Arab-Americans Feel Backlash

Sept. 14, 2001 -- In New York, a caller threatened to harm hundreds of students in an Islamic school. In Texas, a mosque was firebombed. And in Wyoming, an angry group of shoppers chased a woman and her children from a Wal-Mart.

Days after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, a nation's shock has turned into an outpouring of hostility towards people of Middle Eastern heritage. Around the nation, Muslim and Arab communities say they are being targeted, and the anger is nationwide.

Hours after the attacks on Tuesday, the Islamic Institute of New York received a telephone call threatening the school's 450 students, said manager Azam Meshkat. "The gentleman was very angry and he started threatening the children. He said he was going to paint the streets with our children's blood," she said. The school is closed, but continues to receive several threats a day.

On Wednesday, a Lebanese-American man was verbally abused while he desperately searched for survivors from the arts center he had run on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center's north tower. As he waited outside one of the emergency centers, a well-dressed young couple yelled insults at him, said the man, Moukhtar Kocache. "They told me, 'You should go back to your country, you f--king Arabs, we should bomb the s--t out of you," he said.

A mosque in Denton, Texas, was firebombed, and another in Lynnwood, Wash. had its signdefaced with black paint. In Huntington, N.Y., police say a 75-year-old man tried to run over a Pakistani woman in a shopping mall parking lot.

Khaled Ksaibati, the faculty adviser for the Muslim Student Association at the University of Wyoming, described the attack on the Muslim family at a Laramie Wal-Mart. "The people who screamed in her face wanted her to go back to her country," he said. "This is her country. She was born here."

And in Bridgeview, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, police stopped 300 marchers as they tried to march on a mosque. Marcher Colin Zaremba, 19, told The Associated Press, "I'm proud to be American and I hate Arabs and I always have."

In an ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll conducted Thursday, 43 percent of Americans said they thought the attacks would make them "personally more suspicious" of people who appear to be of Arab descent.

Leaders Call for Restraint

Political and religious leaders have called for restraint. President Bush told the nation on Thursday: "We should not hold one who is a Muslim responsible for an act of terror."

Organizations that represent Arab-Americans and American Muslims noted that they had been quick to condemn Tuesday's attacks. "From the first hour of the tragedy, we and the other national Muslim organizations have condemned this evil and urged our community to offer every help they could," said Nahad Awad, director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Washington.

And Arab-Americans are anxious to point out that they are Americans, too. In New York's Arab-American neighborhoods, shopkeepers hung U.S. flags outside their stores.

They also note that many of them were touched by the tragedy in personal ways. In Washington, the Council on American Islamic Relations was preparing to compile a list of Muslims who died in the attacks.

"I had friends and family who worked in the World Trade Center," said Maher Saleh, an Arab-American teacher in New York. Saleh said he had Arab-American friends who were New York City police officers and firefighters helping in the rescue effort, as well as a Marine who was called up for duty today.

Even though he was born and raised in his Brooklyn neighborhood, Saleh said, he found himself being shunned today by some non-Arabs. "A lot of the people I usually talk to, they turn away their faces," he said.

There were, however, shows of support for the Muslim community. Outside the Islamic Council mosque in lower Manhattan, passers-by shouted down a half-dozen demonstrators who were calling for the mosque to leave the neighborhood. Neighborhood residents came in to the mosque to express their support, one bringing flowers, said the mosque's religious teacher, Hafiz Choudhury.

Oklahoma City Backlash Recalled

Many Arab-Americans remembered coming under suspicion after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, which turned out to be the work of Timothy McVeigh, a white American with racist views.

Some said they regretted that Islam and Arabs were so often associated with terrorism in the news.

An ABCNEWS producer who is Iraqi-American said her first thought on seeing the World Trade Center burning was, "Oh my God, I hope an Arab didn't do this." She wanted to remain anonymous because, like other Arab-Americans, she fears retaliation.

There are estimated to be as many as six million to seven million Muslims in America, roughly the same number as Jews, making Islam the second- or third-largest religion in America after Christianity.

"We don't want to fall into the same trap as the people who committed this evil," said the CAIR's Awad.

"I believe it was designed to turn Americans against each other. We should not be like them and be going after innocent people. It should not be honored by associating it with any faith or ethnicity. This is evil and should stand out as evil."

Top Stories

Top Stories

Top Stories

Top Stories

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events