Civic leaders urge tolerance in wake of bombings

Groups fear prospect of attacks on Muslims

October 09, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Mohammed A. Arafa, director of the Islamic Society of Annapolis, has received more than 200 phone calls. Two of them were threatening.

But now that U.S. military forces have begun bombing, some Anne Arundel County community leaders are bracing for what they fear will be a more violent backlash against Americans of Middle Eastern descent.

"I think it's just a matter of time," Michael J. Keller, coordinator of Anne Arundel Peace Action, said at a news conference yesterday at Stanton Community Center in Annapolis.

About a dozen local civic and religious leaders gathered at the center yesterday to urge support for the 2,000 members of Anne Arundel County's Muslim population, and for people of Middle Eastern descent living in Anne Arundel and throughout the nation.

"Discrimination against and persecution of those who are, or look like they might be, Muslims or have an Arab background is totally unacceptable, and we must speak out against such actions as often as we can," said Rabbi Robert G. Klensin of Temple Beth Shalom. "Today, especially, just 24 hours since the bombing began, I fear that this discrimination may increase."

In Anne Arundel County, community leaders said they are worried about the possibility of hate groups forming to target people of Middle Eastern descent.

There is no evidence that such a hate group has formed, Keller said. But, he said, "I am fearful a hate group will look at this situation and take advantage of people's fears and anger."

Keller pledged to reactivate an anti-hate network of "people of conscience" at the first sign that a hate group has targeted people of Middle Eastern descent.

The network was formed five years ago as a means of organizing expressions of ethnic and racial harmony in the face of acts of hatred, Keller said.

At yesterday's conference, leaders including Katie Hammer, president of Anne Arundel Council of Community Services and Richard W. Kommers of the Annapolis Bahai community, spoke about peace and nondiscrimination. Some in the group, including one woman from a Quaker congregation, said that nonviolence is the best response.

So far, the backlash against Anne Arundel County residents of Middle Eastern descent has been limited to nasty comments and threatening phone calls, according to community leaders.

But, the leaders said, the incidents are nonetheless disturbing.

Fahima Vorgetts of Annapolis, who fled Soviet invaders in Afghanistan in 1979 and became an American citizen in 1997, told The Sun that two days after the terrorist attacks, a taxi driver noticed her dark skin as she crossed Maryland Avenue toward her import shop, a block from the State House, and screamed obscenities at her. Frightened by the incident, she called police.

Since then, Vorgetts says, she has received nasty e-mails from people who don't distinguish between the Taliban and the people who have committed their lives to fighting against them, as she has.

Arafa said yesterday one caller seemed to expect that he would be celebrating the Sept. 11 attacks. Arafa said the anonymous caller said: "We hate you. We will laugh in the end. Go away. Leave our country."

However, Arafa said, "As much as it hurt, I have to look on the positive side. I received two such calls. I received 200 more of support."

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