'Islamophobia' Felt 5 Years After 9/11

ByABC News via logo

Sept. 9, 2006 — -- Five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, Muslims and Arab Americans say they still feel the sting of discrimination and fear in America.

"The first thing that comes to my mind [on 9/11], you know, before anyone said anything about this: I hope that Arabs have nothing to do with this," said Osama Siblani, publisher of the weekly Arab-American News, based in Dearborn, Mich.

Siblani was on his way to work when he first heard about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

By the time he arrived at his office, news began to circulate that Arabs carried out the attacks.

And soon came the shocking images of Muslims, like these living in the occupied territories, celebrating.

Then the phone calls to Siblani's paper began.

"There are some nasty ones -- nasty, very nasty, foul language," he said. "That night, right here, three guys were arrested with knives. Not small knives. They were coming to kill me."

Last month, almost five years since the attacks, two young Lebanese-American men from Dearborn -- Osama Abulhassan and Ali Houssaiky -- were stopped by police in Marietta, Ohio.

"They searched the car," Houssaiky said. "They found $10,000 in cash and 12 cell phones."

"I called the detective over and I told him, 'What's the problem?'" Abulhassan said. "We're just buying and reselling them."

The police were unconvinced. The two men were arrested on charges of money laundering in support of terrorism and were jailed for a week.

"I'm innocent. You guys are just being racist!" Houssaiky said.

"We were going crazy," Abulhassan said, "asking each other the same questions over and over: What are we doing here?"

Houssaiky thinks the incident happened because of racial profiling.

The terrorism charges were later dropped, but they still face misdemeanor charges for falsification of information to police.

In the five years since the Sept. 11 attacks, many Arab-Americans and Muslims say they have been targets of discrimination -- including profiling during airport security checks, suspicious or fearful looks from fellow citizens, threats and even acts of violence.

"The American Muslim community and the Arab-American community have done everything to assure this country, and to assure the citizens and the government and the authorities, that we are law-abiding citizens and we are patriots," Siblani said. "Yet we are continued to be harassed for no reason, for no reason -- just because of our names, because of our religion and because of our ethnic background."

The anecdotal reports by Americans Muslims are backed up by several polls.

Forty percent of Americans admit feeling prejudice against Muslims, according to a Gallup poll.

One American told ABC News, "You see the guy walkin' around with the turban on his head and it is, 'What are you trying to prove? What point are you trying to get across?' "

Another said, "I am uneasy when I get on an airplane and I see an Arabic person or people come on. I would have to say that honestly."

According to polls, 39 percent of Americans say U.S. Muslims should carry special identification.

"When I go into the cities of, like, Dearborn, where it's highly populated with Middle Eastern people, I'm nervous about it," one man said.

Those who have studied American attitudes toward Muslims say at the root of prejudice is ignorance.

"It's very understandable that people who don't have much knowledge of Islam or experience with Muslims are going to concerned about the extreme minority," said John Esposito, author of "Everything You Need to Know about Islam." "But [they] also [have] a sense of: This must be what their religion is like."

To many Americans, Osama bin Laden is the malevolent symbol of a malevolent religion. But Siblani argues bin Laden is on the fringes of Islam, not in the middle.

Some Arab Americans say President Bush has further stoked anti-Muslim attitudes with inflammatory rhetoric in denouncing Islamic extremists. In a recent speech, he said, "They try to spread their jihadist message, a message I call 'Islamic fascism.' "

Anti-Islamic sentiment rises when Muslims are implicated in a terrorist plot or act, such as the London subway bombings in 2005.

"For many , it's a challenge to distinguish between what some people do and the religion itself," Esposito said.

"I think that more generally speaking, America is not Islamophobic," said Dr. James Zogby, founder of the Arab American Institute. "It really just doesn't understand the religion at all."

For many Americans, their attitude toward Islam and Muslims remains a tug of war between fear and fairness.

"We're Americans," Houssaiky said. "We're living the American dream. We're doing everything everybody does. There's no reason to be scared of us."

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