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Rise in hate crimes worries Arab-Americans

Recent incidents in an edgy America raise questions about how to keep the US safe.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 10, 2003



NEW YORK

The murders had terrorized shopkeepers in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood for more than a month.

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They seemed to have no motive: No provocation had been given, no money was taken.

But when Larme Price confessed to the crime more than a week ago, he said his aim was to kill Middle Easterners, in retribution for Sept. 11.

In fact, only one of the four victims was from the Middle East. But it's the intent, say concerned residents, that counts.

Across the country, the past few weeks have been an uneasy time for Arab-Americans. The murders are just one part of a disturbing uptick in violent hate crimes that have worried Arab-American groups - from the Afghan man set on fire in his Indianapolis restaurant to the Pakistani who was beaten unconscious in a New Jersey parking lot, as his two attackers hurled insults to Islam.

Another, more immediate concern for many Arab-Americans is increased surveillance and profiling. They worry about getting deported on a technicality, or finding themselves unwitting terrorist suspects in a nightmarish Kafkaesque scenario. "I'm afraid of giving out my number and having it put in someone's phone book," says Shaker Lashuel, a soft-spoken schoolteacher from Yemen who has lived in the US for 16 years. "It's guilt by association."

The fear that Mr. Lashuel and other Arab-Americans feel raises a tough question for the US government: how to keep America safe from potential terrorists without fostering an atmosphere of discrimination or hate.

"It's a balancing act," says Philip Anderson, director of the Homeland Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "You have to weigh national security, and safety at home, against a threat to privacy.... But the real strength of America is that we have a legal system that's almost certainly going to protect us when these kinds of things come into question."

Not everyone agrees with him.

While most Arab-Americans laud government officials for speaking out against hate crimes and blanket accusations against Islam, they say another, subtler message is sent by policies such as forced registration, deportation, and FBI interviews of Arab-Americans.

The increasing anti-Islam rhetoric from some right-wing websites and radio talk-show hosts also helps create an atmosphere in which hate and prejudice can thrive.

Popular websites like World Net Daily and FrontPage Magazine "have articles almost every day calling Muslims the fifth column," says Hodan Hassan of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). A Chicago deejay, "Mancow" Muller, recently parodied Elvis's "Burning Love" song with "Burning Mosques," she adds. When CAIR gets hate mail and phone calls, they nearly always parrot, word for word, what is said on those sites and shows.

Ms. Hassan and others are also concerned about the message sent by the Bush administration's ties to Christian evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham or Jerry Falwell - who has harshly portrayed the prophet Muhammad - and the fact that Bush recently nominated Daniel Pipes, seen as anti-Muslim by many in the Islamic community, to the board of the US Institute of Peace. "There's kind of a mixed message," says Laila al-Qatami of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Arab-American leaders also worry that measures like racial profiling encourage a distrust of all Muslims, and haven't necessarily made America safer.

Some argue it's not so simple. "I'm very concerned about going back to 1942 and what we did to Japanese-Americans," says Randy Larsen, director of the Anser Institute for Homeland Security in Arlington, Va. "But then again, we're not worried about Swedish grandmothers," but rather about a threat that has emerged from the Arab world.

Others say the best results have come when the government works with, rather than against, the Arab community. Dozens of concrete leads have come out the FBI's interviews with Iraqi-Americans, says Jean AbiNader, managing director of the Arab American Institute, who helped the FBI review their policy.

At the same time, he's disturbed by reports of a few interviews gone wrong. In one, an Iraqi-American asked to have his attorney present. According to the man, the FBI agent said, "Go down that path, and you'll see what happens," and slammed down the phone.

So far, however, the war hasn't brought the kind of backlash that the US Muslim community saw after Sept. 11, says Ms. Qatami. But she's disturbed by the increasing violence of some incidents. In Phoenix, for instance, someone threw homemade dry-ice bombs into the backyard of an Iraq-American family. In Burbank, Ill., a man blew up a Palestinian family's van.

Here in Brooklyn, meanwhile, residents are just glad that the shopkeeper shooter seems to have been caught. "I know these people like they're my family," says Cynthia Edwards. A resident of Crown Heights for 38 years, Ms. Edwards says her son's father escaped from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. "I was upset about the whole thing too, but I don't take it out on them."

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