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U.S.: Muslims In New York Worry About Backlash

  • Nikola Krastev

In the United States, reports are mounting of verbal abuse and physical attacks aimed against Arab-Americans or those of Middle Eastern descent. U.S. President George W. Bush and other top officials are calling for an end to such attacks, saying they violate the civil liberties of fellow Americans and undermine the government's anti-terrorism efforts. RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev talked with Muslim-Americans in New York, who are appealing for greater understanding of Islam.

New York, 21 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Shortly after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September, U.S. officials began expressing concern about a possible backlash against Arab-Americans.

Those believed by U.S. authorities to have hijacked and crashed four passenger jets -- killing some 6,500 people -- are all linked to Mideast states and a radical fundamentalist network set up by Saudi-born extremist Osama bin Laden. Law enforcement officials believe many more members of the network remain in the United States, and they have begun detaining and questioning a number of people from Arab states.

At the same time, there has been a growing number of random assaults in the United States aimed at Arab-Americans or simply people who appear to be Arab or Muslim, people with dark skin or who wear turbans or veils.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has now opened at least 40 hate-crime investigations, including probes into two killings -- of a Pakistani grocer in Texas and a Sikh gas station owner in Arizona, both possibly motivated by anti-Arab sentiment.

U.S. President George W. Bush repeated his concerns about anti-Muslim attacks in a nationally televised address to the U.S. Congress yesterday. He called the terrorists who committed the attacks in New York and Washington "traitors to their own faith" who, in his words, were trying to "hijack Islam itself."

"The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them."

Bush said the religion practiced by the terrorists twists the true teachings of Islam:

"The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics; a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam."

New York City is home to a large, diverse community of Arabs, Muslims, and Asians, some of whom have reported beatings, vandalism, and threats against them or people they know. Our correspondent recently interviewed members of this community, who expressed concern about a backlash. Many also seek to distance the actions of the terrorists from the religion of Islam.

Sabrukh Khamil works as a janitor at Grand Central train station in the heart of New York. Speaking in a Muslim neighborhood in the borough of Brooklyn, Khamil said he now encounters strange looks from commuters at the station where he works. But he says he has not faced actual harassment.

Khamil told our correspondent that he is upset by discussions of terrorism and of the suspected terrorists that also include mention of Islam:

"Islam never says 'kill.' [People] can't generalize all the Muslims for one Muslim who is doing that. The Islam is a religion that says only peace, not [killing]."

In the same Brooklyn neighborhood, street vendor Clarence Korb says he does not think the anti-Muslim backlash will last. Americans, he says, are undergoing a general education about Islam in the wake of the attacks.

"There are [Muslim] communities that haven't been threatened, but there are some that have been threatened. I don't think it's going to go much further, in my opinion, because people seem to understand, [are] beginning to understand what Muslim [Islam] is representing, the Koran."

But the head of the Islamic Cultural Center in New York City, Sheikh Mohammad Gemeaha, tells RFE/RL that he has been contacted by a number of people who pray at the center who say they are concerned about the backlash.

Gemeaha says he is worried about the emotional response to the recent terrorist attacks. He says random reprisals against Muslims and Arabs only satisfy the terrorists and degrade American society:

"To accuse or to attack innocent people, it is not [an] appropriate way. It is not appropriate for civilized people, for civilized nation like [the] American nation. Because the terrorists will be so glad if the American people start attacking the innocent people."

Gemeaha said Muslims in the city were among the first to respond to the tragedy, donating blood at Red Cross stations and helping as volunteers at the World Trade Center site. This is consistent with Muslim teachings, he says.

"Those people, those terrorists, they represent only themselves. They don't represent Arabs. They don't represent Muslims. They don't represent Islam. They only represent their Satanic desire."