American Arabs and Muslims still feel threatened a year after attacks

For some, the fear persists
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Sep. 11, 2002

A petite woman with a warm smile, Marlina Soerakoesoemah doesn’t get defensive when someone asks a silly question like, “Do you take a bath with the scarf on?”

Since Sept. 11, her gregarious way has helped her navigate a strange new world, and to work harder to educate others about her Muslim faith. She began volunteering in her son’s school. She helped organize a community festival about Islam. She makes sure she smiles and sets a good example when strangers stare at her hijab, which cloaks her head, neck and ears.

But it’s a new world with shifting priorities, and Soerakoesoemah, like many people, has learned to balance her desire to speak out with a need for caution.

Last year, her grandmother visited Washington, D.C., and bought a shirt that says “Future President” for Soerakoesoemah’s 5-year-old son. But Soerakoesoemah is afraid the shirt — post-Sept. 11 — might send the wrong message. She only lets him wear it inside out.

“Even though I’m an optimistic person, I have to be careful in what I do,” she said from her Redmond town house, where she works as creative director of Azizah, a national Muslim magazine.

“I don’t know what the temperature is out there,” she said. “You still hear horrible stories about people being profiled and harassed.”

For many American Muslims and Arabs, the terrorist attacks created an unsettling landscape where their faith has been challenged, their loyalty questioned and their safety no longer guaranteed.

It’s a world where they have been subjected to a frenzy of threats, assaults and humiliating searches at airports. Pilots kicked them off planes, arsonists torched their mosques, men were beaten on sidewalks. Frightened women and children refused to leave the house.

A year later, that burst of hatred has largely faded, though scars remain. There are still Muslim women who worry about their young daughters in a hijab at the grocery store. Others fear that more insidious things have also taken root.

Reliable data about job and housing discrimination is hard to find, but many people, including Mohammed, a 40-year-old Pakistani Muslim — say it is on the rise.

An experienced engineer, Mohammed, who didn’t want his last name used, was laid off by The Boeing Co. soon after the terrorist attacks. He has since applied for nearly a thousand jobs online, but has received few replies. He fixes cars in Marysville to support his wife and two young sons.

He knows the economy is bad, but he also suspects that employers shy from his “typical Middle Eastern name.”

“Looking at my background and experience, I have a lot of knowledge,” he said. “But why should they hire me, when they can have a John or Sam or Scott?”

Since January, Hate Free Zone — established after Sept. 11 to help victims of bias, profiling and hate crimes — has received about 70 calls, most of them from people reporting employment or housing discrimination, said director Pramila Jayapal.

In one incident, a Renton store supervisor told several Somali women to remove their hijabs, if they wanted to keep their jobs, Jayapal said. The boss backed down after representatives of a community group explained that an observant Muslim woman must cover her hair and arms in public.

Jayapal said the call volume has increased in recent weeks, with two or three complaints coming in each day.

Many in Seattle’s Muslim and Arab communities said their fear arises not so much from their neighbors or employers, but from the government’s war on terrorism, with its secretive dragnets and surveillance of religious institutions.

“FBI agents visit them at home, ask questions, listen to their answering machines, ask information about their family, their friends,” Jayapal said, adding that many feel the government is taking advantage of the climate of fear to pressure innocent people.

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, of the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee chapter in Washington state, said anti-terrorism legislation approved by Congress erodes the checks and balances that help prevent discrimination.

“It became soon clear that it wasn’t American citizens that we should be scared of, but the Patriot Act,” she said.

Yet the Patriot Act is effectively the government’s interpretation of what American citizens want.

And some people, like Brian Hutmacher, a 31-year-old Seattle restaurateur, support the government’s heavier scrutiny of Arabs and Muslims, even if it makes them feel uncomfortable.

“For men who are Arab, Muslim and under the age of 40, it’s part of the deal. Guess what? Your people from your religion and descent have targeted innocent people in this country. It’s unfortunate you happen to be included in that set of people,” said Hutmacher, who operates the hip Queen Anne hangout Peso’s when he’s not espousing his conservative views. “If we were at war with Japan, it wouldn’t make sense to be targeting people from England.”

Although Muslims locally and nationally have repeatedly condemned the attacks, some people, including 56-year-old Alan Bixby, think they haven’t done enough.

“Denunciations of these acts of terror are not happening on a regular basis,” said Bixby, a Seattle-area video producer, who wrote the Seattle Post-Intelligencer after reading a story about Muslims. He didn’t blame American Muslims for the attacks, but expected them to “translate the revulsion of such acts to Muslims in the rest of the world.”

That kind of thinking has prompted many Muslims and Arabs to speak out, whether it’s joining a new advisory panel with the Seattle Police Department, or forming a new group to teach immigrants about the American electoral process.

“Within the Muslim community, there’s a much deeper sense of being American, especially in the immigrant portion of the community. America was attacked, and we’ve identified with that,” said Salah Dandan, a manager at Microsoft and founder of mPower, a new Muslim civic group.

“It’s not enough to have a good job, nice car, nice house. Muslims have to work more to be visible, vocal and engaged in community life.”

As a result, unprecedented relationships have blossomed with police, school and city officials. Mosques began holding open houses. Arabs launched a new Arabic class at a Seattle school.

In the days after Sept. 11, a man shot at two worshippers and tried to douse two cars with gasoline at the Idriss Mosque, the most prominent in the region. The larger community immediately reacted. Hundreds of people volunteered to patrol the building, and Christians, Buddhists, atheists and Jews sent hundreds of cards, flowers and candles to the mosque.

“I know there are a lot of Muslims who are very paranoid right now . . .,” said Aziz Junejo, an active participant at the mosque and the host of the public-access TV show, “Focus on Islam.”

“But I believe this horrible tragedy brought people closer to together. Never, ever did I experience such openness and tolerance as I did in this last year.”

After Sept. 11, someone wrote “Go back home terrorist!” on Jawad Al-Ghezzi’s car, which scared him. An immigrant from Iraq, Al-Ghezzi began hesitating to identify himself as Arab and distancing himself from the Iraqi community.

“The fear is inside you,” he said. “You can’t say anything about it. You can’t talk to anybody. You’re suspicious of your colleagues’ jokes on your origins.”

“Everybody is very scared,” he continued. “I started getting away from all members of the community. Right now, I don’t talk to them, to avoid any kind of trouble.”

But Al-Ghezzi’s wife — a white American he married five years ago — has headed in the opposite direction since Sept. 11.

She recently went to court for a traffic violation, and understood what it felt like to be an Arab in the United States.

“The judge made fun of my last name, he was rude and sarcastic,” said Patricia Al-Ghezzi, a 39-year-old non-profit administrator. “I was shocked. It was like suddenly I was walking in my husband’s shoes.”

She now works harder to preserve her family’s Arab heritage, and she often reminds her husband to speak Arabic to their young daughter.

“We are all descendents of immigrants that came to this country seeking freedom and a better life,” she said.

“The actions of a few can’t be allowed to change a basic precept — the Pledge of Allegiance states it clearly, when it concludes with “. . . and liberty and justice for all.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday September 12, 2002.
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