Arabs and Muslims Steer Through an Unsettling Scrutiny

New York Times
September 13 2001

On a quiet block in Brooklyn Heights yesterday, a small cluster of men and boys gathered inside a mosque for afternoon prayers. Outside, a man drove past slowly and yelled, "Murderers."

In Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, during the peak late-morning shopping hours, just a few women visited stores in their long gowns and veils. Usually, on such a sunny morning, they would have been everywhere. But word had gone out across the country for women in hijab, as the identifying veil is called in Arabic, to stay in.

At Bellevue Hospital Center, a Muslim father from New Jersey trolled for news of his 25-year-old son, last seen Tuesday morning on his way to work on the 103rd floor of 1 World Trade Center.

And as a Sikh man was trying to flee Lower Manhattan on Tuesday, he found himself running not only from flames, but also from a trio of men yelling invective about his turban.

The lives of ordinary Arab- and Muslim-Americans - and surprisingly, those who are neither Arab nor Muslim but look to untutored American eyes as if they might be - were roiled in these ways.

American Muslim groups, vastly more integrated into American society today than they were at the time of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, were swift to denounce the terrorist acts. Around the country, interfaith prayer meetings have already been held in several cities, including one in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, last night, with Muslim leaders joining other clergy members to voice support for the victims.

A coalition of Muslim advocacy groups in Washington exhorted Muslim doctors to aid victims and urged Muslim-Americans to donate blood. They urged mosques to take extra security measures and encouraged "those who wear Islamic attire" to consider staying clear of public areas.

Some mosques closed their doors out of fear. The Islamic Center of Irving, a mosque in suburban Dallas, had its windows shattered by gunshots. One mosque in San Francisco found on its doorsteps a bag of what appeared to be blood. And in Alexandria, Va., a vandal threw two bricks through the windows of an Islamic bookstore; handwritten notes with anti-Muslim sentiments were found attached to the bricks.

While Muslims' lives were clearly changed, also changed were the lives of people who had nothing to do with the Islamic world but who might appear alien to untutored American eyes. Indian women chose not to wear their flowing, pajama-tunic outfits.

Sikh men, with their religiously prescribed beards and turbans, reported being accosted. They said they were apparently being mistaken as followers of Osama bin Laden, pictured on television with a turban of a different sort. In Providence, R.I., yesterday, a Sikh man in a turban was pulled off a Boston-to- Washington train by the police. In Richmond Hill, Queens, one Sikh man was beaten with a baseball bat; two others were shot at with a paint- ball gun. Police arrested two men.

"Quite frankly, it's worse for us because they keep showing these pictures of bin Laden on television wearing a turban," said Mandeep Dhillon, a lawyer in Menlo Park, Calif., and an advocate for Sikh rights. "It's making us incredibly vulnerable."

Amrik Singh Chawla, a financial services consultant who was chased by the three men in Lower Manhattan on Tuesday, sprinted onto a train and landed in Brooklyn, where he slipped into a shop, stuffed his turban into his briefcase and wore his hair in a ponytail for the rest of the day. "I'm like terrified for my life now, not just seeing people flying out of buildings, but for my own life," Mr. Chawla said.

In New York, police officers stood sentry outside many mosques. The most popular Arab and Muslim shopping strips - one along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, another along Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens - were lined with police. Outside a mosque on Steinway Street late yesterday morning, a man stood with a homemade placard that read, "Get out of our country." At a makeshift memorial at Union Square, a spat broke out over a favorable comment about Islam.

Nowhere was the apprehension of ordinary Arab and Muslim New Yorkers as apparent as it was yesterday at the offices of the Arab- American Family Service Center in Cobble Hill. Its executive director, Emira Habiby-Browne, a Palestinian-American, had yanked the group's name off the front door early Tuesday morning. Yesterday afternoon, she had bolted all the doors that led to her office and holed up inside with a legal pad and a telephone.

Two kinds of calls came in, she said. There were threats. One man said, for instance, "You should all die for what you've done to my country."

There were requests for guidance. An Arab woman called, wanting to donate blood but afraid to step outside in her traditional hijab.

Another stopped by the office, bewildered about how to speak to the parents of her son's friends - or what to tell him about how to handle himself.

Ms. Habiby-Browne spent much of the afternoon lining up her staff to head out to schools with large numbers of Arab children. Even her staff psychologist was wary of coming in. "My concern is the children when they go back to school," she said. "I don't know if they'll know how to respond."

Indeed, she was already weary trying to come up with the right things to say. She had said them all before - during the gulf war, during the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, in the days after Oklahoma City. "Has anybody thought about the Arabs who work in the World Trade Center?" she wondered aloud. "This is a community like any other community. They vote. They pay taxes." Her throat was running dry at this point. "Arab-Americans who are here chose to be here."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company


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