Arab Canadians duck to avoid harassment
By ALANNA MITCHELL
With reports from Reuters, Associated Press, James Rusk, Sean Fine and Kevin Cox
Friday, September 14, 2001
Saying they are under siege in their own country, Arab Canadians are shunning school, work, travel and even the streets to avoid escalating harassment from fellow citizens angry over catastrophic attacks on the United States.
"We are seen as the enemy within," said Jehad Aliweiwi, executive director of the Canadian Arab Federation. "A lot of people feel it's probably a time to stay at home."
In the United States, anti-Muslim sentiment reached hysteria as investigations began to point to a connection between the Middle East and the attacks in New York and Washington.
The situation was so heated that both U.S. President George W. Bush and his father, former president George Bush, called for tolerance for Arab Americans and Muslims. The elder Mr. Bush took pains to explain that Muslims believe "in a God of love and mercy."
Some Islamic centres in the United States have been fired on. Mosques have been vandalized.
On Wednesday night, police turned back 300 marchers -- some waving U.S. flags and shouting "USA! USA!" -- as they tried to march on a mosque in the Chicago suburb of Bridgeview.
Three demonstrators were arrested. There were no injuries and demonstrators were kept blocks from the closed Muslim house of worship.
"I'm proud to be American and I hate Arabs and I always have," said 19-year-old Colin Zaremba, who marched with the group.
As he waited to get on a plane at Halifax airport yesterday to continue his interrupted journey home, Donald McClarty of San Francisco spent some time on the phone telling a Muslim friend that he should consider keeping his son home from school for a few days.
"I'd hate to think that some racist act would happen to a seven-year-old boy because there are a lot of people out there who are going to blame all this on the Muslims or the Arabs," he said.
"That's not right. A few fanatics caused this and the ordinary Arabs should be taken care of by everyone." A Muslim woman said she, her husband and their eight children endured a night of terror in the aftermath of Tuesday's attack.
"This was a mob," said the woman, who asked not to be identified out of fear. "We had people riding up and down our block shouting obscenities. 'Go home you bleeping ragheads, bleeping A-rabs, we're gonna get you,' " added the woman, who lives in Oak Lawn.
"My husband and I stayed up all night guarding the windows," she added. "My husband is of Arab descent. He gave four years of his life in the U.S. Navy . . . to have some skinhead with an American flag screaming at your house."
Police were investigating scores of other threats against Americans of Middle Eastern background from coast to coast.
In Toronto, Imran Yousuf, spokesman for the Canadian Muslim Civil Liberties Association, said his organization, which represents Muslims whose families stem from Arab countries and other parts of the world, is considering pleading with its members to keep out of sight until tensions ease.
And in the United States, Altaf Ali of the Council of American-Islamic Relations urged people to avoid going out.
"Right now, we are encouraging Muslim families to stay home for a few days until this issue cools down a bit. . . . Emotions are running very high at the moment," he said.
In Canada, the Islamic Supreme Council and Muslims Against Terrorism have set up hot lines in Toronto and Calgary for victims of threats. The groups are urging police and governments to help keep Muslims safe from hate crimes.
Included in the types of harassment across Canada are vicious e-mails calling Arabs "vermin," violent telephone messages, attacks on mosques in many parts of the country and personal threats.
Women and girls tend to be more heavily targeted, especially if they wear the traditional Muslim head scarf, Mr. Yousuf said. Some employers are arranging for Muslim and Arab workers to be escorted to and from their premises, he said.
"We are now in a state of siege," said Mr. Aliweiwi, adding that the Arab and Muslim communities feel they are surrounded by an intensifying "sea of hate."
Mr. Yousuf got a horrifying call yesterday from a woman who works in downtown Toronto. The woman was waiting for a commuter train to take her home when another woman passed by. The passerby said to the Muslim woman: "If I had a gun, I would shoot you right now."
The Muslim woman said she was terrified. Eventually, she got home and called the police.
"She was in shock. You would probably want to run for your life," Mr. Yousuf said.
He said the association has reports from Muslim parents saying that they are keeping their children at home. Some Muslim schools across Canada have closed, including one in Calgary that shut for two days and another in Montreal.
The Edmonton Islamic School remained open but kept the pupils inside at recess.
"Some people are actually saying: 'Let's pack our bags,' " Mr. Aliweiwi said.
John Asfour, president of the Canadian Arab Federation, said he believes newspapers, radio stations and television outlets are fanning the flames of hatred against Arabs.
"It seems to be that some media outlets are taking it on as a holy campaign against Arabs and Muslims," he said. "What do Canadian Arabs have to do with this tragedy? They have families, children and businesses to look after in this country they love."
Dr. Asfour, who has a PhD in modern English literature from McGill University, said the widespread discrimination Arabs are experiencing is akin to what the Japanese felt during the Second World War.
Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman made the same connection yesterday.
After he signed a condolence book in the lobby of City Hall, the mayor recalled the "mistake" of the ill treatment and internment of Japanese-Canadians after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and said that the city should not repeat that experience.
"Don't go around hurting people. Don't ago around allowing your kids to hurt other kids. No hate literature," he said.