Long before September 11, the stereotype of the Arab or Muslim as a "terrorist" had taken hold in the American imagination and fueled anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice. That prejudice sometimes led to hate crimes, particularly after acts of violence ascribed rightly or wrongly to Arab or Muslim terrorists. In light of the history of backlash violence against Arabs and Muslims in the United States before September 11 2001, the hate crimes that followed September 11 were all too predictable. Government officials should be aware that there is a danger of an anti-Arab or anti-Muslim backlash anytime terrorism is linked to these communities.
The victims of this violence have not been limited to one nationality or religion. Those who have been attacked include persons who only appear-at least to some Americans-to be Middle Eastern, Arab, or Muslim. South Asians, for example, have regularly been attacked. So have people who "appear" Muslim-even though Muslims are found among all races, ethnic groups, and nationalities. In the context of U.S. hate-violence, however, "Muslim" has been equated with Middle Eastern or Arab. Sikh men who wear turbans have also been lumped with "Arab" terrorists and victimized. In short, a confluence of events in U.S. history has led to the construction of a new racial stereotype and target for bias, fear, and hate crimes: persons who are or appear to be "Middle Eastern, Arab or Muslim." For brevity's sake, in this report we refer to this violence as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim, while fully cognizant of the heterogeneous composition of the victims.26
Though neither government agencies nor Arab or Muslim nongovernmental organizations tracked incidents of bias-motivated crime in the 1970s,27 Arab and Muslim activists point to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and oil embargo as a starting point for increased prejudice and hostility against their communities in the United States.28 An Arab-American from Dearborn, Michigan described the change in public attitudes towards Arab-Americans after 1973 in the following way: "suddenly we were being held responsible for things we had nothing to do with and no control over and maybe didn't even support in the first place."29 Activists contend that hostility increased during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979. According to Albert Mokhiber, former President of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the oldest Arab-American civil rights organization, "Iranians were being targeted for hate crimes at that point... so were Arab-Americans, and Arabs and Iranians aren't the same...."30
Arab-American activists also believe the ABSCAM scandal of 1980 heightened negative stereotypes of Arabs. 31 ABSCAM, short for "Arab Scam," was a federal political corruption sting operation in which federal agents posed as wealthy sheiks and offered bribes to politicians. As one Arab-American noted, after ABSCAM: "[A]ll Arabs were bad. Everybody was lumped together. You became that horrible, hook-nosed, terrorizing murderer. You were not to be trusted."32 The founders of the ADC credit the negative publicity surrounding the ABSCAM scandal as the impetus for the group's creation.33
The hijacking of TWA Flight 847 by Shiite militants on June 14, 1985 and the hijacking of the Italian cruise liner the Achille Lauro on October 7, 1985 by the Palestinian Liberation Organization were followed by a spate of violent crimes against Arab and Muslims in the United States. On October 11, 1985, the regional director of the ADC Southern California office, Alex Odeh, was killed when a bomb exploded outside the front door of his office.34 The day before, Odeh had been on local television denying PLO involvement in the hijacking.35 The ADC office in Washington, D.C., was firebombed two months after Odeh's death.36 Two months before Odeh's murder, a bomb outside the ADC's Boston office injured a policeman when it detonated while the officer was trying to defuse it.37 In the same time period, a Houston mosque was pipebombed (causing $50,000 in damage),38 the windows of the Islamic Institute in Dearborn, Michigan were broken,39 and a mosque in Potomac, Maryland was vandalized.40 In 1986, the day the United States attacked Libya, five Arab students at Syracuse University were beaten while their attackers yelled anti-Arab epithets.41 Arab-American businesses in Dearborn, Michigan were also vandalized soon after the attack on Libya.42
In Los Angeles, fires destroyed the businesses of a Lebanese-American and an Iranian Jew.45 In Cincinnati, a store owned by an Arab-American was firebombed.46 In New York, ten men with a bottle beat a man who looked Arab on the subway.47 In Baltimore, four or five men yelling "filthy Arab" attacked and broke the car window of a Polynesian Jew.48 In San Francisco, vandals smashed the windows of four Arab-American businesses.49 In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the house of an Iraqi native was burned down.50 Threats against Arab and Muslim Americans were so numerous in Detroit that Mayor Coleman Young asked Michigan's Governor to assign National Guard troops to protect the city's Arab and Muslim population.51
The severe nature and extent of the crimes prompted the first efforts by public officials to address violence against Arab and Muslim Americans. President George H.W. Bush strongly called for an end to hate attacks against Arab-Americans, insisting on September 24, 1990 that "death threats, physical attacks, vandalism, religious violence and discrimination against Arab-Americans must end." 52 In California, noting that the current "wave of hate crimes is greater than we have seen since the brutal heyday of the Klu Klux Klan," Lieutenant Governor Leo McCarthy introduced hate crimes legislation that proposed to increase civil and criminal penalties for those who commit bias-motivated crime.53 In Los Angeles, the district attorney's office released a public service announcement asking viewers to call the Los Angeles County district attorney's office if they had any knowledge of crimes against Arabs, Muslims or Jews.54 In Chicago, the Human Relations Commission helped Arab and Muslim shopkeepers post signs warning against committing hate crimes.55
Oklahoma City Bombing and TWA Flight 800
In Oklahoma City, a Muslim woman who was seven months pregnant suffered a miscarriage after a brick thrown through her window traumatized her the morning after the bombing.58 At a Muslim day care center in Texas, a teacher and sixty young students were frightened when a passing driver shouted to the teacher, "Here's a bomb for you lady," and then threw a bag of soda cans at her.59 In New York City, callers threatened to bomb Arab-owned business and attack the families of the owners.60 In Richardson, Texas, a mosque received ten threatening phone calls.61 Just one day after the bombing, as reports of backlash attacks began to surface, President Bill Clinton called on Americans not to rush to any judgments or blame any religion for the attack.62
On July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 exploded soon after leaving New York, killing all its passengers. As with the Oklahoma City bombing, there was public speculation in the media that Muslim or Arab terrorists were responsible for the explosion.63 Ultimately, the downing of TWA Flight 800 was blamed on a mechanical failure.64 Nevertheless, CAIR received ten reports of anti-Muslim verbal harassment and threats of violence prompted by anger against Muslims after the plane exploded.65
September 11: Expectations of Backlash Violence
· "Both towers of the World Trade Center are burning. In the coming hours (minutes?), the finger pointing will start just as it did after Oklahoma City."66
· "I apologize for this haphazard email. I am shocked beyond belief as our great country is going through crisis as none before. At this time we stand with our hands folded in Ardas (Sikh prayer) to all victims of this dastardly attack. However...it is critical that we as Sikh-Americans do not become victims of this terror...What I am saying is very simple, "though we are peace loving people with no connections whatsoever to... (Osama bin Laden etal[sic]), there are individuals which may not see the difference"... Everyone's work or school situation is different but noone [sic] should go under any bullying or even be made uncomfortable by fellow colleagues."67
· "I'm sure we've all heard of the tragedy this morning... Needless to say, we all realize that no Muslim in their right mind would condone such an action. I'm only writing to be sure you are all aware of the unavoidable atmosphere that will rise as a result of this attack: we're non-white, we're Arab... we're Muslims... There will be some `serious' anti-arab, anti-Muslim sentiment running rampant through this country... So be careful, stay with your families, stay off the streets unnecessarily, and watch your fellow sisters and brothers."68
· "During this period of time in which events unfold in NY and Washington, we urge Arabs and Muslims to be watchful and proactive in handling what may result in backlash against our communities, property and persons."69
31 Patrick Cooper, "Daschle's Proud Mentor Looks Back," Roll Call, July 19, 2001; "Human Rights: American-Arab Committee Fights Discrimination," Inter Press Service, August 20, 1985; Alan Achkar and Michele Fuetsch, "Taking Pride In Their Heritage; Arab-Americans Battle The Sting Of Stereotypes As They Work To Open Others' Eyes To Reality Of Their Culture," Plain Dealer, November 26, 1995.
32 Alan Achkar and Michele Fuetsch, "Taking Pride In Their Heritage; Arab-Americans Battle The Sting Of Stereotypes As They Work To Open Others' Eyes To Reality Of Their Culture," Plain Dealer, November 26, 1995.
43 "American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee News Conference," Federal News Service, February 20, 1992. The ADC data is based on reports of hate crimes filed by victims with its national office. Unlike a law enforcement agency, the ADC does not conduct an investigation to confirm whether a report of a bias incident is true. In classifying a criminal act and as a hate crime, the ADC used the federal definition of a hate crime.
45 Kenneth Reich and Richard A. Serrano, "Suspicious Fires Probed for Ties to Gulf Tension Crime: An Arson Unit studies a West Los Angeles Market Blaze and Police Label the Torching of a Sherman Oaks Store a Likely Hate Crime. Owners of Both Businesses are of Mideast Descent," Los Angeles Times, January 24, 1991.
47 Cynthia Ducanin, "Crisis in the Middle East: American Sentiment: Threats Against Arab-Americans Rise, Hotline Set up for Victims; Savannah Station Stirs Outcry," Atlanta Journal and Constitution, September 1, 1990.
56 Bonnie Miller Rubin, "U.S. Muslims Are Looking For Apology," Chicago Tribune, April 22, 1995. Timothy McVeigh, a U.S. citizen who was neither Arab or Muslim, was eventually tried and executed for the bombing.
57 Farhan Haq, "United States: Terrorism Fears Put Muslims on the Alert," Inter Press Service, August 17, 1995. CAIR data is based on reports of bias incidents filed by victims with its national office. These incidents include everything from verbal harassment to discrimination to bias-motivated criminal acts. CAIR accepts the facts reported to it as true.
63 David Johnston; "Terror In Oklahoma City: The Investigation; At Least 31 Are Dead, Scores Are Missing After Car Bomb Attack In Oklahoma City Wrecks 9-Story Federal Office Building," New York Times, April 20, 1995; Stewart M. Powell and Holly Yeager, "FBI Issues Bulletin for 3 Suspects," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 20, 1995.
65 Suzanne Cassidy, "Muslim Report Validates Local, National Aura of Bias: Pervasive Bigotry Alleged to Arise from Unjust, Constant Media Pairing of Islam with Terrorism," The Harrisburg Patriot, August 5, 1997.
67 "Sikh-Americans: we need to be proactive During this Crisis!!!!!!," retrieved on September 11, 2001, from http://groups.yahoo.com/group/sikh-sewa/. Accessed by subscribing to Sikh-Sewa Yahoogroup and viewing archives.
69 "Action Alert: Report Hate Crimes and Contact Media Outlets," from http://groups.yahoo.com/group/adcsf. Accessed by subscribing to American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee Yahoogroup and viewing archives.