Local Arabs, Face Challenges, Scrutiny


Last Updated: September 09. 2011 1:00AM

Local Arabs, Muslims face changes, challenges

Since attacks, many believe they are more scrutinized, grapple with discrimination and stress

Oralandar Brand-Williams/ The Detroit News


Hours after the horrific 9/11 attacks, local Arab and Muslim families cowered in their basements.

They were fearful of reprisals since the men who attacked the World Trade Center with commandeered commercial jets and hijacked two other ill-fated flights were Arabs and Muslims.

Victor Begg, the co-founder of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan, remembered getting a call about the attacks that morning 10 years ago.

“My first reaction is, ‘God, let it not be Muslims,'” said Begg of Bloomfield Hills. “Unfortunately, that’s what it turned out to be.”

In the decade since, the local Arab-American and Muslim community, one of the largest and oldest in America, has experienced changes. There are roughly 220,000 Arab-Americans and roughly 185,000 Muslims in the region.

Some say a new kind of “normal” has replaced life before Muslim extremists drove planes into the twin towers, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pa.

For Livonia resident Celena Khatib, the past decade has brought about a greater sense of being different.

Khatib, who is Palestinian-American and Muslim, said she feels Muslims are under more scrutiny.

“People’s attitudes toward Muslims have changed,” said Khatib, a 33-year-old stay-at-home mom and community activist who wears a hijab. “I think people are more cautious around me.”

Since the attacks, Khatib has married and is now a mother to three young children. She said she is more nervous now in public because of her kids.

“I don’t know if someone is going to say something, and if they do how do I explain it to my children,” Khatib said. “All this hate that’s going on … I get worried if someone will try to take matters into their own hands.”

Khatib is not alone in her concerns. In a Gallup Poll conducted in advance of the 10th anniversary of the attacks, nearly half of Muslims surveyed said they had “personally experienced racial or religious discrimination” in the past year.

For Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, a resident at Sinai Grace Hospital and a Muslim, some of the suspicions really provide an opportunity to show other Americans that Muslims want to “protect, honor and defend this country” as much as anyone.

“It has almost forced us expeditiously and critically to assess who we are and what is our meaning for this country,” the 28-year-old doctor said. “It’s a great time to be an American and a Muslim because our story is being told. We’re being watched and we’re being heard.”

Shortly after the attacks, local interfaith groups worked to build bridges between Christians, Jews and Muslims. But, two years ago, those ties were set back and local Muslims were again forced to defend their faith after 23-year-old Nigerian-born Muslim Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight over the skies of Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

Begg and others say there is an anti-Muslim sentiment sweeping the nation cloaked in bills introduced in 25 states to ignite and stoke anti-Islamic bigotry.

“Islamaphobia has increased part because of extreme rhetoric and this silly argument about Sharia,” Begg said. “In 2011, we’re facing things we didn’t face at that time.” Sharia is Islamic law as derived from the Quran and the traditions of Islam.

Dawud Walid, the executive director of CAIR-Michigan, said the area has become a “punching bag” for anti-Islamic extremists.

“The Westboro Church, Terry Jones and Rabbi Nachum Shifren have come here and stirred up trouble and animosity against Muslims,” Walid said.

University of Michigan-Dearborn professor Sally Howell said the national backlash against Arabs and Muslims has resulted in stepped-up surveillance in Metro Detroit. Immediately after the attacks, the U.S. government treated Arab- Americans and Muslims “as though they were a threat to society,” said Howell, who is a co-editor of the book “Arab Detroit 9/11: Life in the Terror Decade.”

In the past decade, the federal government has stepped up its efforts to root out terrorists through legal powers, emboldened by the USA Patriot Act, which bolstered surveillance and arrest powers.

“This has been really stressful for the Muslim community,” said Howell, assistant professor of history at the Center for Arab-American Studies at U-M Dearborn.

The government has played a role in perpetuating stereotypes of the Muslims as a national security threat, Howell said, by referring to some of those arrested in Metro Detroit for crimes unrelated to terrorism as belonging to “terrorist cells.” Most of the charges against those arrested were dropped.

“The backlash has really had consequences for Detroit,” she said. Howell said thankfully the area’s interfaith community has stepped up to show the nation and other that Muslims and non-Muslims get along well.

“You have the interfaith community really coming out to say, ‘Muslims are a part of us. Leave us alone. Take your bigotry elsewhere’,” she said. “To me that represents Detroit.”


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