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US Muslims, Arab Americans feel uncomfortable divide By Tony Czuczka

Deutsche Presse Agentur
Published: Monday September 4, 2006

Washington- When Arab suicide hijackers slammed planes into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon five years ago, they also plunged Muslim Americans into a storm of suspicion that has yet to blow over. Reports of assaults, harassment and other abuses against Arab Americans and US Muslims, while below the soaring levels right after the September 11, 2001 attacks, have risen again in the past two years, in part because of the US-led war on Iraq.

The active resentment is part of a climate of lingering distrust toward a slice of the US population, otherwise widely seen as much more assimilated into mainstream society than Muslims in Western Europe.

But in America's post-9/11 trauma, cracks have opened in the US self-image that people are first Americans and only then members of ethnic or religious groups.

"Even second- and third-generation people born here encounter problems and are afraid of encountering problems," said James Zogby, head of the Arab American Institute in Washington.

"People are afraid it's spreading, and that's the problem," he told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

Recent research highlights Arab-American fears that the government is spying on them, and a rise in tension with law enforcement and justice officials, who have been accused of ethnic and religious stereotyping.

Studies also found that Arab Americans are more than twice as prone to depression than average Americans and that their wages have fallen since 2001, especially in areas with high levels of hate crimes.

On the other side of the divide, many Americans view Muslims negatively. A USA Today poll in August found 39 per cent believe that Muslims, even US citizens, should carry special identification as an anti-terrorist measure.

Already, anti-Muslim discrimination ranges from nasty e-mails at work to hate crimes such as mosque burnings. Recent immigrants, store owners and students are most at risk, especially if they wear obviously Arab or Muslim clothing, Zogby said.

Pressure groups for the estimated 6 million Muslims in the US also fault public officials, including President George W Bush for saying the US is at war with "Islamic fascists."

Bush has repeatedly used the image in an effort to liken the US- declared war on terrorism to the World War II mobilization against Nazism.

Yet for a European observer, the standing of US Muslims can still look pretty positive.

Mounir Azzaoui, spokesman for the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, highlighted contrasts between US and European Muslims after travelling the US for weeks to meet Muslims, Jews and Christians there.

"The thing that impressed me the most was meeting American Muslims. They are proud to be Americans, and they are optimistic," Azzaoui, 28, told dpa after his US government-sponsored tour. "They look into the future."

However, a recent investigation by the Washington Post came up with a different portrayal. It concluded that, while generally not radicalized, US Muslims "are becoming a people apart" who are increasingly seeking comfort in Islam rather than the American dream.

US Muslims also felt targeted after media reports last year revealed a Bush administration anti-terrorist programme to record data on phone calls between US residents and people abroad.

The Vera Institute, a private New York-based research group that interviewed hundreds of Arab Americans and US law enforcement officials in 2003-05, found that the US domestic reaction to September 11 "generated substantial fear among Arab Americans."

"But even more than fear of being physically assaulted or victimized by other individuals, Arab Americans fear falling victims to government actions, especially through immigration enforcement and surveillance," said the study published in June.

Arab and Muslim men working in the US also suffered economically, according to a study to be published in the Journal of Human Resources.

Wages of first- and second-generation immigrants from mainly Muslim or Arab countries fell about 10 per cent in the years after the September 11 attacks, with the biggest drop in areas with high rates of hate crimes, the study said.

But despite the shifting relationship, community leaders like Zogby say they see powerful reasons for Arab Americans and Muslims to remain loyal to secular US ideals.

For Zogby, Arab Americans - who include many Christians - are politically better organized and more likely to work in well-paid professions. They also have over-all better chances of advancement than in Europe, he believes.

Also heartening, he said, were the hundreds of US communities that took stands against anti-Muslim abuses after September 11 and the hate crimes that have gone to court for punishment.

"Who is protecting us? First and foremost, the American people," Zogby said. "At the end of the day, there's a self-definition of our country that says we're not going to let this happen."

© 2006 DPA - Deutsche Presse-Agenteur