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Muslim Students in US Worry About Backlash - 2001-12-18


Some Muslim college students in the United States say they worried about becoming victims of backlash after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Now, some say while they feel safe from harassment, they also feel they are being watched more closely.

At the University of Michigan's Dearborn campus, recently, a few dozen students lined up for prayers before their nightly meal to break a daylong Ramadan fast. Islam's holiest month is one of prayerful introspection.

Fourth-year student Ali Debaja says one thing he has been thinking about is the September 11 terrorist attacks. "I feel bad for such a thing to happen in the United States," he said. "We call it the land of the free and we say we are proud of our freedom. For such a thing to happen is saddening."

Dearborn, Michigan is about 20 percent Arab-American and the city's University of Michigan campus has a large Arab and Arab-American student body. Students say that is a main reason why there was little anti-Muslim backlash at school or around town.

In Chicago, Said al-Hallaj, a Jordanian man who just got a chemical engineering doctorate from the Illinois Institute of Technology, says after the attacks, he was worried. "I was here years ago," he said, "when Oklahoma [bombing] happened with Timothy McVeigh. For the first two days, we were praying it [the bombing] wasn't done by a Muslim or Arab and it happened it was not. For this case [September 11] too, we were hoping but unfortunately, it was."

Fortunately, Mr. al-Hallaj did not have any trouble, though for several nights in a row, dozens of protesters marched in front of one Chicago-area mosque, shouting insults and slurs.

University administrators like to hear students saying they feel safe on campus. Despite recently released figures showing the number of international students in the United States is increasing, universities are concerned they might have a tougher time attracting new students from overseas.

The U.S. government is taking a closer look at student visa applications, especially those from countries with large Arab and Muslim populations. University officials say some applications that might have been approved in days could now take up to two months.

Universities are also trying to ease some prospective students' fears about the government's terrorism investigation. College-students from the Middle East are among the 5,000 people being interviewed as part of that investigation.

In Dearborn, Ali Debaja says that makes some Muslims feel like suspects. "We try to say we are not discriminating against anybody," he said. "We like to be free. "But then you see these letters that tell people to come down, the FBI wants to talk to you, because you are from the Middle East."

Students say they're all for fighting terrorism, but some, like Hebba Aref, want to know if the fight will include non-Muslim groups and individuals. Ms. Aref said, "Terrorism does not just exist within Arab cultures. I think that when people hear "terrorists," they think of Arabs or Middle Easterners or whatever. I think they [the terrorists] are everywhere. It depends how you label them. I really think if it was a war on terrorism they would not bring it up now. There would have been a war on terrorism a long time ago."

Classmate Ayesha Uddin says for Americans to push their leaders to fight all forms of terrorism will mean they have to change some assumptions they might have about Muslims. "The American public really needs to be educated," he said. "It really needs to learn about different cultures and different religions. There were a lot of stereotypes going around, a lot of wrong information. Maybe this is one lesson we can learn from this tragedy."

Many universities report increased enrollment in Middle Eastern language, history and cultural classes. Several Muslim students say they are pleased that many Americans seem interested in learning more about them. Said al-Hallaj says the events of the last few months have encouraged him to learn more about his own faith. Mr. al-Hallaj said, "I grew up in Jordan and my family always felt that Islam was a good faith and we have been proud of it. To see this happen and to see the people claim they are doing it because of religion, makes me go back and check a few things, try to come up with answers and try to do soul-searching about a lot of things that happen."

Mr. al-Hallaj says the attacks in the United States and their aftermath have not made him reconsider his plans to make a home in Chicago. He has a work visa now, and is applying for permanent residency.

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