Accessibility links

Terror Investigations Raise Concern in US Arab Community - 2003-03-12

As the Bush administration prepares for a potential war with Iraq, the federal government's top terrorism investigators have an additional duty: they're preparing to safeguard Arabs and Muslims living in the United States from any hate crimes launched by angry Americans. But, residents of the nation's largest Arab community in Detroit fear the government is more interested in knowing who and where they are than in protecting them.

In the subdued downtown of Dearborn, Michigan, any passerby is as likely to look Arabic as European. This suburb of Detroit is home to one of the largest populations of Muslims and Arabs outside the Middle East - including an estimated 20,000-30,000 Iraqis. Officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation fear angry Americans could target that population if war breaks out with Baghdad. Arab leaders in Dearborn agree. So two sides whose counterparts in the Middle East are facing war are tentatively taking steps to cooperate - in America.

In a conference room in Detroit, Arabs and Muslims sit around a table next to the government's top terrorism investigators. It's the monthly meeting between Dearborn's Arab leaders and federal officials. Washington's top representative here is U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Collins, charged with both ferreting-out domestic terrorism and protecting the civil rights of Iraqis living in Dearborn.

"If there is any backlash, federal law enforcement will be a very serious tone and attitude towards that. We've done so since 9-11 - we've prosecuted hate crime cases", he said.

But as part of the Bureau's mission to ferret out domestic terrorism, Mr. Collins must prosecute Arabs as well as protect them. In late January, the FBI began interviewing thousands of Iraqi-Americans and immigrants about U.S. interests Saddam Hussein might target in time of war. Many Arabs in Dearborn say they are too scared to talk to authorities... though they have a huge number of questions for their own leadership...

Imad Hamad, the head of Michigan's Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee, smoothes a rumpled necktie and fields yet another call of concern from a local resident. Since the September 11 attacks, almost any arrest or disturbance in Dearborn's Arab and Islamic community has been viewed as part of the war on terror, often by both government spokespeople and the news media. Mr. Hamad says he has little chance to reassure his community that a federal action in Dearborn is not terrorist-related because, he says, his federal "partners" at the monthly meetings rarely tell groups like the ADC what is going on - either during or after an operation - saying it's classified.

"So it puts us in a very difficult position to reach for the trust that we care to see. It puts people in a very hard position to swallow the government's argument, and to believe them. And it pushes us back to make the community feel again and again that it is being looked at and dealt with as a suspect," he said.

Those fears were further inflamed by recent comments from U.S. Congressman Howard Coble, who heads a committee overseeing U.S. Homeland Security. The representative from North Carolina defended the government's decision to imprison Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II, and seemed to imply that new camps could help keep Arab-Americans safe... and under control.

The Bush administration flatly denies any plans to round-up and imprison Arabs. But the mere suggestion brought a flood of concerned telephone calls to Imad Hamad. "He said clearly that this is an open possibility and he even approved and justified the Japanese American experience. That is really alarming and makes people strongly feel that this is a possibility coming our way," Mr. Hamad said.

Congressman Coble declined to be interviewed. But he did issue a written statement in which he apologized to any ethnic group he may have offended and stressed he does not support internment camps.

Still, the idea isn't far-fetched for Mary Ann Mahaffey, president of the Detroit City Council. Detroit was the first city in the nation to develop its own 'hometown' security plan. As a top city official, she understands the need for security, but, from first-hand experience, she doesn't think confining people is the way to achieve that. She served as a nurse at a detention center in California during the Second World War. With the President retaining the executive powers to again set up such camps, the councilwoman says Dearborn's Arabs can't help but feel the seeds of their potential confinement are already being sown.

"Yes, and I think the precursor to it happening is this spying on Arab Americans, this seizing them and putting them in jail without a lawyer, without a hearing. I mean, that's the first step," she said. Officials in the Justice Department and FBI not only dismiss the notion of new internment camps, they say their collective doors are always open to hear concerns from the Dearborn community or news of any suspicious characters lurking in the neighborhood. But Dearborn's Imad Hamad says the government must make more of an effort to assure Arabs and Muslims in his community that federal officials are not waiting for them on the other side of that open door with suspicion and hand cuffs.

"And this is the true test for this relationship. If it does not produce during the time of need and the difficult times, I think it will be a fake relationship and there would be no use for it," he added. Mr. Hamad says he and his fellow clerics in Dearborn believe a climate of cooperation must prevail over the climate of suspicion developing as war looms. That, he says, requires open and honest communication. And federal officials agree, to a point. They say communication goes both ways, and they need information from the community to help prevent potential terrorist activity, and to help protect those Arabs who make the United States their home.