Published: Friday, September 9, 2011
By J. Patrick Pepper
Press & Guide Newspapers
DEARBORN/DEARBORN HEIGHTS — As a 747 ripped through the North Tower of the World Trade Center 10 years ago today, Imad Hamad was 30,000 feet in the air.
Hamad, the executive director of the Michigan chapter of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination, was on his way to Washington D.C. to meet with federal officials about ethnic profiling of Arabs at United States airports, one of the preeminent civil rights issues facing Arabs at the time.
As the plane approached its final destination the pilot got on the intercom and announced that a “traffic jam” was causing congestion at Reagan National Airport, so the flight was being diverted to Washington Dulles International Airport.
“The pilot said there would be shuttles there waiting for us to take us to our destinations,” Hamad said. “At that point everyone thought it was pretty much a joke.”
Shortly thereafter, the pilot took to the intercom again. The laughs stopped.
“He said our nation is under attack and everybody was just in shock. Everybody started looking around, trying to get a cell phone signal to get more news. And all of the sudden, I realized I was the center of attention, the person everyone was looking at like ‘what do I have inside me?,’” said Hamad.
The suspicious looks were before Al-Qaeda had even laid claim to the horrific attacks, but it was a harbinger of things to come for both Hamad and Arabs in America.
Hamad ended up spending the next week working out of ADC’s national headquarters, where he experienced a city in chaos like he had never before seen it. People were despondent, police and military personnel were everywhere, and the cradle of Western democracy was shaken to its core.
After the hectic week ended, he boarded a flight headed back to Detroit. He took his aisle seat in the two-seat row and then the person with the seat next to him walked in.
She began carefully looking at Hamad, he said, and then asked if he would switch seats with her. Hamad obliged.
“She looked over at me and kind of broke the ice, asking me where I was from,” he said. “I asked her if she was sure if she wanted to know, because I am from a place that is very famous right now, the Middle East, and I could see the shock on her face.”
The shock abated, though, and the two ended up striking up a conversation that lasted for much of the flight.
When the plane landed and passengers ambled out, some were making comments as they passed Hamad expressing relief that there were no terrorist hijackers on the plane. As he sat there, the woman he had talked with made a gesture that would leave a lasting mark on him.
“I was in disbelief and I was hurt like everyone else was and she just stood up and hugged me and said it was nice meeting me and wished me the best,” Hamad said.
In this episode, Hamad saw the good and bad of what would happen with American-Arab relations in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, landscape: the suspicions would be greater and the prejudices stronger, but with dialogue and understanding common bonds can be found.
Now 10 years later, Hamad continues working to change perceptions and build bridges, but the issues he now faces are vastly different than those prior to Sept. 11, 2001, and even those in the immediate aftermaths of the attacks.
Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, ADC handled about 200-300 cases per year mostly on employment-related discrimination issues, according to Hamad, who has led the organization since 1997.
That figure ballooned to more than 600 cases in the years following Sept. 11, 2001, and the scope of the issues became more diverse.
When it came to the discrimination, Hamad said, the attitude became “So what?”
“Before 9/11, people that we approached about discrimination issues usually were unaware and they wanted to try to fix the problem, but after it just kind of became something that people would openly admit,” he said.
It’s a struggle that continues today for Arabs and Arab-Muslims, but one that is evolving.
Dawud Walid was named executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations-Michigan at almost the halfway-point of the decade since Sept. 11, 2001.
It was July 7, 2005, the day a group of Pakistani Muslims simultaneously detonated suicide bombs in the London subway system, killing 52 and injuring hundreds. He immediately found himself thrust into a public relations offensive, led by a press conference with other local Muslim leaders at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn.
It was moments like these that Walid knew he would have to step into, with a mission to craft a message of both condemnation of the acts but also dissociation of Islamic extremists with Muslims as a whole.
“Muslims have been de facto discriminated against because of actors like this (the subway bombers) and we have been put into a position of defending ourselves against things we have no connection to,” Walid said.
Pre-Sept. 11, 2001, both Walid and Hamad said the cases their organizations dealt with were primarily involving discrimination by private organizations and individuals. Since then, there has been a big shift toward governmental discrimination.
National security agencies became a fixture in Middle Eastern communities throughout the country, and in heavily Arab Dearborn, the effects were myriad. Paid informants infiltrated mosques, Arabs and Muslims were detained only to have cases thrown out, and general distrust of the government among Middle Easterners became rampant.
“There was definitely a chilling effect in mosques, in schools, and in the community as a whole,” Walid said of the government surveillance.
ADC and CAIR have made inroads with these federal agencies, said Walid and Hamad, with things like stakeholder forums and discussion groups.
FBI spokeswoman Sandra Berchtold acknowledged the unease, but said it seems to be getting better.
“They (Muslims/Arabs) are not hesitant to call us anymore and tell us their concerns,” she said. “And Special Agent (Andrew) Arena (leader of the FBI Detroit field office) has met tirelessly with leaders of the community to hear their concerns, going to dinners and forums and things like that.”
And while the governmental relations have made strides there is a new battle to fight, said the Arab and Muslim civil rights leaders: politicized Islamophobia.
Starting largely in 2008, there has been a growing trend of Republican politicians questioning Muslim loyalty to the United States and the focus has often turned back to Dearborn.
A U.S. Senate candidate from Nevada said during a campaign stop in 2010 that Dearborn was under Shari’a law. a notion that parroted by GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker.
“What we’re seeing is a mainstreaming of Islamophobia,” Walid said. “It poses a difficult challenge when you have people that are leaders making these kinds of statements.”
Hamad echoed Walid’s assessment.
“The struggle definitely isn’t over,” he said. “In fact, I only see it becoming more difficult.”