The aftershocks from last week’s terrorist strikes against the United States will long reverberate–in some communities longer than others. Just two days after the attacks, The New York Times carried a report that foretold how the tragedy could continue to traumatize Arab Americans, Muslims and other people of color.
The newspaper told the story of Amrik Singh Chawla, a Sikh financial consultant who was wearing his turban as he fled the World Trade Center collapse. As he ran, along with thousands of others, to escape the devastation, three men began to chase him, hurling accusations and invective. Chawla outran them, but was understandably shaken by the experience: first the terrorism, then the further threat arising from misplaced blame.
In the week since the attacks, similar scenarios have played out hundreds of times across the country, according to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in Washington, D.C. Three deaths have resulted: An Indian immigrant gas station owner was shot to death in Arizona; in Dallas, a Pakistani grocer was fatally shot in his store; and at press time, reports were coming in of the fatal shooting of an Egyptian American in San Gabriel, Calif.
Among the other examples of anti-Arab and anti-immigrant violence: In Dallas, someone shot out the windows of a mosque. In Chicago, a Molotov cocktail was thrown against an Arab-American community center. In Gary, Ind., bulletproof glass saved the life of a gas station owner, a U.S. citizen born in Yemen, who was shot at 21 times with a high-powered assault rifle.
In the Triangle, “our community here has not been immune to the verbal assaults and bomb threats,” notes Rania Masri, a longtime activist for Middle East causes who lives in Raleigh.
In the last week, the following threats and attacks have occurred in our region, according to local eye-witness and police reports:
— A Muslim student at North Carolina State University, wearing a traditional headdress, was spat upon. Several other women in the Triangle who wear Muslim attire reported verbal threats.
— After receiving multiple bomb threats, a mosque and an Islamic grade school in Raleigh temporarily closed.
— A restaurant owned by a Lebanese American received threats that prompted an afternoon of police protection.
Local Arab Americans and Muslims are taking steps to defend their communities, stepping up security and publicizing abuses. Masri has created a Web site to log the mounting harassment and attacks at http://leb.net/iac/ endracism.html.
Meanwhile, Arab-American and U.S.-based Muslim groups have unequivocally denounced terrorism, and are spreading the word that they are as saddened and outraged by the events of last week as the rest of the nation. On Sept. 12, the ADC issued a statement on behalf of several national political and religious organizations that said, “We condemn in no uncertain terms the horrifying attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We are shocked and angered by such brutality and share all the emotions of our fellow citizens about these attacks, which target all Americans without exception. We firmly believe that there can be no justification for such horrible acts.”
Those sentiments have been shared and repeated by Triangle-area Muslim organizations. “Our religion builds and constructs society, our religion is not demolition work,” said Abdul-hafeez Waheed, the Imam at the Ar- Razzaq Islamic Center in Durham, during prayer services last Friday. “As Muslims, we have to condemn this behavior,” Waheed continued. “It was wrong, it was savage, it was uncivilized, it was un-Islamic.”
But some local Arab Americans fear long-held stereotypes may drown out such voices. And the climate of intimidation could paralyze some businesses, they warn, if passions are further inflamed by U.S. military strikes against Arab countries.
“If we go to war, we will have to close,” said an employee at a local convenience store staffed by people from the Middle East who asked that his name not be used.
Despite the prospect of further harassment, signs of solidarity are also evident. Father Scott Benhase of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Durham offered to send men to help watch over the Islamic Center. In Chapel Hill, the UNC chapter of International Justice Mission, a Christian human-rights group, convened a meeting in support of Arab Americans at the Mediterranean Deli on West Franklin Street. “We wanted to show them moral and financial support,” says Kristin Rawls, the chapter president, “since we know they are facing discrimination.”
Masri asks that individuals who want to contain the backlash speak up promptly and loudly. “Be public with your support for tolerance,” she says. “This is a time when tolerance will show how the United States is truly unified.”