Local Muslims, Arabs feel more vulnerable


"America's view of Muslims and of Islam seems to have gone from one of indifference or perhaps misunderstanding to one of hate and distrust."

- Muhammad Ali

SEATTLE - Many Muslims and Arabs in the Puget Sound area are looking back on the year when they - along with much of America - began to feel unsafe. But for these groups, fear of more attacks have been compounded by the possibility of being a target of hate crimes.

Recently, a road engineer of Arab descent who works for the city of Seattle, told his supervisor it was getting too close to Sept. 11 and that he didn’t want to work outside. His fear was that someone could take a potshot at him or run him off the road and also put other employees in jeopardy.

Though others in the Muslim and Arab communities might not feel quite so threatened, nor do they sense an easing of ethnic bias or harassment, despite all the outpourings of community support.

There are about 40,000 Muslims (including non-Arabs) in the Puget Sound area, about 23,000 Arab Americans, not all of whom are Muslims.


Hisham Farajallah of the Idriss Mosque

Discrimination against Muslims has definitely increased over the year, says Hisham Farajallah, leader of the Idriss Mosque in north Seattle. He says those in his community feel unsafe for the first time since they immigrated to the United States.

"Most Arabs and Muslims came here to run away from injustice and mistreatment, and now they face the things they ran away from," he said. "They are starting to have some doubts about the future for them and their children in this country."

"(The terrorist events) have affected every single thing we do," says Rita Zawaideh, head of the Arab-American Community Coalition. "When I go to a town hall meeting, I look to see if there are other people of color around.Our community had intermeshed into society so well, we didn't realize we had stood out."

"Although most communities have been supportive, patience has also worn thin - people still perceive that Muslims are to blame for violence in the world," says Humza Chaudhry, head of the Muslim Students Association at the University of Washington in Seattle.


UW student Humza Chaudhry was briefly investigated for terrorism.

He, among others, believes the American media helps perpetuate anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian bias through the way they report events.


Harassment or discrimination against Muslims is especially prevalent in Washington state, along with New York and Florida, largely due to arrests of terrorist suspects from the area, says Chaudhry, who himself was questioned by FBI and ATF antiterrorism task forces last spring. An anonymous tip accused him of stockpiling automatic weapons and explosives, but agents quickly knew it was a hoax.

More than 600 immigrants nationwide have been jailed and subject to secret immigration hearings since Sept. 11, according to new Justice Department statistics, although no figures were available locally. Zawaideh says a number of families in the Seattle area that were detained have returned to the Middle East rather than remain in detention.

"This is all being kept so secretive," she said. "What is so scary for the communities is the disappearance of people - here today and then gone tomorrow."

The Sept. 11 attacks have not only caused Zawaideh’s travel business, which specializes in tours to the Middle East, to plummet by as much as 90 percent, but they have also made her a target of harassment.

"I got a lot of hate mail just because I'm an Arab and promoting tours to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan," she said.

Among other things, letters accused her of abetting terrorists and being a conduit for terrorist money. She was also criticized for not including Israel in a Mideast tour she is leading.

She intends to close her office on Sept. 11, mainly to protect her staff against any possible hate crime.

Zawaideh’s organization received 175 incidents of hate crimes through its hotline. Although they've appeared to taper off, she believes it’s because people were keeping quiet, since she heard of incidents secondhand.


Rita Zawaideh received hate mail for her Middle East tours.

"Almost a month ago, we started getting an escalation again," she said. "Women in hijab (head veils) would be followed in cars, sometimes pushed off roads or insulted, and some salespeople refused to serve them."

The Hate Free Zone Campaign of Washington, which opened early this year, received 76 calls in its first six months, a number of them from people being detained by the government or targeted by other authorities, said Pramila Jayapal, campaign director.

"People see the government has been targeting people without proof," she said, referrring to a Somali grocery store in south Seattle that was closed for investigation into suspected terrorist links. It was exonerated after six months.

Though women may seem less a terrorist threat than men, those wearing the traditional hijab stand out more and often suffer more discrimination.

For instance, one Muslim female job applicant was told she would have to remove her hijab if she were to have the job, said Jayapal.

"Marianne," a secretary at the University of Washington, said she used to wear the hijab all the time. This was not a problem at work but when she went out, she said, people would look at her strangely and sometimes make terrorist jokes.

She became worried for her 7-year-old son, and because she wanted to get more involved at his school, she decided recently to stop wearing it.


Muslim girls in Seattle wearing their hijabs.

"Now when I don't wear it, everyone just acts normal," she said. "I shouldn't have to feel like that, but people just don't think of you as a normal citizen - they think you're strange or some kind of monster."

Those who experience discrimination tend to work in fields where people might be less educated about world cultures.

"The lower you go in the rungs of society, the more you feel that - for instance, construction workers report harassment," says professor of Near Eastern languages and civilization at the University of Washington, Achmad Karimi-Hakkah, who is from Iran.

"At the university, my accent is a mark of my authority, whereas in another job it could be liability."

Eradicating misconceptions

Many Muslims and Arabs in the U.S. believe there's a tendency for Americans to oversimplify and generalize about the Middle East and the Islamic faith, lumping Middle Eastern countries together or viewing the Islam religion as fanatical.

"Countries are very diverse - there are so many different Islams," says professor Achmad Karimi-Hakkah. "Violence is not related to Islam, but rather the countries themselves.

"Just like Hitler comes from a Christian experience but can't be related to Christianity, nor can Osama bin Laden be related to Islam."

"When people hear 'terrorism,' they attach it to the religion, and we want them to know what Islam means," says Farajallah, who openly invites the public to visit the mosque. "A different understanding by a few individuals does not represent the faith.

"There is no way you can educate everyone. You will always have a few individuals who are not educated, who can harass and attack us anytime, anywhere."

Statements that may be obvious in certain circles need to be repeated – that not all Muslim are evil, suggests Chaudhry.

"It's important that leaders do that for our safety, that they stand up for Muslims. (U.S.) Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Washington) has been great about that - he urged people to go out and greet their neighbors, no matter who they are. He encourages more such action by political and community leaders," he said.

"It may sound like they're paying lip service or being repetitious, but I notice that when it happens, people respect what they say."

Meanwhile, there are mixed feeling from the Muslim community about how to mark the Sept. 11 anniversary, says Farajallah.

"All agreed that we must do something to commemorate the 9-11 event," he said, "but we don't want to keep attaching it to the faith, because much of the public links the terrorist attacks to the faith.when more than 600 individuals who died in the World Trade Center attacks were of Islamic faith."


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