Daily Northwestern: Reaction to Attacks Raised Questions of Identity

Following Sept. 11, more than 1,200 Arab and Muslim immigrants were detained and arrested. Thousands more were interrogated, many of them U.S citizens and permanent residents. In Evanston, police questioned three Northwestern students after the FBI began requiring background checks for international students from certain Muslim-dominant countries.

Since then, the spotlight on Muslims has not faded — Muslims and Arab-Americans instead have become the focus of suspicion and interest, inviting scrutiny and curiosity. Some argue that Muslims in American society have become a feared and misunderstood “other,” but others say the existing misconceptions about Muslims and Arab-Americans can be erased through education and perseverance.

‘The Other’

Susan Akram, a professor of law at Boston University who researches civil rights and immigration law, said stereotyping of Muslims and Arab-Americans began in the 1970s. Terrorists fit easily into the already skewed public perception.

“The American public has come to readily associate all Arabs and Muslims as ‘terrorists’ and ‘evil-doers,'” Akram said. “These factors have successfully transformed Arabs and Muslims into an ‘other,’ which makes it acceptable in the public mind to single them out for discriminatory treatment and racial profiling.”

The tendency to lump all Muslims into one monolith is alarming, said Ahmed Rehab, director of communications for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Chicago. It’s important to remember that fewer than 20 percent of Muslims worldwide are Arab, he said.

According to the CIA World Factbook, about 20 percent of the world’s population is Muslim and about 60 percent of Muslims live in Africa.

Medill junior Malika Bilal was a senior at Universal School, a Muslim high school outside Chicago, on Sept. 11. Universal, located across the street from another Muslim school and a mosque, closed for the week after Sept. 11 because people protested and made threats against the school, Bilal said.

Like most of her high school classmates, Bilal wears a head scarf. Bilal, who is black, said the scarf makes people “automatically assume that I’m Arab or Middle Eastern.”

Her surroundings may have mitigated some prejudice, Bilal said. She felt her neighbors were more accepting than those of friends living in mixed-race suburbs.

“I heard a lot of different stories of my friends going out and getting harassed, with people telling them to go back to where they came from, but that didn’t happen to me,” she said.

Radical versions of Islam have come to represent the religion, leading people to think that Islam is a “fundamentalist” religion, although they lack real understanding of the religion’s practices and beliefs.

A combination of misunderstanding and the absence of a tangible enemy in the “war on terror” may have caused the number of hate crimes against Muslims and Arab-Americans to skyrocket. According to the FBI, the number of hate crime incidents reported in 2000 against Muslims was 28. In 2001 that number rose to 481.

The Chicago Police Department statistics on hate crimes show a similar increase. In 2000, four hate crimes were reported against people of Arab origin, a number that rose to 60 in 2001.

Cases of Mistaken Identity

According to a report released in 2002 by the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, more than 600 Sept. 11-related hate crimes were committed against Arabs, Muslims and those perceived to be Arab or Muslim, such as Sikhs and other South Asians.

Sikhs — followers of an Indian religion that blends the tenets of Hinduism and Islam — were some of the first targets of hate crimes following Sept. 11, primarily because Sikh men are required to keep their hair uncut and often wear turbans.

Sept. 11 “changed a lot of things for Sikh people,” said Nirmal Ghuman, a Weinberg senior who is a Sikh. “We are a very distinct minority in America, especially because the men wear turbans and have long beards, which confuses the average American.”

One of the most high-profile hate crime cases was that of Balbir Singh Sodhi, the 49-year-old Sikh owner of a gas station in Arizona who was shot and killed on Sept. 15, presumably because of his turban. Sodhi’s killer, Frank Roque had spent the hours before the crime reportedly telling people at a local bar that he would “kill the ragheads responsible for Sept. 11.” He was later sentenced to life in prison.

After Sept. 11, Ghuman’s parents warned her and her brother to be careful when going out in public places. Several religious programs were cancelled because Sikhs feared facing harassment on airlines, she said.

Prejudice and racism also hit Ghuman much closer to home.

“There were a lot of incidents in the Chicago area of people being randomly violent to (Sikh) people,” she said.

Abuse, both verbal and physical, was directed more toward Sikh men than women, Ghuman said. One man who attended her gurdwara — the Sikh house of worship — was out with a group of people when a white man head-butted his nose, she said.

“I’m not sure if it broke, but it definitely started bleeding,” she said. “They said some hateful things and walked away.”

Education initiatives

“I think the majority of Americans are reasonable people,” said Rehab, CAIR’s director of communications. “Education can remove ignorance or malice they might have.”

Many organizations began initiatives following Sept. 11 to clarify the differences between religious and political ideals.

Ghuman’s gurdwara started a “huge campaign” to educate people about the differences between Sikhs and Muslims, she said. The area religious office met with President Bush, and to this day Ghuman still participates in interfaith activities. This push for increased awareness is important because Chicago has a “relatively low” concentration of Sikhs, she said. According to sikhwomen.com, in 2001 there were 6,000 to 10,000 Sikhs in the metropolitan Chicago area.

Kasim Arshad, a Weinberg senior and president of the Muslim Cultural Students Association, said McSA and other organizations began sponsoring educational events immediately following the 2001 attacks.

“(We) put on events trying to increase awareness about racial profiling and discrimination and the potential effects of Sept. 11 on the Middle Eastern, southeast Asian community,” he said. “After Sept. 11, a lot of the programming was focused on clarifying terrorism and violence in Islam as well as political issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

This year, CAIR started running day-long workshops through local mosques to acquaint people with Islam through discussions and prayers. Islam was misunderstood partially because Muslims did not engage discussion in their communities, a trend that is slowly changing as Muslims are becoming more “vociferous about their religion publicly,” Rehab said.

This increased emphasis on education has also been reflected in classes at NU, Arshad said.

“A lot of course material and discussion always comes back to terrorism,” he said.

Today McSA aims to clarify the nuances of race and religion, Arshad said.

“Knowing that there are some differences, that in the day working together is still the greater objective, because that will provide more awareness,” he said.

Although Sept. 11 probably helped increase awareness of the differences between Sikhs and Muslims, Ghuman said it still resulted in murders and hate crimes. She said she does not think advances in education are enough to prevent future prejudice.

“If it’s not Sept. 11, there’s always something,” she said. “There’s always a reason.”

But education still can make a difference, Rehab said.

“We won’t see this end, but we can minimize the harassment of Muslims in airports and in public, and we can help erase the ignorance and malice,” Rehab said.

Reach Malavika Jagannathan at m-jagannathan@northwestern.edu and Tina Peng at t-peng-1@northwestern.edu.

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