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Muslims feel local backlash

After some vandalism against homes and businesses, Tampa Bay area Muslims are growing fearful.


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 14, 2001

After some vandalism against homes and businesses, Tampa Bay area Muslims are growing fearful.

Embedded in an outside wall of Hernando County's only mosque, police found a bullet on Thursday morning.

On his brand new GMC truck, a St. Petersburg man of Palestinian heritage found splattered paint and a threatening note on Wednesday.

On the white door of a family's garage in Temple Terrace on Thursday, someone wrote Muslims F---.

Across the Tampa Bay area, Muslims and Arab-Americans say they have felt the heat of anger from fellow Americans who are seething over this week's terrorist attacks in Washington and New York.

"This is not American," Noor Salhab said Thursday, pointing to the graffiti at his Temple Terrace home, where an American flag was waving outside, and a sign on the door read "Welcome Friends."

"I just want to make sure that people know this is really wrong. You cannot brand the Muslims to what happened in New York," said Salhab, a Palestinian-American whose five children were born in this country.

Although threats and vandalism are relatively rare, many Arab-Americans said they have endured nasty comments and stares since the attacks. They say the anger is misplaced -- many are American citizens, as appalled as anyone at the carnage.

Civil libertarians also are concerned that some of this same anger may fuel a backlash affecting not only Muslims, but all Americans.

In Hernando County, the bullet was fired into the mosque when no one was inside. Also in Hernando, someone scrawled Hispanic racial slurs and Arabs Go Home F------ on the wall of a drive-through liquor store that is owned by a Hispanic couple, who are not Arabic. Someone also attempted to light a fire there, but it caused only minor damage.

But with America's frustrations running high, some are worried that a small comment or incident could swell into something violent.

In Tampa on Thursday, Universal Academy of Florida, a Muslim school, was closed. Another, the Islamic Academy of Florida, was open but only about 100 of the 270 students showed up. It will be closed today.

"My mother is afraid to go to the bank, to the store," said Mohammed Al-Dahoud, a member of the Muslim Student Association at the University of South Florida. "We have the double worry: How did such a thing happen in this country, and then worrying about ourselves."

He said most female Muslim students decided not to go to class at USF Thursday, thinking their head scarves would make them obvious targets.

He's not the only one worried at USF. Administrators from the president on down are frustrated that at least three radio stations have reported that Muslim students were celebrating the terrorist attack -- despite repeated denials from the university president, Muslim students and others.

"We are really trying to maintain a normal educational environment," said university Police Sgt. Mike Klingebiel. "To have this go on and persist really does hinder that effort."

Taiseer Jadallah, 48, a St. Petersburg man of Palestinian heritage, said he was upset to discover this week that his truck had been splattered with black paint, with what he thinks to be a death threat taped to the window. "You cannot live in my world. Get out of it," Jadallah said the note read.

"I am afraid for my kids," said Jadallah, who turned the note over to police. "My kids are scared."

An Ocala businessman made his feelings known Wednesday when he taped a No Muslims sign across the plate glass window of his store, Golf USA.

The property manager made Rodney Leek take it down; the lease prohibits unapproved signs. He taped it up again and finally removed the sign when Ocala police officers were called to the store.

In an effort to crack down on terrorism, some expect to see restrictions on civil liberties.

Don't expect soldiers on the streets. Lawyers say the loss will be felt in small ways, often unnoticed. Tactics already used by law enforcement will become increasingly common:

E-mail increasingly scrutinized by the FBI. Racial profiling of Arab-Americans in airports and on highways. Increased searches at airports. Cameras scanning and recording faces at the mall or on the street.

"Very few of us will feel the impact of law enforcement measures adopted because of the fear," said David Cole, Georgetown University law professor. "Everybody feels the fear, but not everybody feels the cost, so Americans will discount the cost."

But lawyers warn that intrusive methods to unmask terrorists aren't a cure-all.

While the American Civil Liberties Union said it wasn't responding to media inquiries, St. Petersburg lawyer Bruce Howie, a former vice president of the Pinellas ACLU, said, "Terrorism has no particular ethnicity."

"Timothy McVeigh was probably whiter than I was and looked more American than 98 percent of the people you might see go through the airport," he said.

- Times staff writers Robert King, Marlene Sokol and Josh Zimmer contributed to this report, and information from the Ocala Star-Banner was used.

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