Arab and Muslim Civil Rights Issues in the Chicago Metropolitan Area Post-September 11


Chapter 6

Fear Among Arabs and Muslims of the Chicago Region


Although a difficult category to assess and measure, fear reoccurred as a major theme in the two-day community forum. After September 11, very few U.S. citizens were not left in some state of fear over whether another terrorist attack would occur. For Arabs, Muslims, and people who could be mistaken for these groups, the fears about further terrorist actions were compounded by the fear of backlash against them by their neighbors and the government.

Community Representatives

William Haddad, Executive Director, Arab American Bar Association

Our community is in a state of insidious fear, a state of insidious seize. It is a community that feels isolated and ostracized from the mainstream since 9/11. They are not coming out; they are not going to Democratic Club meetings; they are not going to the community organizational meetings. I am president and vice president of several organizations within the community and outside the community, and I can tell you that there has been a lack of response. I believe the reason for this has to do with the Arab communityís perception of themselves here in the United States of America. It is an epidemic problem. It is a problem that affects millions of Arabs and Muslim American citizens. It is something that the Commission hopefully can come up with remedies to deal with this.

Rouhy Shalabi, President, Arab American Bar Association

Many of our people have become shell-shocked. They are reluctant to come out and speak. They are afraid to speak. Their attitude is to just stay low.

Mohammad Kaiseruddin, President, Muslim Community Center

The recent decision regarding the FBI changing the rules to allow agents to participate in open meetings of the mosques has raised a lot of concerns.[1] Of course, none of the criminal laws have been changed. Whatever was criminal activity before is still criminal activity now. But when you are driving down the road, you cannot help but to watch over your shoulder to see if a police car is behind you. I do get nervous.

So our organization is quite concerned, and we have contacted an attorney to advise us as to how we should be and what are the things that we should be watching. Because being a community organization, we hold activities where we invite speakers, and they speak their minds. Then there are other groups that are not directly related to our organization, but they hold their own separate meetings. We tell them it is okay to meet because the place is their community center. However, now we are concerned as to how we should protect ourselves from any activities that our organization does or any activities that community organizations not directly related with our organization do. We are even concerned about allowing family functions at our community center. You know, like birthday parties or anything, we allow them and, of course, they invite speakers here and there. Should we be concerned about what kinds of speakers they invite and what do they talk about? The FBI is listening.

Dean Modiuddin, Board Member, Islamic Foundation

Immediately after the tragic incident of the World Trade Center, the [Islamic school] administrators realized that there would be a great deal of concern among the parents who bring their children to school. Typically the mothers drive their children to school and typically they wear the hijab. After September 11, very few mothers brought their children to school. They told us about the catcalls and abusive language. We started getting very threatening calls like blowing up our children just like they blew up American people.

There was no time to argue with these people because we came to the conclusion a long time ago that it has to be somebody from outside of the neighboring community because we have very good relationships with our neighbors. On one side there is a high school. On the other side there is a park district. The park district uses our parking facility on Sundays when they have the games and everything. So, we knew that it was not them.

In order to protect the children, we had to call the police of Villa Park. By the way, our facilities are located in the western suburb of Villa Park. So, we contacted the police department. They were very cooperative, but politely they said that they could not station an officer or officers on a 24-hour basis. They could only do a periodic patrol. This was a concern to us because we saw that the level of concern among the parents was so great for the safety of their children, perhaps the presences of a law enforcement officer on a permanent basis would be necessary. They said that the best they could do for us was provide two officers given that we would pay their regular and overtime wages. We understood that Villa Park is a small community, so we had to bite the bullet. It was a considerable expense. The first week, in spite of the presence of two officers stationed on the premises, the fear of the parents was such that they would still not bring their children to school. We then went on a campaign of building the confidence because we were afraid that our children would lose an entire academic year just because of this incident.

So, finally, after four weeks the parents said they wanted to go one more step for safety. They wanted to have a fence around the mobile classrooms because those were the very ones being threatened. People who knew our facility made the threats, and they would say what they would do and how they would go about it. So, we were concerned about that. The police also kept track of what areas we should watch closely so that way we all can be prepared.

Azhar Usman, Spokesman, Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago

Arab Americans and Muslims have what I would call a psychology that hearkens to the secret police bank. They have general suspicion concerning the American governmentís motives. Now, letís break those down for a moment.

They have what I call a banked psychology concerning secret police back home. You have to realize that a lot of Muslim immigrants from certain repressive parts of the world have a certain psychology that is hardwired into them, which is that when the police come knocking at your door, look out. Muslim nations generally do not have the same civil liberties that we have in this country. So, they imagine and remember all of the horrible stories that theyíve heard of people being beaten, people being literally oppressed, people being killed, people disappearing, et cetera. And when they see the FBI knocking at their door, wanting to have a friendly conversation about whether they happened to know any terrorist and where they were on this date, a lot of this psychology begins to erect in the back of their heads. This is something the government needs to concentrate on if they are to work with this community in order to gather intelligence and cooperation.

Secondly, the community is suspicious of the American governmentís motives, if for no other reason than the fact that our government has gone so far as to literally conduct raids against legitimate organizations, detain people without cause, eviscerate the attorney-client privilege, and create kangaroo courts. So, itís no surprise that people with that background and that psychology would begin to view the government in a suspicious light.

Furthermore, Muslims take a look at the historical actions of our government, the adoption of some policy positions that our government has in certain parts of the world, and their suspicion is further enhanced. And Iím sure many of you have read or heard how our government had, in fact, talked about staging world events in order to rally support for wars against alleged communist regimes. This is as recently as the í60s and into the í80s. So, again, this and other historical actions by the nation bolster their suspicion of the U.S. governmentís motives.

Now, what is the relevance of all of this? Why should the government care? I think for no other reason the government should care because blanket suspicion goes both ways. The immigrant Muslim community being suspicious of the U.S. government and the U.S. government being suspicious of the Muslims and Arabs in general and enacting policies which further their suspicion is antithetical to the fight on terrorism. Letís all think about that for a moment. If it is true that there is a disproportionate number of terrorists and terrorist sympathizers and terrorist supporters who are living in the Arab and Muslim communities, then doesnít it stand to reason that the greatest source for conducting this resides in those communities? Of course it does. And as Professor David Harris, University of Toledo, pointed out, it is antithetical to the very fight on terrorism for the government to cast this entire community under a suspicious light and to treat it in a very discriminatory fashion or to apply certain legitimate laws in a disparate way or in a discriminatory way against this particular community.

 What happens is that those communities are marginalized based on a blanket suspicion. They are racially profiled and, as a result, they donít want to cooperate with the law enforcement officials. All of this results in, as I said, an antithetical approach to dealing with our greatest source of intelligence, which is the Arab and Muslim community.

Finally, there is a little bit of checks and balances going on here when the Arab Americans and Muslim Americans feel like their government is unduly suspicious of them and vice versa. The U.S. government is now being seen as inaccurate on the world scene because they are utilizing these Gestapo tactics like setting up kangaroo courts or relying on a so-called mosaic of evidence to effect its agenda around the world without any regard for civil rights and civil liberties. We have to realize that the entire world community is watching us. We look sort of silly when we talk about how they hate us because of our liberty and they hate us because of our freedom and we are ready to sell out all of those freedoms because of these fears and the hysteria that have been created in the aftermath of September 11.

Sammer Ghouleh, Author, Victims of Circumstance

A lot of people were part of my book, and they sent me stories regarding their experiences. I always tell one manís story. He is a veteran who fought in the Vietnam War even though he did not want to go. He did, though, to obey the law. He went, and he lost his leg. And he came back and he was living near the Bridgeview area where the riots were after September 11. He wrote to me and said that he always has a flag hanging in the front of his house. He said, ďHere I am, a veteran; someone who loves his country; someone who would give anything for this country. And suddenly, I have to go and get my grandchildren out of the front yard. Their lives were threatened because they are Muslims. And while everyone on the block had to go and purchase a flag, nobody wanted to take a minute to look and see that I have always had one outside my home. What more could I have done than what I have done as a Muslim American. Yet, they want to burn my place of faith, they want to destroy me, they want to kill me. What did I do? All Iíve ever done is be a good American citizen.Ē

Itedal Shalabi, Arab American Family Services

We took a week off because our families were afraid and because we were wearing the hijab. I refused to take it off, even though my mom called and said, ďYou know, religiously, in times as this you can take off the hijab.Ē I said, ďMom, no. Can an African American take off his skin color until people accept him? No. This is who I am, and this is what I believe in. This is a religious statement, not a political statement, and Iím going to show my children that.Ē

Khalid Elkhatib, Member, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee

After September 11, people were absolutely terrified. This fear transcends religious and ethnic barriers. Everyone was just terrified because they saw the U.S. government carrying people out because they were out of status. Therefore, they were deported. People were terrified, even our own clients were saying, ďPlease donít report us, donít tell people about our status.Ē That was very unfortunate because a lot of good people, Arab and otherwise, Muslim and otherwise, a lot of good people were in fear of their lives on a daily basis because of what they saw on the news and the statements coming out of the administration. And I think thatís eased up to a great extent, but it was unfortunate that it happened, and we hope that it certainly doesnít happen again.

Kamron Memon, Law Offices of Kamron Memon

It seems from talking to people in the community that there are groups of people out there who have had problems, but they donít want to file a complaint or get any official help because they donít want to make waves. Part of it is, I think, that if someone is harassed at work, heís afraid that if he files a complaint, that maybe heíll get fired. And, of course, itís illegal to retaliate against someone who files a discrimination complaint. But the retaliation still does happen. And some people, possibly because of their financial situation or because of the way they were raised, would rather just remain a second-class citizen at work as long as they could keep their job and take care of their family.

Bassam Jody, President, Mosque Foundation of Bridgeview

I would not take my wife shopping with me for two weeks after September 11. Many people kept their kids at home because they didnít want their kids to be in an unsafe situation or to be offended by somebody saying something to them that they did not like. And so, the element of fear is there. People are unsure of whatís going to happen. You hear a person is detained, you hear a person has been sent home. You hear somebody is getting in trouble, but itís always you heard whatís happening. Somebody got arrested. Maybe heís just arrested for a traffic violation, but still people donít want to talk about it.

Harvey Grossman, Legal Director, American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois

I would submit to you that it is a particularly dangerous time and we measure this by a litmus test that you my all find very strange, but it is the willingness to sue. Some of these people are too afraid to file a lawsuit. Some of these people are too afraid to stand up and complain because, notwithstanding our Presidentís admonition to purge ourselves of hatred, class hatred, racial hatred, religious hatred, there nevertheless is a, I would suggest to you, a milieu, a state of mind that does not make people feel comfortable to stand up and to assert their rights. And I would submit to you that that is probably the saddest thing of all because the system of redress that we rely on as a form of conduct to inform our citizenry is hard to make work.

Government and Local Officials

William Shaver, Chief of Staff, Chicago Police Superintendentís Office

We have to extend the hand, itís part of our model, itís part of the strategy that weíve embraced and we find does, in fact, when properly working with the community, works extremely well. Itís an important dialogue because individuals coming from other cultures and other countries sometimes have a fear of the police. We have to realize that, realize why some communities wonít come forward to the police. They, historically in their countries, have had a suspicion and a fear and mistrust of the police. And coming here to the United States, theyíre not going to accept at face value the police extending an open hand. They have to know who we are. Weíre committed to working with them, serving them. Weíre committed to integrity and to effective law enforcement, but law enforcement that respects the rights of others. The department has learned that, again, the city is an amalgam of many cultures and perspectives. To effectively interact, we must understand those cultures, and we must understand those perspectives. We need to be educated. From the command staff on down, we need to be educated. We have to utilize all our resources to be educated. The dialogue will continue. Itís clear more training is needed on the diversity of the communities within Chicago to make sure that we do include each and every community. We must include Arab Americans, the Arab community, in our CAPS and policing dialogue; the Sikhs must be included, all Muslims must be included.

Patrick Fitzgerald, U.S. Attorney, Northern District of Illinois

To the extent that the Muslim community or Arab American community thinks that they are being singled out, that is something we have to address. There is a fear of what is going on that is going to duplicate something that happened during World War II. That is something we have to address. Obviously, we do not want to return to anywhere near the internment camps of the 1940s.

Rita Coffey, Program Analyst, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

I think after September 11 people were afraid that it would be unpatriotic to file a complaint. I think that there was a lot of that. I think there was a lot of fear, an awful lot of fear. So, we were trying to reach out to the different organizations so that they could get out to the community because theyíre the ones that can talk to the people and tell them not to be afraid, or even come with them to the EEOC. But I think itís more of a fear thing as far as coming because of the government.



[1] U.S. Department of Justice, The Attorney Generalís Guidelines on General Crimes, Racketeering Enterprise and Terrorism Enterprise Investigations, 2002, VI.A.2ĖVisiting Public Places and Events, p. 22 (authorizes the FBI to visit any place and attend any event open to the public, on the same terms and conditions as members of the public generally) <http://www.usdoj.gov/olp/index.html>.