Fear and Anxiety Permeate Arab Enclave Near Detroit
Fear and Anxiety Permeate Arab Enclave Near Detroit
Muslim Americans Feel They Are Targets in War on Terror
By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 4, 2002; Page A03
DEARBORN, Mich.-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
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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."
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