US Muslims are "holding their breath" as the investigation into the Boston Marathon attacks develops, amid fears of increased racial profiling and attacks if an Islamic link is confirmed, according to advocate groups.
Investigators say they still do not know who carried out the attacks or why, and Janet Napolitano, the homeland security secretary, said on Wednesday there was no evidence the attacks were part of a larger plot.
But amid official statements that no suspect has yet been identified as being behind the bombs that killed three and maimed and wounded more than a hundred people, at least two news outlets falsely reported a Saudi national was being held as a suspect, with some lawmakers and pundits pitching in on the falsehood.
Muneer Awad, the executive director of New York chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (Cair), said: "Americans have been conditioned to assume that any act of terror on our land has been perpetrated by a Muslim. That's why it was so easy for people to jump on to reports that a Saudi national had been a person of interest. There is no reason for why he was a suspect, other than he was a Saudi Arabian.
"Whether they are being questioned, interrogated, having their apartments being searched – we are looking at a community where it's normal for the NYPD or the FBI to simply knock on your door and ask you questions without a warrant."
Awad said that the anxiety that the Muslim community is feeling over a possible backlash is not new, but has been present since 9/11. It is waiting to see what will happen now, he said. "A lot of people are holding their breath."
Boston's largest mosque, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, has asked police to guard its campus in the wake of the marathon attacks, according to a report in the Huffington Post.
Awad cited Erik Rush, a conservative columnist and Fox News guest who tweeted "Muslims are evil. Let's kill them all" after the attacks, provoking a furious reaction on Twitter. Rush later claimed he was being sarcastic.
In the US, the number of FBI-designated hate crimes against Muslims and Arabs rose dramatically after the September 11 attacks, which were carried out by mostly Saudi members of al-Qaida.
Faiza Patel, co-director of the liberty and national security programme at the Brennan Center for Justice, said: "You can't get away from the fact that the last attack was carried out by mostly Saudi nationals. But from what I have seen and heard, the official response this time has been restrained. There were a lot of statements coming in from Muslim communities clearly disavowing the attacks. That is important."
Patel said that, based on FBI data, Muslims are three times more likely to be targeted by hate crimes than other citizens.
Sahar Aziz, a fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), agreed that the government response has been careful in the aftermath of the Boston attacks.
Aziz, who is also an associate professor of law at Texas Wesleyan school of law, said: "Compared to past events, the government has been judicious in making public what they know and don't know, and warning people not to jump to conclusions about the racial identification of suspects."
However, he warned that the US should guard against falling pray to scape goating of any racial or religious communities from the far right.
"There is a cadre of pundits on the far right spreading fear and paranoia that it is inevitably going to be a Muslim. They will want to trigger a backlash, will engage in racial and religious scapegoating. They won't incite people to violence because they know it is a crime, but they may do everything short of it. All Americans should be on guard not to allow our country to fall pray to that.
"The real question for the Muslim community is what will happen if it does turn out that the suspect is Muslim. What we hope is that Americans can speak to their values that guilt should not be imposed on others who share the same faith."
Christine Warner, the campaign director for Shoulder to Shoulder, a campaign to end anti-Muslim sentiment, said she was monitoring any potential backlash. Warner said she had been "generally encouraged" by the reporting, with the exception of the reporting of a Saudi national as a person of interest and comments reported on Wednesday by CNN of a "dark skinned male" being a suspect in the case.
"This gives us no indication of where the investigation is going and is of concern to us," she said.
In a blogpost on his website, anti-racism writer Tim Wise wrote: "White privilege is knowing that if you are a white student from Nebraska – as opposed to, say, a student from Saudi Arabia – that no one, and I mean no one, would think it important to detain and question you in the wake of a bombing such as the one at the Boston Marathon."
[Muslim man praying via Shutterstock]