Being Arab or Muslim in a Post-9/11 World
Some in Ohio are feeling the heat
By John Lasker
Tarif Hourani, an area computer programmer and board member of the Islamic Society of Greater Dayton, has a polite message for the local FBI: “We want to cooperate as much as possible.”
His statement underscores the trying times Arab Americans and American Muslims are facing as their country continues to fight a global war at home and abroad. Since 9/11, according to Hourani, a significant number of the area’s 5,000 Muslims have been visited at work or at home by FBI agents.
“They come and flash a badge,” the 45-year-old Hourani said. “Then they ask
some quick questions. They’ll show a picture and ask, ‘Do you know this person?’ Or, ‘What is your relationship with the (Islamic Society of Greater Dayton)?’ Do you know of this charitable organization? Mostly along those
Hourani said he fully supports taking the fight to extremists, but feels that the fight has gone too far when innocent people are visited at work.
“Not long after 9/11, we invited the FBI to visit our mosque,” he said. “We wanted to start dialogue. ‘Come and see us,’ we said. ‘We want to cooperate.’”
The FBI did come and the meeting went well, Hourani stated, but he believes some form of “intimidation” continues.
DCP was able to speak with an area Muslim who was first visited at work and then at home. The incident took place roughly two months ago. The man, who wishes to remain anonymous, said six members from the Islamic Society were visited over a two-day period.
“They were asking about an imam (roughly equivalent to a Catholic priest or Jewish rabbi) we had interviewed recently,” said the man, a high-ranking member of the Dayton’s Islamic Society.
He wasn’t at work when the FBI came calling. His employer, who he said was very supportive, notified him of the visit. The FBI came to his home later that day. Producing a card given to him by FBI agent Kenneth J. Wall, the man said he was willing to help the FBI as much as he could. However, he
thinks the visit to his place of employment was a calculated effort to affect his well-being.
“It was a form of intimidation,” he argued. “Come to my home. That’s OK. At my work — no.”
The FBI office in Dayton said their office would not be responsible for conducting such an interview. They claimed that the FBI’s Cincinnati office is responsible for Ohio’s terrorism-related investigations, and both offices refused to comment on the matter. A spokesperson said it would be impossible to confirm or deny whether such visits occurred. However, the name on the FBI card was Wall’s. And, according to staff listings, Wall is
based out of the Dayton office.
Also supporting the Dayton-area claim is the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), considered one of Muslim America’s most influential nonprofits. During 2003, CAIR claims their national office fielded over 100
complaints from Muslims who received an unannounced visit from federal law-enforcement personnel.
Hourani believes that the area visits are part of a calculated effort to intimidate local Arab-Americans, no matter if they are Christian or Muslim.
“The media is putting this view out that all Muslims are suspects,” Hourani
stated. “This fuels hatred and animosity. The Bush administration should assume a greater responsibility in protecting its citizens. We do not want this external war to turn into an internal one.”
Jad Humeidan, CAIR’s Ohio Director and a prominent Ohio Muslim, agrees with Hourani. He contends he has heard of “spying” complaints from nearly every mosque in the state.
That they are being watched or followed is just one protest spreading through the Muslim and Arab-American community — a population that, according to Hourani and Humeidan, firmly believes a new McCarthyism is targeting
Muslims, and not just Arabs, but Somalis (Africans) and Pakistanis (Southeast Asians) as well. A pattern of abuse is also being reported by Christian and Hindu Arabs, as well, CAIR claims.
An Ohio FBI staff member, who wished to remain anonymous, said complaints from the public and local law enforcement of apparent suspicious activity on the part of Arab-looking peoples now come in steadily on a daily basis.
“Thousands of people have been visited (in response to 9/11),” said the agent. “Nearly every complaint turns out to be innocent behavior, but we need to follow up (on every complaint). If we don’t, it may blow up in our face.”
Amal Wahdan, publisher and editor of the new monthly newspaper, The Arab Gazette, explained succinctly what it’s like to be an Arab and reside in Ohio.
“It’s a terrifying time,” she contended from her office in Cleveland. “(Arab-Americans) are afraid to participate fully in society because they are being scrutinized. The media is also playing a very significant role in polarizing (people). They’re not playing a fair game.”
Her paper states no address, but does offer a PO box.
“They’re (Arabs) afraid to speak their minds even to me,” she continued. “They’re afraid of a number of agencies (FBI, local police) in this area. They don’t want to be profiled or harassed. Everyone is afraid to speak their mind. For some, it’s as if they’ve returned to their homeland.”
Ohio’s Arab population is believed to be over 200,000, making the state home to one of the largest Arab communities in North America. Many are Muslim, but it is estimated that over 50,000 Ohio Arabs are Christian. In fact, it is believed that at least half of all Arab-Americans practice some form of
Nonetheless, since 9/11 and the beginning of the "war on terror," some within Muslim
and Christian Arab communities are concluding that their American dream is slowly being twisted into an American nightmare.
And it is a nightmare many Arab-Americans have already lived, argued Jordon Robinson, a journalism student at Ohio University and the director of its Muslim Student Association. Robinson said a significant number of
Arab-Americans came here to escape “countries where autocratic and tyrannical regimes are the norm.”
“Many prominent Arab and Muslim activists have been subjected to unfair searches and raids,” Robinson posited. “Many mosques and Islamic centers have been put under suspicion by government agencies such as the FBI and have been victims of hate crimes. Many Arabs and Muslims feel they have no one to turn to and that a new McCarthyism has formed not only among this country’s citizenry, but among government officials as well.”
Arguing thusly, CAIR’s recently released “Unpatriotic Acts” — the nonprofit’s annual report on the status of Muslim-American civil rights — contended that, during 2003, “The highest number of Muslim civil rights cases were recorded. Reports of harassment, violence and discriminatory treatment increased nearly 70 percent over 2002. The largest number of complaints reported to CAIR in 2003 are attributed or directly linked to
actions taken by federal, state and local government agencies and officials. Mounting evidence from various sources indicates that there is a government-sanctioned policy targeting Arabs and Muslims.”
According to the report, hate crimes against Arabs rose 37 percent in 2003, compared to 2002. And for the first three months of this year, CAIR’s national office claims a 30-percent increase compared to the first
three months of 2003.
CAIR stresses that third parties, such as the Detroit News, have confirmed their findings. That paper analyzed 100,000 area court tickets, mostly ordinance violations, and found that, after 9/11, those with Muslim-sounding
names were twice as likely to receive a ticket.
CAIR Ohio’s office is based in Columbus, a city that is considered one of America’s most Arab-friendly communities and cited as having one of the largest Muslim populations in the country. But, as reports of harassment, profiling, “spying,” and being dragged by police from one’s car for no apparent reason continue to be fielded, CAIR’s Humeidan argues that Ohio's reputation of heartland tolerance has taken hit after hit.
“We thought that, as we got further and further away from 9/11, we would see a decrease in hostility towards Arabs,” Humeidan complained. “But instead, we’re seeing an increase. Arabs are being denied jobs, housing and apartments and are being arrested for no cause.”
How tangible is the racial and religious tension that some Ohio Arabs feel? Take the rhetoric of the Christian Right, which has loudly been singing of late the (un)praises of an old enemy: Islam. Operation Save America, the fundamentalist anti-abortion effort formally known as Operation Rescue, had its national convention in Columbus July 17-24. Several hundred evangelical Christians invaded the capital city and held downtown protests throughout the week.
“We’re not anti-Arab,” said Rev. Flip Benham, Director of Operation Save America, in a recent phone interview with DCP. “(But) Islam is a lie from the pit of hell. It is a demonic, murderous religion.”
Considering mainstream belief portrays many Arab-Americans as Muslims when, in fact, at least half are Christian, the recent animosity toward them is forcing them into transition, argues University of Dayton law professor Dr.
“Arab-Americans were once considered ‘white’ and treated ‘white,’ but now
they’re considered a ‘colored group,’” said Randall, whose focus is on immigration, race, and their influence on American law. “Now they’re dealing with what other American minority groups have faced for years, such
as discrimination and racial profiling.”
To Muslims, Benham’s comments about Islam are like ammunition for the ongoing cultural war being waged against them. And the near future holds what many are saying is a key battle in the current Muslim vs. American conflict: the 2004 presidential election.
Like environmentalists and evangelicals, Muslims are also being urged to vote. Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in the country and the national community is believed to be somewhere between six to eight million, with the number of eligible voters estimated at 3.5 million.
Across Ohio, the sagging economy and the lack of jobs are two forefront issues swaying voters in this critical battleground state. But, for Muslims, several sources argue that civil rights and the Patriot Act might be of greater importance. The post-9/11 anti-terrorism law essentially made it easier for law enforcement to conduct wiretaps and surveillance of suspected terrorists.
“At any Islamic conference you attend now, you have a panel on the Patriot Act,” said a high-ranking CAIR official who wished to remain anonymous. “And when that panel starts, 75 percent of the (attendees) go to listen.”
Roving wiretaps, which don’t necessarily require a target or a warrant, especially if terror-related, and access to library or Internet
search-engine records without prior notification are just two terrorist-fighting “enhancements” spreading anxiety throughout Muslim and Arab America.
The Bush administration is fighting mightily to keep the current Patriot Act intact. Several provisions such as Internet search-engine records are set to expire at the end of 2005. President Bush is urging Congress to renew the crime-fighting tools.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, on the other hand, has said he plans on softening several controversial provisions of the Patriot Act. But, when attacked recently by the Republicans about potential changes, Kerry’s campaign spokesmen said that they still support “95 percent” of the controversial law.
The act also requires banks to report suspicious activities. And CAIR claims that many with Muslim-sounding names have had their checking accounts closed without reason, while others are being denied loans or credit.
Thus, many Arabs and their votes will be cast in protest, declare postings on certain Arab-American-oriented websites such as MuslimWakeUp!.com.
“Definitely,” said Humeidan when asked if this election is most important ever for American Arabs. “Arabs now see they need to stand up and be accounted for. They are realizing they need to and can affect the political process.”
Humeidan said that CAIR cannot endorse a candidate due to its nonprofit status, yet it is vigorously conducting a voter registration effort
nationwide. Their effort in Ohio is lacking compared to the ongoing efforts of 527 groups such as MoveOn.org
and the Sierra Club, but Humeidan says that CAIR Ohio has registered just under 1,000 Arabs, saying an unknown number of non-citizens who are unable to vote dampens their hopes for possible change.
Hourani and Robinson contend that American Muslims are prepared to right a wrong they made in 2000. Many Muslim PACs endorsed Bush because he expressed that he would take a harder line against Israel. Bush also reached out to Arabs with his “compassionate conservatism” appeal, saying that he would soften immigration standards concerning deportation.
Now, despite complying with federal orders to be fingerprinted, photographed and assigned a registration number, CAIR claims that 13,000 non-citizen Arab males who entered the country during the last several years are fighting deportation.
“Considering the enormous failure of the Bush administration following the Muslim ‘bloc vote’ that had 73 percent of Muslim Americans voting for Bush, many Muslims, and Arab Christians for that matter, want to redress past decisions and show the Republican party their disappointment,” Robinson said. “Key issues to Christian and Muslim Arabs are the immigrant roundups,
double-standard use of the Patriot Act, and the Iraq war.”
Robinson’s claims of Arab-Americans voting Democrat are supported by a July poll conducted by the Washington D.C.-based Arab American Institute. According to the poll, Kerry would get 54 percent of Arab-American votes (potentially estimated at 500,000) in the key states of Michigan, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, compared to Bush’s 24 percent.
“Muslims want to reassert their voice and they want to see what the Democratic party can do for them this election year,” Robinson stated. “Many Arabs want to play a greater role in the political process. A unified voice that demands equality and acknowledgment of their place in the American electorate.”
Here in Ohio, say several sources, the state has become the improbable focus of how the nation perceives Arab-Americans.
Two high profile federal investigations — one that allegedly thwarted a plot to blow up a suburban Columbus mall — have elevated the suspicious pall that shadows Ohio Arabs. In June of this year, the November 2003 arrest of the 32-year-old Somali, Nuradin Abdi, was made public. He was indicted on federal terrorism charges. Law enforcement statements within court documents sent an
eerie shiver through central Ohio. His alleged target, the relatively new Polaris “Fashion Mall,” has a capacity for 80,000.
Also in June, more bad news arose with the conviction of Ohio’s most popular imam. Specifics of the case showed that Palestinian-born Imam Fawaz Damra of
the Islamic Center of Cleveland had been caught red-handed, at least in rhetoric. In a videotape of a 1989 speech seized in another federal terror investigation of a 1989 speech, Damra exhorted, “The first principle is that
terrorism, and terrorism alone, is the path to liberation. If what they mean by jihad is terrorism, then we are terrorists.”
Photos of Damra on the Internet, however, show a warm and father-like leader who was said by supporters to be determined to build a bridge between Jews and Arabs.
Federal authorities and prosecutors beg to differ. They concluded that Damra was a near-fanatical supporter of the Intifadeh (uprising) against Israel and helped raise thousands of dollars for Palestinian resistance cells.
The Islamic Center of Cleveland refused to respond to any DCP phone calls. Indicating the potential weakness of its case, federal authorities charged Damra with immigration violations. His sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 9. He’s facing deportation and possible prison time.
These cases and the attention they received have helped strengthen a mental thread now commonly shared by even the most out-of-touch citizens — how extensive is the internal threat from our own Islamic community?
“Common sense tells you that a majority of Arab Muslims and Christians sympathize with terrorists such as Hezbollah and Hamas,” said Stephen Schwartz, a Washington, D.C.-based expert on Islam who writes policy papers for several high profile federal agencies, including the Department of Justice.
He also authored The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa’ud from Tradition to Terror and freelances for The New Republic.
Schwartz, who was raised Jewish but converted to Sufism, a pacifist form of Islam, would not offer any exact figures. However, he did suggest that many would be surprised by the number of Ohio Arab Muslims and Christians financially supporting terrorist groups via a number of American-based charity groups. Most of the groups, he believes, are targeting Israel.
“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” Schwartz said. “I don’t agree with them. But I understand why they feel this way.”
Schwartz, who monitored the federal case against Imam Damra, says the case presented an open window into the “largely hidden world of Islam in America.” He contends that Imam Damra espoused Wahhabism, a radical form of Islam embraced by many Saudi Arabs, including Osama bin Laden. Wahhabism, Schwartz claimed, is a fundamentalist branch of Islam that adheres to a literal interpretation of the Koran. Much like Operation Save America operatives, strict Wahhabists believe those who don’t practice the right religion are heathens and enemies.
A number of Washington policy experts have continued to promote the contention that Wahhabism is the fuel for the burning anti-West sentiment embraced by violent Islamists. As for the homefront, Schwartz said,
“Wahhabism is the most dominant form of Islam in the United States.” This is due in part, he said, to where many American mosques receive funding from — Saudi Arabia.
“Wahhabism teaches separatism and exclusion, and a disdain for other religions,” Schwartz posited. “It teaches that Islam is the best religion. It also says that Jews should not be trusted because they have deceived us
before, and that you don’t have to honor your agreements with Christians.”
Several representatives from Ohio mosques dispute some of Schwartz’s claims. Hourani of the Dayton Islamic Society of Greater Dayton Center insisted that, not only are Wahhabist principles not practiced or promoted within the center, they do not receive any form of international funding.
“There is no such movement around the world,” Hourani argued. “I don’t believe there are many people who call themselves Wahhabists. They may be influenced by Wahhabism.”
Hourani believes that the dissemination of Wahhabism as the combustible behind Islamic terrorists smells like propaganda.
“It is a new political word spread by forces that oppose Islam and may have an agenda,” he said.
Editor’s Note: CAIR has taken its share of hits from law enforcement, the media and Congressional investigations. On Oct. 3, 2003, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) criticized CAIR in a press release entitled, “Examining Wahhabism.” In it, he wrote, “In response to our Senate inquiry, groups such as the Saudi-backed CAIR, whose terror-related activities are being scrutinized, have been quick to accuse investigators of Muslim bias. Yet three of CAIR’s leaders were arrested this year on terror-related charges. CAIR declined an invitation to appear before my subcommittee to answer questions.”
Kyl was referring to Ismail Royer, Bassam Khafagi, and Ghassan Elashi.
Royer, a CAIR communications specialist, was convicted in 2003 for violation of the century-old, and rarely enforced, Neutrality Act and numerous weapons charges for working to support the Lashkar-i-Taiba movement in the Kashmir. That group was designated a terrorist entity by the U.S. in 2001.
Khafagi pled guilty to charges of visa and bank fraud after he was arrested for allegedly being involved in terrorist-financing while he was employed by CAIR. He was deported to Egypt.
Elashi was arrested in 2002 and charged with “dealing in the property of a designated terrorist organization, conspiracy and money laundering.”
CAIR leaders have historically supported Hamas and Hezbollah, at least with their rhetoric, as resistance movements against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. And some of their statements have gotten them in trouble, such as in 1998 when then-CAIR chairman Omar Ahmad said, “Islam isn’t in America to be equal to any
other faith, but to become dominant. The Koran should be the highest authority in America, and Islam the only accepted religion on earth.”
CAIR’s founder, Nihad Awad, also claimed that, after the 1995 conviction of Sheik Abdel-Rahman for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, “There is ample evidence indicating that both the Mossad and the Egyptian Intelligence played a role in the explosion.”