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Arab and Muslim Americans Struggle to Cope Amid Feelings of Fear and Isolation

By Robyn Lamb
Capital News Service
Sunday, Sept. 16, 2001

WASHINGTON - Sabir A. Rahman, of the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring, Md., has been in this country for 37 years. Not once, has he felt afraid.

Until Tuesday.

Right now, he said, he's afraid to even go out of his house.

Like Rahman, many Muslims and Arabs in Maryland are struggling to cope 
with the tragedy of this week's terrorist attacks amid an atmosphere of fear.

Many Arabs stress that they have received more gestures of support than threats from their neighbors. But the sideways looks, the shouted slurs and the blatant acts of intimidation have begun to take their toll after a tense week, causing many to feel not just afraid, but isolated.

Before the dust had even settled Tuesday, the Islamic Center of Maryland had received two menacing phone calls, reported Shamin Abdullah, chairman of the 
Gaithersburg center's board of trustees. The messages were spoken in the 
language of hate: "You Muslims don't belong here, go back!"

In Rockville, carpet store owner Yousef Abedellatif said he received a couple phone calls in the same vein. He was shaken by the calls, in which he was called "stupid" and blamed, along with the rest of the "stupid" Palestinians, for the attacks.

The shaken Abedellatif did not feel better the next day when the building that houses his carpet store, Plaza and Bethesda-Chevy Chase Carpet & Rug Cleaning, went up in flames.

Montgomery Fire Department officials said the cause of the Wednesday morning blaze is still under investigation, but that arson has been ruled out -- little solace to Abedellatif, who will be forced to shut down for at least two months.

Harassers have not limited themselves to abusive telephone calls. University of Maryland student Maha Ezzeddine had an American flag waved aggressively at her by a passing car as she drove down Interstate 270.

And Kareem Darwish, vice president of the Muslim Student Association on the College Park campus, said looks and derogatory jokes about Muslims and Arabs abound.

"What gets me is that people think we are so unpatriotic," Ezzeddine said.

That perception is especially hurtful for Ezzeddine, who was born in the United 
States to an American mother and Egyptian father.

Darwish said many Muslims are worried sick about the victims in New York 
and Washington. "The U.S. is our country," he said. "But then you feel people are looking at you."

For Darwish, even the constant and seemingly harmless "be carefuls" from 
people who actually care about him have started to take their toll. "People will just walk up to you and tell you to watch out, to drive carefully, to be vigilant," he said. "It's stressful."

But vigilance is a concern for many right now. Baltimore County Police said they were increasing police presence and posting officers at religious centers in the county this weekend.

In Falls Church, Va., the Dar Al-Hijrah Mosque has hired private security 
guards to search every person and car coming to prayer service, said Anwar Al 
Adwaki, after anti-Muslim protestors turned up outside the mosque on Tuesday. On Friday, he urged women of the congregation, who cover their heads and are 
therefore "more obvious," not to venture out.

Despite the atmosphere of fear, many Muslims have received a great deal of 
support from people in the community.

Ezzeddine was overwhelmed with calls from most of her neighbors Tuesday, 
asking about her welfare and offering support.

Sobhi Aldellemy, who owns the Shish-kebab restaurant in Laurel, said his 
customers have continued to visit his restaurant regularly this week and that 
many have made a point of offering their assistance.

The Islamic Center of Maryland received many more calls of support than of 
intimidation, said Abdullah. On Wednesday the center was invited to an 
interfaith service in Germantown.

"It was a very positive thing," said Abdullah. "A number of people came to 
me and told me they now saw our faces and what our religion teaches."

Randy Gurley, senior pastor at the Tabernacle Church in Laurel, held a 
joint prayer session Thursday with members of the Islamic Community Center of Laurel.

"These services are bringing the nation together," he said. "You just can't make a blanket indictment of people because of the radical acts of zealots."

Interfaith prayer sessions sprouted up in various locations around Maryland last week, and Abdullah and his congregation were scheduled to participate in one Friday across from the Rockville courthouse.

"We should have come together a long time ago," he said. 

 

Copyright 2001 University of Maryland College of Journalism


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