Muslims and Arabs in America are relieved after arrests

April 22, 1995|By Mark Matthews and Anne Haddad | Mark Matthews and Anne Haddad,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- America's Muslim and Arab communities echoed with both relief and anger yesterday after three days of anxiety fed by press speculation that the Oklahoma City bombing was the work of Middle East terrorists.

"It has been terror for us, to put it bluntly, because of the amount of hate calls we were getting at the [Islamic] centers," said Maha El Genaidi, president of the Islamic Network, a community outreach group for San Francisco Bay Area Muslims.

From a mosque in Richardson, Texas, Ghassan Saleh played for a reporter a tape of a message left on the mosque's answering machine by a man with a distinctly American accent who said he had lived in Saudi Arabia.

"Inshallah [Arabic for 'God willing'], we will rid you from this country," said the man. "I'm not afraid of you. You should be afraid of me."

A message left by a second male voice said: "It's hard for me to understand how you can support the murder of children."

Mr. Saleh, executive director of the Islamic Association of North Texas, at the mosque, said that after the Wednesday bombing a bag had been thrown into the yard of the mosque's day-care center, which had children present.

The thrower shouted that it contained a bomb, Mr. Saleh said. A teacher later retrieved it and found a soda can inside.

Other Muslims spoke of fears among some Islamic women that appearing in public wearing veils, as their religion requires, might make them targets for attacks.

After sketches of two white suspects appeared in newspapers yesterday, "I was relieved they were not the stereotypical Arab terrorists that everyone fears," said Laila M. Barrouk, 23, vice president of the Baltimore chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Arab-American spokesmen say they were put unfairly on the defensive by the widely publicized comments of terrorism experts pointing to similarities between the Oklahoma City bombing and previous acts of terror by Islamic extremists.

Even though prominent Arab and Muslim groups spoke out against the bombing -- some are seeking donations to help the victims -- they resented the implication by some callers to their offices that because of their ethnicity they had a special responsibility to do so.

"Right now I'm mad," said James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute. "We're caught in the national trauma of what happened. The media ought to go through a careful examination of how they want to use their time. We've become the topic of Oprah shows," not partners in "serious political discourse."

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), said, "At least in the future the media may not be so willing to accept the word of so-called terrorism experts who make a living defaming Arabs and Muslims."

But this will be just a start in what Arab-Americans and Muslims say is a badly needed public education effort.

A religious label for terrorist acts "is convenient when it comes to Muslims but not for [members] of other religions acting in the name of God," said Ms. El Genaidi. In fact, she said, "terrorism isn't sacred law. It isn't in any religion."

The local anti-discrimination committee tries to show Baltimoreans a broader view of Arabs than the stereotypes that abound on the news and in outdated textbooks, Ms. Barrouk said.

The Baltimore ADC chapter has been trying to take a more active role in the community in order to break the stereotypes, she said. One project, part of a national effort, is to examine the portrayal of Arabs in textbooks, and offer schools and teachers a wider variety of materials.

"We're trying to educate Baltimore on the Arab culture and tradition," she said. "What we're doing will, I think, cut back on the stereotypes that all Arabs are terrorists."

"I think it's about time we crack down on all types of terrorist activities, and once we start doing that, there will be a realization they're not all of Middle Eastern descent," Ms. Barrouk said.

Not all Arab-Americans encountered bad experiences in the past three days. Yousif El-Ibiary, a professor at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, near Oklahoma City, praised both the community and its authorities.

"The local community went out of its way to dispel speculation about the Middle Eastern stuff," said Mr. El-Ibiary, describing his fellow townspeople as "very compassionate, very nice."

Threats reported by others, he said, merely showed that there "will even be microbes in a doctor's office."

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