Citizenship still a dream

The Council on American-Islamic Relations says discrimination against Muslims is rising.

Published June 21, 2007

TAMPA - Ahmed Sheikh-Khalil proudly remembers the day he aced his citizenship test.

"Passed with flying colors, " said Khalil, 50, a native of Syria. "I still have the congratulations letter."

Immigration officials were supposed to notify him within 120 days whether he would be a U.S. citizen. But more than three years later, Khalil remains stuck in bureaucratic limbo, a delay he attributes to his Muslim heritage.

"It's because of my name, " said Khalil, a Tampa resident. "If I had done something wrong, they would make me leave. They know where I live. They know everything about me."

Khalil is one of 168 Muslims who reported acts of discrimination to the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, according to a report released Wednesday.

Complaints of civil rights violations jumped by 50 percent from the previous year, ranking Florida fourth in the nation, the report showed.

Ahmed Bedier, the council's Tampa director, said there are a number of factors contributing to the discrimination, including continued tension over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism.

"It seems like if you look Muslim, you're automatically treated like a suspicious person, " he said.

The largest number of complaints, both nationwide and in Florida, were related to immigration. Muslim-Americans applying for citizenship often face unfair delays because their background checks are not processed as quickly as those of other applicants, Bedier said.

"These are not newcomers, " he said. "They pay taxes, they have jobs, they have families. ... There's no reason a person should wait five years to find out if they're a security threat."

There also were reports of employment discrimination, physical violence and housing discrimination. According to the report, called "Presumption of Guilt, " complaints have been rising steadily nationwide since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, from about 350 incidents in 2000 to almost 2, 500 last year.

The council tracks incidents through calls and complaints filed on its Web site. Complaints originated from numerous places, including offices, airports, government agencies and schools.

Bedier said there were 55 reports of discrimination in the Tampa Bay area in 2006. Among them was the arrest of Iyad Abuhajjaj, a Palestinian health care worker and part-time actor.

Abuhajjaj caused concern among the crew on a Southwest Airlines flight from Phoenix to Tampa in late February when he watched graphic torture scenes from a Stanford University student film.

Detained after the flight, he was arrested in Hillsborough County on an unrelated charge, accused of threatening an Okaloosa County woman he met online in 2002.

Authorities are holding Abuhajjaj in a northern Florida jail but have not charged him with a crime. Earlier this year, his lawyer filed paperwork demanding the government explain the accusations against his client and accusing the Homeland Security Department of holding him illegally.

His wife, Karen Abuhajjaj, who lives in San Jose, Calif., said the case has devastated them financially and emotionally.

"I'm an American citizen, and I can't believe this is happening in the country I love and where I was raised, " she said.

Bedier said the key to fighting discrimination is education. The vast majority of Muslims condemn acts of terrorism, but their voices are often drowned out by sensational headlines, he said.

"They reject extremism, " Bedier said. "They reject violence. They want to make sure the country is secure and safe."

Carrie Weimar can be reached at 813 226-3416 or cweimar@sptimes.com.