Arabs and Muslims brace for post-bombing backlash Groups still victimized by crude stereotypes

September 06, 1998|By Erin Texeira

During the past eight years, Samira Husein's family has had windows in their Gaithersburg home shattered, had epithets hurled at them - including "You stupid Arab" - and had "Go Home" scratched into the paint on their cars.

She believes it happens because they are Muslim. The incidents seem to intensify during long holiday weekends, Husein says, particularly when violence implicating Muslims has occurred recently overseas.

This weekend might be tense for the family.

It has been two weeks since the United States bombed suspected terrorist-related locations in Sudan and Afghanistan in connection with bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Many Baltimore-area Arabs and Muslims - who number about 15,000 - are bracing for a backlash.

Last week, staff members at the Columbia-based Foreign Born Information and Referral Service (FIRN) prepared to help Arab- and Muslim-Americans cope with possible incidents. They were relieved that no reports had come in - yet.

"There is racism of all kinds, but when it comes to Arabs in general and Muslims in particular, they are clearly at the low end of the scale in terms of American racism," says Marjory Bancroft of FIRN.

"That is the group we see most singled out, and unfairly singled out. They are sort of the last bastion of American racism," Bancroft explains.

Says Yara Cheikh, a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University and an Arab-American activist who lives in Towson, "If there's anti-Arab sentiment, it's because of lack of understanding of [Arab homelands overseas]."

Stereotypes based in ignorance are persistent. Many people assume that all Muslims are Arabs, and vice versa. In fact, many Arabs also are Christians, and the globe's 1.2 billion Muslims come from dozens of ethnic groups.

Some believe that Arab- and Muslim-Americans are more prone to violence, that all of them are wealthy oil sheiks or irrational religious fanatics.

Improbably crude stereotypes persist: Arab-Americans report being asked if people in their native countries ride camels and wander in the desert.

The danger of backlash comes when these usually latent stereotypes intersect with events such as the recent bombings. Experts say the anger often brews for several weeks before erupting into incidents.

Such was the case during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when even law enforcement officials seemed to behave as though from another era. In events that harked back to the suspicion and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Federal Bureau of Investigation questioned Iraqi-American families - including Yara Cheikh's father - during the war about connections they might have had in Iraq. (The FBI, which would not confirm or deny that the interviews happened, says the bureau routinely questions people who might have connections to events overseas.)

"[That] was the worst I think it's gotten for the Arab community in Baltimore," Cheikh said.

Another backlash happened after the bombing in April 1995 of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Immediately, many journalists and political leaders - pointing to little more than speculative evidence - said the tragedy appeared to be the work of Muslim terrorists. They shrugged and apologized when Timothy J. McVeigh was arrested and convicted.

Many call the Oklahoma events an eye-opener for Muslim-Americans, sparking increased willingness among many to address persistent discrimination.

But when TWA flight 800 crashed in New York in 1996, more backlashes occurred.

In the recent bombings, Muslim-American organizations have received reports of questioning of Muslims by the FBI.

Some observers hope that American society has learned from past wrongs.

According to a report released last month by the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations VTC (CAIR), violence against Muslim-Americans decreased slightly last year compared with the year before.

"Who knows," says Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the CAIR. "Maybe people are more sophisticated now."

Indeed, growing political and economic influence among Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans has led to what some say is more acceptance of these groups by the general public.

A generation after the first big wave of immigrants from the Middle East settled in the United States, many have become professionals well regarded in their communities. And, though their parents often focused on getting ahead and assimilating, many young Arab- and Muslim-Americans are determined to make their presence felt.

Social and political organizations concerned with Muslim and Arab issues have formed in the past decade. Connected via the Internet, many send out e-mail alerts within hours of the reporting of a hate crime. Online and other publications are cropping up in cities and academic centers.

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