Sunday, September 07, 2003
Muslims sensing both outrage and community support
Mujahid Abdullah and his wife sometimes get stares when they step outside the confines of Beale Air Force Base for grocery shopping or recreation.
They are both Muslims. Abdullah's wife wears a hijab, or Islamic headdress.
It appears to be a second wave of fear and anger Abdullah says he senses in Americans since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
This wave is tied to the Iraqi war, and there are reasons for it, he said.
U.S. Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch was captured in the war and sustained multiple injuries and fractures. Many American troops were killed in the war and even more have died in the months since the war ended. And the Iraqi people are protesting the presence of the American forces on Iraqi soil.
"There is something in the atmosphere (now) that's not different than what happened in the few months after Sept. 11," said Abdullah, who recently retired from the Air Force as a master sergeant.
"You can almost feel it," he said.
A range of anti-Muslim issues and events have challenged the American Muslims everyday life in the United States in the past two years, said Helal Omeira, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' Northern California chapter.
He said those issues and events include backlash from the American public, racial profiling and detention of Muslims by law enforcement and at airport terminals, FBI interrogation and domestic registration of immigrants, among others.
"It's such a diverse pot of things that are happening, it's hard to put your finger on it," Omeira said.
He goes on to ask, "Was it really traumatic for the community? Yes, absolutely."
Despite the various struggles Muslims sustained after Sept. 11, Omeira said there also has been an outpouring of support and love from non-Muslim American neighbors and community members.
The Sept. 11 attacks also forced Muslims to do some soul-searching and reach out to the community-at-large, Abdullah said. He emphasizes that more of that needs to happen, though.
Aly Barakat of Yuba City remembers the days after the tragedy. He was in his men's clothing store at The Mall at Yuba City when a few teenagers started causing trouble, attempting to steal merchandise, he said.
Barakat said he asked them to step outside. A passer-by asked the teenagers what happened, he said. The man later directed his anger at Barakat, calling him a terrorist and ordering him to leave the country, Barakat said.
The incident shocked him, he said. Since the Sept. 11 terrorism, he said incidents of discrimination and racist remarks have risen.
"Why do we have to pay the price if we haven't done it?" Barakat asked, referring to the attacks.
Abdullah said his daughter's friends were spat on when the family lived in Melbourne, Fla.
In another incident, when Abdullah came back from Hajj, an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, he noticed a Muslim man from his flight later pulled aside at the airport for interrogation.
The man's name apparently matched a name on an airport security list, Abdullah said. He was asked many questions and later, without a good explanation, was let go, Abdullah said. The incident left the man upset, Abdullah said.
Mohammad Amin Nomaan, meanwhile, doesn't recall any negative experience locally, rather, only warm community support.
Nomaan is the imam, or religious leader, of the Live Oak mosque and said he remembers public schools in Live Oak contacting Muslim families to ask how they could of be service to them and their children.
The Islamic Center of Yuba City's members previously said they didn't encounter a backlash, and received comfort and support from Americans instead.
Omeira said Muslims have encountered additional discrimination in the form of "anti-Muslim legislation."
For instance, the reconfiguring of the former INS in response to Sept. 11 attacks was a ploy to target minorities such as Muslims, he said.
Prior to Sept. 11, he said, one could sit and talk with immigration officials, perhaps work out an agreement if an individual overstayed the visa or was up for deportation.
Omeira said he once escorted an undocumented, 80-year-old wheelchair bound Pakistani native to the immigration office. He said the man had a daughter in Pakistan with terminal cancer, and that deporting him to Pakistan wouldn't be beneficial, especially because his son in the United States could care for him.
Immigration officials agreed to not deport the man, Omeira said.
With the transition to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and a division of the former INS into three branches, Omeira said the agency has gotten stricter because of a "zero tolerance policy" toward illegal aliens.
Omeira said, "if someone is here illegally, they should be allowed their day in court."
He said the domestic registration policy that started in January and require registration of men from certain countries, a majority of them Middle Eastern, has resulted in Muslim men being targeted.
"(Domestic registration) started and stopped with the Muslim community," Omeira charged.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is a division of Homeland Security that handles detentions, deportations and other customs matters.
Tim Counts, spokesman for ICE, said that since the INS transition, no immigration policies or laws have changed.
He did say that ICE is proceeding with one of a number of initiatives arising in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, one of which is the absconder program.
The program focuses on 300,000 to 400,000 absconders - fugitives from the law - who fled after being deported by an immigration judge, Counts said.
The registration program was implemented for national security reasons, he said.
The registration, part of a congressional mandate, requires males 16 and older from certain countries, who had long-term work and student visas, to register with the agency.
The idea was to track who was coming into the country, Counts said.
He added that a majority of the countries targeted were from the Middle East because of a history of terrorism from such countries.
Counts, however, denies the discrimination charges.
"First of all, (the domestic registration program) was not based on race, it was based on country, and it wasn't based on religion," he said.
Counts added, "We had to start somewhere, and we simply didn't have all the infrastructure for screening people from all countries."
Though Muslims may have faced discrimination when it comes to legislation, Omeira said a lot of good has come in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
He cites the Muslims' outreach work as an example.
This faith community has widely sponsored interfaith gatherings, lectures and seminars on Islam to correct "misconceptions" about the religion, Omeira said. He remembers one Muslim who has given 100 talks in the past two years, he said.
The Yuba City Islamic Center held an open house after Sept. 11 to inform people about Islam. About 1,000 visitors to the center learned about compassion, caring for one's neighbor and family values in Islam.
A group called the Yuba-Sutter Interfaith Council was also formed, providing a platform for the various faith communities to come together, the Rev. Bob Cordier said.
Members of Christian churches, Hindu, Sikh, Bahai and Buddhist temples, the Jewish synagogue and mosques united to speak for peace, justice and compassion and promote a mutual understanding.
"There was certainly an effort to be mutually supportive," said Cordier, of the First Presbyterian Church in Marysville.
He said the Muslim community wasn't that well-known in the United States, and the idea was to support all those members of the faiths who felt threatened.
More recently, a local interfaith group has formed with another goal - to build bridges among the religions. Those involved are from the Abrahamic faiths - Christianity, Judaism, and Islam - which trace their roots to Abraham.
Abdullah says local Muslims have participated in outreach and interfaith but feels that more of that needs to be done around the country.
When he lived in Melbourne, Abdullah said the Muslims kept to themselves.
He said Muslims should explain more about Islam and its principles. He cited the prophet Muhammad as helping people who had fallen victim to ignorance and social problems and shared the faith with them.
"Sept. 11 forced us to be outward," Abdullah said.
"The lesson was that, maybe, we are not doing enough of what we should be doing."
©Copyright 2003, Appeal-Democrat (Marysville-Yuba City, CA, USA)
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