Growing Fears: Arabs Still Reeling from 9/11 Backlash

Manal El-Hrisse prays in the basement of the Mosque Foundation in southwest suburban Bridgeview. within hours of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, El-Hrisse said, a woman shouted at her, “I wish I had a gun. I wouldshoot you right now.” Many local Arabs say the backlash continues. (Photo by Mary Hanlon)
 

On a chilly Friday evening in November, after prayers at a local mosque, Mamoun Alrifai and his brother, Reza, relaxed in the basement of the Southwest Side home where they live with their parents. Observant Muslims, the brothers like to share the faith: In the driveway, their car was plastered with stickers proclaiming, “Islam is the way” and “No one is perfect, but God forgives.”

But moments later, around 9 p.m., the calm was broken. “My brother and I noticed flashlights and commotion in the backyard and went out to see what it was,” said Alrifai, 22. “We were greeted by police who showed us their badges and said they needed us to go upstairs.”

By then, Alrifai said a federal agent had knocked at the front door and crossed the threshold as it opened. The agent announced that he wanted to search the house. But when Alrifai and his father, a 30-year Chicago resident, asked to see a warrant, the agent said he didn’t have one.

“I asked him to leave, and he said, –˜No,'” recalls Alrifai, a Chicago-born Palestinian American. “I told him, –˜I know my rights. You have to leave.'” But the agent’s response floored him: “He told me, –˜As of right now, you have no rights.'”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment about the incident.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, stories like Alrifai’s have rippled through Chicago’s Arab community, stirring a deepening well of fear and intimidation. Reports of visits from federal agents have been accompanied by a spike in hate crimes, verbal abuse and federal anti-terrorism measures that community members believe are aimed at them.

“Since 9/11, this community has become a target for harassment,” said Mahmud Ahmad, a local community activist. “It’s been nothing more than a fishing expedition.” Ahmad and others say the sole fact that Arabs share the ethnic identity of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers has cast them under a cloud of mistrust that has persisted even as the first anniversary of the attacks passed without incident earlier this year.

All of it came as a blow to a community with a century of history in Chicago. The 2000 census counted nearly 45,000 Arabs in the six-county area, concentrated on the Southwest Side and in southwest suburbs such as Bridgeview, Oak Lawn and Burbank. However, estimates from community-based experts put the number at 150,000–”one of the largest concentrations nationwide.

The community has followed the same well-worn path of other immigrant groups. It is largely Muslim, with a smaller percentage of Christian members who share the same culture and speak the same language, Arabic.

After decades of insularity, the community had begun to emerge from its shell, establishing mosques, schools, newspapers, businesses, a bar association and several charitable organizations.

Nothing typified its growing economic foothold like the 87th Street strip mall just west of Harlem Avenue in heavily Arab-populated Bridgeview. Developed three years ago as a “one-stop” shopping center for all things Middle Eastern–”from groceries to clothing–”the plaza has become a community epicenter.

But in the wake of Sept. 11, that relaxed social setting has eroded. And a community that saw itself finally becoming a part of the local fabric witnessed that weave unravel, thread by thread.

Within hours of the terrorist attacks, 22-year-old Manal El-Hrisse, in her black headscarf, was shouted at by a woman who said, “I wish I had a gun. I would shoot you right now.” Such reactions led some women to exchange headscarves for hats–”or simply stay indoors.

American-born Arab Muslim teenagers fielded painful questions from their peers. “People asked, –˜How do you fit into America?'” said 19-year-old Salma Nassar of southwest suburban Burr Ridge. Even the community’s younger members felt the backlash: A 7-year-old named Osama was so taunted by classmates that he started going by Sam.

Hundreds of Arabs across the country reported that they were spit on, threatened and attacked with weapons. Some were even killed, according to news reports, police statistics and interviews with community members. Hate crimes spiked in Illinois and in Chicago, particularly on the city’s Southwest Side.

Ahmad said the widespread unease among local Arabs has been further fueled by accounts of visits from federal agents to the 87th Street strip mall, and the federal government’s shutdown of two local Muslim charities–”the Global Relief Foundation and Benevolence International Foundation–”amid accusations that the groups funded terrorism.

“This is a war on Islam, not a war on terrorism,” said Seema Imam, vice chair of the Hickory Hills-based Muslim Civil Rights Center. Imam said she has donated to Benevolence International for years, as a way of fulfilling the Muslim requirement of charitable giving.

For her and many others, the crackdown on the charities smacks of the type of surveillance they’ve become accustomed to, one that stretches back more than 30 years. The feeling is compounded by the events that have unfolded in the wake of the terrorist attacks–”a string of detentions and deportations, questioning by government agents and federal legislation passed as part of the war on terrorism. It has left many Arab Americans feeling that the war being waged on groups like al-Qaeda is also a war on them.

“What we’re doing is making these people feel unwanted,” said Matthew Piers, attorney for Benevolence International. “That’s very dangerous in an open society, because it creates outcasts.”

But the fallout has inspired a new generation of Arab Muslims, many of whom were born here, to step forward and grab hold of their rights as citizens. “I never knew how American I was until 9/11,” said Gihad Ali, a 20-year-old poet and DePaul University sophomore.

By midnight on that cold November night, Alrifai, an imposing figure with short-cropped dark hair and glasses, paced frantically on the sidewalk in front of his house, trembling slightly. He said federal agents refrained from the search until they had a warrant, but refused to leave the house. Plainclothes agents from the FBI, Secret Service and Illinois State Police went in and out freely, Alrifai said. Police squad cars and the dark, unmarked vehicles of federal agents camped out on the tidy residential street just west of Midway Airport, blocking the road for late-returning neighbors, in a vigil that lasted all night.

It was about 4:30 a.m. before agents arrived with two warrants, one for the house, the other for the family’s cars. Nearly six hours later, the Alrifai family, all of them U.S. citizens, watched as federal agents took a computer hard drive, two laptops, some bank statements and a pile of Islamic literature from the house.

The family remains in the dark as to why the raid took place. “We have no idea whatsoever,” Alrifai said. “I wish we knew.” But it’s not likely they’ll find out–”at least not for now. Attorneys for the family say documents that explain the government’s probable cause for the search have been sealed.

Hamileh Samra takes a break from selling prayer rugs in the basement of the Mosque Foundation, 7360 W. 93rd Str. in Bridgeviewm during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. (Photo by Jean Clough)
 

Singled Out
Nine days after the terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush declared to the nation that “no one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith.” But state and local police data demonstrate that the violence unleashed went far beyond words.

One example was the beating of taxi driver Mustapha Zemkour, in Evanston, whose assailants allegedly yelled, “This is what you get, you mass murderer,” according to press reports. In Chicago, another 55 such hate crimes were reported in which the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were mentioned, said Anthony Scalise, commanding officer of the Chicago Police Department’s civil rights section.

Shortly after the attacks, Chicago police implemented a new tracking code for hate crimes specifically related to Sept. 11. None of these hate crimes had been reported in 2002.

“We’ve had a zero-tolerance policy since the very beginning,” Scalise said, adding that the police department helped sponsor community forums and published a brochure in Arabic on how to report hate crimes.

“Anti-Arabian” hate crimes soared from four in 2000 to 60 in 2001, according to police data. So far this year, 124 hate crimes have been reported, said Scalise. Seven were “anti-Arabian” and two were “anti-Islamic.”

In all, Chicago police recorded 215 hate crimes in 2001, up from 182 the previous year. The heavily Arab-populated Chicago Lawn Police District led all police districts with 25 incidents, roughly 12 percent of the citywide total.

Hate crimes also surged statewide. Illinois State Police reported 49 “anti-Arab” hate crimes in 2001, up from nine in 2000 and one in 1999. Ten “anti-Islamic” hate crimes were reported in 2001, compared with none the previous two years.

Charges of discrimination associated with the terrorist attacks persist as well, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Immediately after the attacks, the EEOC began tracking charges brought by those who are, or are perceived to be, Muslim, Arab, South Asian or Sikh. As of Oct. 11, 2002, the commission counted 671 charges filed nationally. Illinois, with 52 charges, ranked third among all states. Only Texas and California, with 75 each, had more.

Although official hate crimes have dropped off, the “unkind words” President Bush denounced a year ago continue to flow. Shortly after the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11, DePaul student Renad Khalil, 18, said she was wearing her headscarf while walking on West Fullerton Avenue when another woman told her to remove it.

“She said, –˜It’s very unpatriotic of you to be wearing that,'” recalled Khalil, who was born to Palestinian parents. Khalil explained that she was an American. But the woman’s reply shocked her: “Not when the Muslims are killing Americans.”

Others say they continue to sense a silent hostility. “When I walk into a place like [a restaurant], I feel accusing eyes on me,” said Amneh Mustafa, who wears the hijab, or headscarf, and jilbab, the long coat worn by some observant Muslim women. “It’s as if people are thinking, –˜You’re guilty.'”

Hate crimes and verbal harassment weren’t the only things fueling the community’s feeling of unfair scrutiny. Within days of the terrorist attacks, law enforcement authorities began detaining hundreds suspected of having ties to or knowledge of terrorist activity. Immigrant rights advocates say more than 1,200 individuals have been detained and most were Arab or Arab American.

The advocates are troubled by a Sept. 17, 2001, interim regulation issued by the U.S. Department of Justice allowing detention without charge for 48 hours–”or longer in emergency situations. Critics like Ed Yohnka of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois say the rule is vague and allows the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to hold people indefinitely.

The government would not divulge the ethnicity of detainees. “This has nothing to do with a person’s race or religion,” said Jorge Martinez, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice. “We don’t pursue anyone because they’re Arab. We pursue the evidence and leads that we have.” Martinez said 763 individuals have been detained, and more than half of them were deported.

The secrecy about the detainees concerns Yohnka, as well. “The government won’t tell us who they are, why they were taken into detention or what’s happened to them since,” he said.

Martinez said the secrecy protected “the privacy of the detainees and the ongoing investigation.”

What the advocates do know is that most of the detainees were held on minor visa violations or on criminal charges unrelated to terrorism, and that immigration judges were authorized to hold their deportation trials in secret. As detainees were released, news was leaked about rough treatment in detention, including solitary confinement, prompting Amnesty International to issue a 47-page report.

It is not known how many detainees are from Chicago, but each story elicits a string of others until a pattern emerges that community members say looks like a policy of racial profiling. It could get worse, they fear.

A sweeping set of new laws and broad law enforcement powers was passed as part of the government’s war on terrorism. Yohnka and others say the USA-PATRIOT Act, whisked through Congress Oct. 26, 2001, sharply reduces the due process rights of non-citizens–”even those legally in the country–”who can be arrested without a warrant and, if designated a national security threat, detained indefinitely.

The act also broadens the definition of a “terrorist organization,” according to the ACLU of Illinois. Almost two months after it became law, the PATRIOT Act paved the way for the closure of two local Muslim charities–”Global Relief Foundation in Bridgeview and Benevolence International Foundation in Palos Hills. The government blocked the charities’ financial assets and seized property. Almost a year later, their names were placed on the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of designated terrorist organizations.

The government charged Enaam Arnaout, a resident of southwest suburban Justice and chief executive officer of Benevolence International, with using some of his organization’s charitable donations to finance violent activity overseas. Arnaout denies any wrongdoing.

A naturalized U.S. citizen born in Syria, Arnaout has been held in solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Chicago since his April arrest. His trial is slated to begin in February.

Arabs report that federal agents have visited them in their homes and businesses since the attacks. On Nov. 9, 2001, according to press reports, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memo authorizing interviews with a list of 5,000 men between the ages of 18 and 33 who had entered the United States after Jan. 1, 2000, on non-immigrant visas from countries where al-Qaeda has a “terrorist presence.” More than 100 letters were sent to men in the Chicago area, according to press reports.

“The letters asked for –˜voluntary’ help,” said a southwest suburban man who asked to remain anonymous. “But no one felt as if they could refuse.”

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division had preceded the letters with a statement prohibiting the use of threats of violence or discrimination against Arab or Muslim Americans, according to Martinez of the justice department.

He said the FBI has opened 403 investigations into backlash crimes against individuals of Arab, Muslim, Sikh and Southeast Asian origin, and that 11 federal prosecutions have been initiated.

“They come saying, –˜We’re here to protect you from hate crimes,'” said Jim Fennerty, an attorney who has handled several cases involving FBI visits. “But then they quickly start asking, –˜Do you know so-and-so, and so-and-so?'”

Standing in front of his home on the day it was raided, Alrifai recalled that federal agents visited him shortly after Sept. 11, wanting to know if he had experienced any hate crimes. “And now look,” he said, gesturing toward law enforcement officials gathered on the street.

Caise Diab Hassan stands outside an office building in downtown Chicago. The 9/11 backlash, including the closing of Muslim charities, has left many Arabs paranoid and uneasy, he said. “When you see your community’s strengths taken down, you retreat even more.” (Photo by Jean Clough)
 

Community Paranoia
Arab Muslims say what’s happening in their community feels ominously similar to the treatment they knew in their countries of origin. “We come from an area [of the world] where there is no democracy,” said Ghassan Barakat, publisher of Al-Bostaan, a local Arab American newspaper. “Someone commits a crime, and the whole family, the whole village or town gets scared and shaky, and says, –˜OK, we don’t want anything to do with him.'”

Community leaders said the fear has caused withdrawal from civic life. Equally disturbing for them has been a drop in giving to Arab and Muslim institutions and low attendance at fundraisers.

“You’d think people’s reaction toward the charities would be one of outright defense,” said Caise Diab Hassan, 29, a former board member of Benevolence International. “But when you see your community’s strengths taken down, you begin to retreat even more.”

Before the terrorist attacks, they said, families gave generously to their charities. Many gave as part of the practice of zakat, a 2.5 percent tithe on income required as one of the five pillars of Islam. Now, with two of their largest charities closed, many are choosing to make their donations privately to those in need.

Seema Imam, a Muslim convert of 30 years, views it as an erosion of her freedom of religion. For years, she said, her family wrote zakat checks to charities such as Benevolence. “When my kids had their first jobs, I would say, –˜Hey, I see you have a savings account. Figure out 2.5 percent, take it over to BIF, or put it in the mail to support an orphan,'” she said. She and others say they fear the crackdown could extend to other Islamic religious practices and institutions–”like mosques.

Arab civic organizations are also having trouble raising funds. “People used to rarely turn me down,” said Manal El-Hrisse, executive director of the United Muslim Americans Association, a Palos Hills-based nonprofit that encourages Arab and Muslim voter registration and political involvement.

But now it seems nearly impossible, she said. Her organization relies almost exclusively on member donations. But several pledges she received before Sept. 11 have since been revoked. “The feeling is that there are already enough people in jails just because they happen to be Arab. Why get yourself in trouble?”

Hassan said he’s not a “mosque rat,” but attends often enough to recognize some of what he calls the “new faces” at prayer. “We know there are informants,” he said. “I was talking with a friend the other day about Middle East politics, and there was a guy I saw out of the corner of my eye writing things down. I had to do a double take. My friend saw him, too. So there is an element of paranoia.”

Fighting Back
But fear and retreat have not been the Arab community’s only responses. In the Chicago area, three out of every five Arabs were born here, according to community-based experts. And this new generation is emerging to claim its rights.

“We have a generation that’s raised here,” said Hassan. “We have numerous people going through Ph.D. programs in Middle East history. We have engineers and doctors. We have an economic foundation.”

El-Hrisse, who is earning a master’s degree in political science and justice, sums it up this way: “I still have faith in the Constitution.”

On a late August evening at the Mosque Foundation, after Muslim worshippers had knelt for the maghrib prayer, they descended in modest dress and shoeless feet to the mosque’s lower level community room for a session entitled “Muslims: Guilty Until Proven Guilty.” The forum gave a community, stunned and reeling from what had befallen it during the past year, a chance to discuss whether America’s promise of civil rights and freedom included them.

Downstairs, about 80 men and women, mostly Palestinian immigrants, solemnly settled into metal folding chairs to hear about their civil rights from a panel of experts. Two attorneys were present to brief people about their rights under the law.

Over the course of the evening, participants were told that they did not have to talk with federal agents who visited them, they should demand to see a warrant from agents seeking to search their home or office, and they had the right to have a lawyer present if called upon to testify. One participant said he had received a grand jury subpoena.

But most striking were the voices from younger participants urging the community to organize itself and fight back.

Khalil, the DePaul student who was admonished to remove her headscarf, said that, while other women took off their headscarves in fear, she decided to wear hers in the wake of the attacks. “I felt I needed to show my Islam. I wanted to prove I was just as American as anybody else.”

“We held a press conference and said [to the government], –˜We’re going to fight you,'” said Hassan, who, in addition to his work with Benevolence, is a founding member of Granada Muslims and Jews for Human Rights. “–˜What you’re doing is trampling on our existence, on our religious and spiritual institutions. You’re trampling on what makes us a community and what makes us a people.'”

It’s an about-face that runs counter to the way many say they were raised. Many Palestinians, who came to Chicago because of increasingly difficult conditions in their homeland, retain a desire to return, even though their children were born here, grew up speaking broken Arabic and became American. “I remember in fifth grade, the teacher said, –˜If you’re American, stand up.’ I was the only one sitting down,” said 20-year-old Gihad Ali, who was born in Chicago and whose parents came to the city in the late 1960s. “My parents always told me I’m not American because we never planned to stay.”

But Ali said that something inside her changed after Sept. 11. She does not wear a headscarf regularly but has experienced harassment similar to Khalil’s. “People are telling you you’re not American. It’s like, –˜Wait a second. Yes, I am.'”

After the terrorist attacks, she sat down to write a poem about her name, commonly spelled jihad, which in U.S. popular culture has come to symbolize something violent, but which she said has multiple positive meanings. Her poem reads:

–¦ See Gihad, I’m not a “holy war,” or a terrorist type plan
I’m not with hamas
nor al-Qaeda or the taliban
rather Gihad is a struggle for the sake of Allah
a struggle of the holiest kind
from the simplest things like giving thanks
to purifying the thoughts of my mind.

“I feel that Palestinians and Arabs and Muslims don’t have a voice,” Ali said. “One of my goals is to give us that voice. America is what we make it. It’s up to us to change what we don’t like.”

Mary Abowd is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

Comments are closed.