US Arabs feel squeezed by tighter security

As the FBI tries to safeguard fall election, Muslims complain of intrusive tactics.

In the past three weeks, the FBI has been calling in Arab-Americans and other Muslims to ask them about their travels and whom they might know.

"People are calling us and saying, 'The FBI wants to talk to me,' " says Laila al-Qatami, communications director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in Washington. "We're not saying not to cooperate, just to know your rights."

The FBI's increased interest coincides with worries that terrorists will try to disrupt or influence this fall's presidential election, the first since Sept. 11. Arab-Americans, who have worked hard to develop a relationship with the FBI and other agencies, say the questioning is emblematic of their vulnerability.

Yesterday, for example, the University of Michigan released a new survey of the Arab-American and Chaldean population in the Detroit area that found 15 percent have had a "bad experience" since Sept. 11that they attribute to their ethnicity.

"Where there are domestic or international events, we feel the impact on our community," says Monica Tarazi of the ADC in New York.

The FBI's inquiries, even though low key, are something of a surprise to the community - which had formed an advisory council that meets with the FBI on a regular basis. "They didn't say it was going to happen," says Ms. Qatami.

This month, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the FBI would be conducting some interviews to see if it could identify any threats. An FBI spokeswoman, Donna Spiser, says those interviews are all "intelligence driven" - that is, there is some specific information to cause the interview to take place. "We're hoping to identify any kind of valid threat if there is one," says Ms. Spiser, a supervisor special agent.

Lawyers for those questioned

But to the lawyers of some of those questioned, it seems like more like an FBI "fishing trip." James Hacking, a lawyer and Muslim activist in St. Louis, did pro bono representation for four Muslim Arab-Americans recently when they were interrogated by the FBI. One of the people questioned was born in the US to Iranian parents.

"The questions they asked him were about his family members - do they keep contact with people at the Iranian mission, do they give money to the Iranian mission or other Iranian organizations. This man had no idea," says Mr. Hacking.

The new questioning is indeed something of a setback for Arab-Americans, who have worked hard to become part of the political mainstream. Last month at the ADC annual convention, Teresa Heinz Kerry was a keynote speaker. Four years ago, Arab-Americans voted overwhelmingly for President Bush, who told them he opposed the use of "secret evidence" that could be used against defendants without even their lawyers aware of it. After the crackdowns of Sept. 11, however, the community became disillusioned, says Qatami" "People started flocking to Kerry."

Yet John Kerry's staff recently put together some talking points on the Middle East that also raised problems for Arab-Americans. "It was extremely pro-Israel," says Qatami. "Now, a lot of people are conflicted over voting for Kerry."

The political setbacks join those difficulties that Arab-Americans face every day. Fifteen percent of Arab-Americans reported problems to the Michigan surveyors. After eliminating incidents such as verbal harassment or ethnic slurs, however, only a few reported physical assaults or attacks, says Wayne Baker, who led the research team from the university's Institute for Social Research.

At the same time, about a third of the respondents reported expressions of support from non-Arabs.

If Arab-Americans are the recipients of discrimination and slurs, they don't want to take them to the authorities. "When you take a 15 percent number out of the 200,000 to 300,000 Arab-Americans in Michigan, this is a huge number," says Imad Hamad, the regional director of the ADC in Dearborn. "I don't have that many complaints in my records."

Mr. Baker says that when he presented the findings to community leaders, they were struck by the similarities of Arab-Americans to the general population. For example, 91 percent said they were proud to be Americans, compared to 94 percent of the general population. "Arab-Americans also show a lot of trust and confidence in US institutions such as the public schools, police, and legal system," he says.

In Brooklyn

Some of these findings can be seen along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, where a significant number of Muslims reside and work. "I consider myself more American," says Kamal Ahmed, a Bangladeshi. "This is my true home, and I would never do anything to hurt this country. Do I think this country has problems? Oh, yes indeed, but this is still a good place."

But Mr. Ahmed cites a certain amount of prejudice he has encountered from Americans toward himself and his family - prejudice that he is sure is invoked because they are Muslim. "People give us funny looks, like on the subway or walking down the street in Manhattan.... But I don't carry any bad feelings towards these people. Their reaction is natural," he says.

Ali Ahmed, who moved to Brooklyn six years ago from Morocco, acknowledges not so much discrimination, but rather unease from fellow Americans. Yet he stresses, "Most Americans have been so nice. You know, Sept. 11 scared Muslims here more than anything, because we were scared we would get kicked out or beaten. But Americans seem to know that Muslims, for the most part, are good people."

Mohammed Zohny, an Egyptian who has lived in America for 27 years, recalls a recent day when a group of younger schoolboys taunted him, chanting "Osama bin Laden, Osama bin Laden." He dismisses it" "They are just kids. They only know what they see on TV, on the news at night. I have faith in American parents that they will teach their children the truth."

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