Fear and Anxiety
Permeate Arab Enclave Near Detroit
Robert E. Pierre
The Washington Post
Sunday, 4 August 2002
To the outside world, the Arab Americans in this community are adjusting well to the heightened scrutiny they receive from law enforcement, cooperating with interviews and proudly displaying their American flags.
But inside, said Don Unis, a U.S. citizen of Lebanese descent, people are upset, anxious and increasingly angry at what they perceive as a war - domestically and abroad - on Arabs and Muslims.
Their relatives have been called in for random interviews. Their brethren are being held in U.S. jails on suspicion of terrorism, some without a hint from the government about their alleged crimes. And there is a widespread perception that few Americans understand - or care - what they're going through.
Particularly chilling for them were the comments July 19 from a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights - since rejected by the full panel - that raised the specter of internment camps for Arab Americans if there is another terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
"They're scared to death," said Unis, 63, who was born in the United States and whose father fought for this country in World War I after emigrating from Lebanon in 1917. "They're singing the song that authorities want to hear, but they're eating their guts out. We still don't have very much of a voice in America."
The Detroit region is home to the largest concentration of people of Arab descent in the United States, with Dearborn the center of that community. Restaurants, schools and mosques cater to families such as the Unises, who have four generations of roots in this country.
But since last September, this place has felt less like a haven for Arab Americans. There has been periodic harassment, the constant fear of bodily harm and the frightening possibility of being incarcerated in connection with the war on terror - fears that Arabs and Muslims around the country have echoed.
"The Arab American community is always on pins and needles when there is a crisis," said Fred Pearson, a Wayne State University political scientist who directs the university's Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. "Like African Americans, they are an identifiable minority that is likely to be singled out. There are all kinds of daily encounters that remind you of your minority status."
President Bush and Attorney General John D. Ashcroft have maintained that the terror dragnet is necessary to protect the United States at a time when the threat of additional attacks is very real. Secret hearings and other restrictions on normally public information are designed to keep information from terrorists and protect the privacy of detainees, Ashcroft has said.
The Justice Department says that it is not engaged in racial or ethnic profiling and that its war is aimed at terrorists, not Muslims.
But those arguments have not won over many Arab Americans. In Los Angeles and Chicago, Arab Americans continue to criticize programs -- such as the FBI's interview of 5,000 men -- that focus solely on people from Arab countries. In Seattle, Arab Americans complain of being regularly reported to the police for taking pictures of Boeing Field from a tour boat, or for entering a 7-Eleven and then deciding not to buy something, said Rita Zawaideh, founder of the Arab American Community Coalition there.
"Some people will not go to court [even on traffic violations] because they feel they will automatically be guilty," said Zawaideh, a U.S. citizen who is originally from Jordan and owns a travel agency here. "They are choosing to pay a fine instead.
"Women are being followed in their cars for wearing a hijab. One woman had her health insurance dropped by a company that told her, 'We don't sell to immigrants.' We don't know what rules, what rights we have as U.S. citizens."
The Arab community in America has been forced to respond politically. Over the past two decades it has evolved to the point where it can mobilize quickly and team up with other, more established rights groups, said Ron Stockton, who directs the Center for Arab-American Studies at the University of Michigan at Dearborn.
"The community is much more organized than it once was," Stockton said.
Arab Americans -- with an estimated population of 3 million nationally -- are beginning to become influential politically, especially in local and state elections. The community stood solidly with then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in 2000, after he spoke out against a 1996 law permitting secret evidence to be used in deportation proceedings. Some wish they had their vote back.
Now "we regret supporting George Bush," said Osama Siblani, president of the Arab American Political Action Committee, which endorsed Bush in 2000 and delivered many predominantly Arab American precincts here by a 3 to 1 margin over Democrat Al Gore.
"He said it was going to be a compassionate administration," said Siblani, a Republican, who met with Bush three times during the campaign. "We see an absolutely arrogant administration whose lopsided foreign policy is hurting our original homelands, and we have seen nothing but secret information used against our people here."
The comments by a Bush appointee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights only inflamed the situation. At the hearing, held in downtown Detroit, Commissioner Peter Kirsanow said that "if there's another terrorist attack and if it's from a certain ethnic community or certain ethnicities that the terrorists are from, you can forget about civil rights in this country."
A Cleveland lawyer, Kirsanow later added that another attack could lead to internment camps such as those built to hold Japanese Americans in World War II. "Not too many people will be crying in their beer if there are more detentions, more stops, more profiling. There will be a groundswell of public opinion to banish civil rights," Kirsanow said.
Civil rights groups and Sen. Deborah Ann Stabenow (D-Mich.) have demanded that Kirsanow be removed from the panel. Kirsanow has since said he was not voicing his own views but those of others who fear for their personal safety. The Bush administration said there has been no consideration of internment camps.
But the damage locally was already done, said Imad Hamad, regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
"It makes people more scared and less cooperative," said Hamad, who described himself as an intermediary between residents and law enforcement. "People are scared and intimidated, so they don't come forward."
For a century, Middle Easterners have migrated to this southwest suburb of Detroit, drawn initially by jobs in the auto industry and later to escape conflicts in their home countries. There are Lebanese, Yemenis, Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians and a growing number of Iraqis.
Mayor Michael Guido said that he has an open line of communication with Arab leaders but that the government must do its primary job of protecting citizens.
"There is a fine line between safety and political correctness," said Guido, who is in his 17th year in office. "Sometimes there's an over-sensitivity in terms of profiling. We're all learning what is the right way to do things."
But many contend that current anti-terror policies are wrong. Last month, a coalition of 60 civil liberties and civil rights organizations called on the government to end policies that cast "suspicion on entire religious and ethnic communities."
"An Arab gets into a car accident and they link it to terrorism. A minor immigration violation and you're linked to al Qaeda," said Abed Hammoud, who came to the United States in 1990 from Lebanon. "We want our government to fight terrorism, not Arab Americans. The government is in a panic stage and they are taking the easy way out."
A candidate last fall for Dearborn mayor, Hammoud is a Wayne County assistant prosecutor who spends his days trying to convict drug dealers and killers. He wants to see charges spelled out against everyone arrested for a crime.
"It scares even me," said Hammoud, who said he will drive to the District this summer for vacation so that his family will not be hassled on a plane flight. "When I charge a murderer, I have to tell them what I have against him. The heart of the problem is secrecy."
But tension is palpable on the streets. Paul Kasper, who has lived in the 4800 block of Chovin Street for all but two of his 47 years, watched recently as law enforcement agents and reporters swarmed his neighborhood after the arrest of Omar Shishani, a Jordanian-born man accused of bringing $12 million in counterfeit cashier's checks into the United States. A local anti-terror task force is reviewing his case for terrorist ties.
Kasper doesn't know Shishani, but he knows his community has changed.
"You really don't know your neighbors anymore," Kasper said, as children rode their Big Wheels next door. If you don't know people, he said, you don't know what they will do. "I don't hate my neighbors because they are Arab. I don't love them if they're trying to kill me."
Unis, an Army veteran, said no one wants to befriend those who would seek to do them harm. But he said it's wrong to assign collective guilt for the crimes of a few.
"Arabs who live in this country are Americans too," he said. "Haven't we learned anything since World War II? Sometimes I don't think so."