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre were utterly unexpected and unprecedented in scale and ferocity has led many experts and analysts to drawn parallels between them and Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. As Americans continue to vent their fury on their fellow Muslim and Arab citizens, this seems to be an apt analogy. Since September 11 American Muslims and Arabs have been enduring some of what befell Japanese Americans during the second world war.