In the weeks following the September 11 terrorist attacks, Arab-American communities throughout the United States became victims of retaliatory harassment and violence. In the worst incidents, several Arab-Americans or people who simply looked Middle-Eastern were killed. This so-called backlash has subsided, but many Arab-Americans say they continue to face problems as a result of the terrorist attacks.
At about the same time that the first hijacked jet slammed into New York's World Trade Center on September 11, Imad Hamad was on a plane from Detroit to Washington for a meeting. The head of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee office in Dearborn, Michigan was stranded in Washington for several days while flights nationwide were grounded. On the flight back to Michigan a few days later, a nervous-looking young woman asked Mr. Hamad to switch seats so that she could sit on the aisle instead of him. "She started asking where I was from and we talked about September 11, what had happened," he said. "I tell you, that conversation meant so much to me because it was my first immediate interaction with just an American citizen, a fellow American citizen."
He says the conversation showed him that the attacks left many Americans frightened of people who appeared Middle-Eastern. Mr. Hamad says Arab-Americans were frightened, too: frightened by the attacks themselves and by what they feared was coming next. "From moment one, it was clear that this community, this culture, this faith was condemned and indicted," said Imad Hamad. "The blame was on all of us. We found that we had to clear ourselves, defend ourselves, show our loyalty and commitment and show that we had nothing to do with this horrible attack."
At the ADC's office in Dearborn, Michigan, the phone rang constantly. Many people calling were Arab-Americans wanting to know if their community was safe from attack by angry non-Arabs. Other calls were hate-filled. This is among the tamest messages: "Did you have something to do with the September 11th attacks? Are you related to Osama bin Laden? Did you blow up any buildings lately?"
And, still other calls offered support. "I just wanted to say that right now we need solidarity," said the caller. "We need to hold hands and stay together. I am so sorry for what you folks are having to go through. I just feel extremely bad."
"We had people who left messages that would give you tears," said Imad Hamad."It shows America at its best: people offered their houses as a safe place, people offered to do shopping on behalf of others, offered to take kids back and forth to school."
At the Royal Dry Cleaners store in Dearborn's main Arab-American shopping area, owner Imad Bazzi says some people have shouted insulting things at him this past year, but for the most part he is not bothered by it. "We love this country," he said. "My boys are American. I have four boys. I have been here for 15 years in the United States and I am proud of myself. I came here with nothing, worked hard and built myself."
Law enforcement officials say there was a sharp increase in incidents of harassment and violence against Arab-Americans in the weeks after September 11. In Chicago, the number of incidents was up four times over the previous year.
But while such incidents are less common today, Arab-Americans say they are now concerned about civil liberties. They say police seem to stop Arab-American drivers more often, ask them questions about their citizenship, sometimes asking them to prove their citizenship.
Last December, the federal government interviewed 5,000 young men, mostly from Muslim and Middle Eastern countries, about possible ties to or knowledge of terrorists in the United States. American-Arab Chamber of Commerce director Nasser Beydoun says these actions accomplish little other than making Arab-Americans feel they are being unfairly scrutinized. "I find it insulting that my patriotism needs to be questioned because 19 hijackers who have nothing to do with this country, hate this country and do not even understand this country, basically committed a heinous act," he said.
Nareman Taha heads the city's Arab-American Family Services agency. "Women and children are told to stay in the home, to not do anything, just keep to yourself until that day and week passes," she said. "Muslim women who wear the hijab and families known to be Arab-American are the most vulnerable to attacks."
At the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Imad Hamad predicts tough times will continue for at least the short-term for his community, but he also says his is not the first minority group to face difficulties in the United States. "What we are facing today as an Arab-American community is maybe different in nature from what other minorities faced before us, but the same way other minorities prevailed, we are confident that this community will prevail," said Mr. Hamad. "This is the American challenge and we are up to it."
One way Arab-Americans are reacting to the events of this past year is by becoming more involved in public life. The federal government says citizenship applications are up about 65 percent over last year. And in a recent survey or Arab-Americans by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, 70 percent said they had recently registered to vote, or planned to register before the next election.