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Rights Group Suggests Improvements in Effort to Combat Anti-Muslim Violence in US - 2002-11-15

A human rights organization says U.S. public officials tried vigorously to contain a wave of hate crimes in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. A Human Rights Watch study concludes federal, state and local officials reacted well, but it says they should have been better prepared to deal with anti-Muslim violence.

The new report lauds official condemnation of the hate crimes and other manifestations of a backlash against Muslims and Arabs after September 11. Human Rights Watch notes the federal government recorded 481 anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2001. That is a 17-fold increase compared to 28 crimes in 2000. Crimes included assault, arson, vandalism and at least three murders. Additionally, 2,000 incidents of harrassment were reported to Arab and Muslim organizations.

There are an estimated five to eight million Muslims in the United States.

Although the report applauds government officials for condemning hate crimes against Muslims and moving to contain them, the author of the document, Amardeep Singh says previous experience should have alerted them to the potential for post-September 11 problems. "We have a chapter in the report about the history of backlash violence in the United States against Arabs and Muslims and there is a definable history, during the Persian Gulf war, after the Oklahoma City bombing, during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979," he said.

Mr. Singh says Human Rights Watch is calling for increased preparation to reduce the potential for violence in the future. "It's very important that government is prepared to take the steps that are necessary to at least mitigate backlash violence as much as possible," said Amardeep Singh.

In its report, Human Rights Watch reviews steps taken by government officials to prevent and prosecute hate crimes after September 11. It was critical of post-September 11 actions by U.S. federal law enforcement agencies which it said cast a pall of suspicion over Arabs and Muslims and contradicted the anti-prejudice message from President Bush and other officials.

The group's proposal calls for the issuance of official public statements immediately following crimes and Mr. Singh says government officials must develop an effective plan to stop violence before it begins. "Developing public service announcements beforehand urging tolerance that can be broadcast immediately in case of some sort of emergency or if we go to war," he said. "Gathering intelligence on areas in your jurisdiction where there might be a high concentration of Muslims or Arabs so that police can deploy there rapidly."

Mr. Singh says local communities can help too. One suggestion is a "buddy program" in times of tense relations, so that people who appear to be of Arab or Muslim background are accompanied by non-Muslims and do not have to go outside alone.

Human Rights Watch says ultimate prevention of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim violence requires an ongoing national commitment to tolerance, respect for multicultural diversity, and recognition that "guilt by association" has no place in the United States.