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March 22, 2003
Feeling singled out in a nation at war, Arab- and Muslim-Americans are taking steps to prevent a feared backlash against their communities.
Security was increased at mosques for prayers Friday; lawyers are being recruited to help those questioned by the FBI; and some with family roots in the Middle East are watching what they say in public.
Many feel the mistrust cast on Arabs and Muslims since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has worsened with the start of the war, and there's widespread anxiety about backlash violence. In the year after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Council on American-Islamic Relations received hundreds of complaints of violence and discrimination against Muslims.
"The American public sees the policies and practices of this administration that target and criminalize Arabs, Muslims and South Asians and it sends a strong message to the average American that these people are criminals, these people are suspect," said Dalia Hashad, an advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Some mosques increased security Friday, the Muslim day of congregational prayers. At the Manassas Mosque in Virginia, four volunteer "worship watchers," members of the congregation, were on the lookout for unfamiliar faces among the crowd.
Most major mosques in the Detroit area posted volunteers outside, said Haaris Ahmad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Michigan.
Last week, the Islamic Networks Group in San Jose, Calif., sent schools 5,000 packets with tips on how to prevent hate in classrooms. Many of its affiliates in 25 states sent similar information.
"The first people to suffer are the children," said board president Maha ElGenaidi. "They are the most innocent, most vulnerable members of our community."
In Southern California, the Muslim Public Affairs Council plans to hold hate crimes forums at mosques this weekend to tell people where they can seek assistance if they're attacked.
Omar Shahin, the leader of a mosque in Tucson, Ariz. said he outfitted his mosque with cameras and a security system.
And in Fremont, Calif., Agha Saeed, national chairman of the American Muslim Alliance, suggested his local mosque hire a private security guard after people yelled at Muslim women wearing head scarves and threw eggs at cars outside the building.
Senan Khairie protested the war on the streets of San Francisco on Thursday, but he plans to watch what he says elsewhere.
"You cannot be very talkative about being antiwar because people identify you as the enemy," said Khairie, a Silicon Valley engineer.
Despite the mood, Georgetown University student Shadi Hamid plans to continue participating in antiwar protests, including a sleep-in on campus.
"It's a tough situation, and I think Muslims realize that. It's also important not to create a culture of fear where Muslims are afraid to speak out," said Hamid, who chairs the Muslim Students Association of the United States and Canada's political action task force.
"We're not going to fade in the background just because there are some attacks going on."