Backlash Threat

As some 20 teens beat 18-year-old Rashid Alam with golf clubs and baseball bats in Yorba Linda on Feb. 22, they allegedly yelled “White Power!” The attack, which Alam’s friends said was unprovoked, left the recent high school graduate hospitalized with a fractured jaw and broken bones in his face.

Unable to speak because his jaw is wired shut, friends and family despair that he might have suffered permanent brain damage from the 65 blows he endured.

Police call the attack a hate crime, but have said that it began as a face-off between two rival groups that had fought in the past. Others said it was fueled solely by ethnic hatred.

Ahmed Alam, publisher of the Arab World newspaper in Anaheim, said his son’s beating underscored the vulnerability now felt by many Arab Americans.

“After Sept. 11, the average American thinks we’re all the same, all like Saddam,” said Alam, a U.S. citizen who emigrated from Lebanon in 1971. “They don’t know the difference between an Iraqi, a Lebanese and a Syrian.”

As war with Iraq continues, both the Arab American and Jewish communities must brace themselves for a possible backlash.As the body bags mount and U.S. forces get bogged down in the desert, extremists might vent their rage by beating or even murdering Arab Americans, as they did after Sept. 11.

Similarly, hate mongers, who have long painted Jews as communists, money-grubbing internationalists and peddlers of Hollywood immorality, might soon brand them as fifth columnists more loyal to Israel than to the United States. Rep. James P. Moran’s (D-Va.) recent speech to an anti-war group, accusing the Jewish community of pushing the United States into an ill-advised conflict, is but the most recent example of this blame-the-Jews mentality, experts said. Moran has since apologized.

With Arab Americans and Jews both under siege, these minority groups appear to be developing a measure of empathy, if not sympathy, for one another. Views on the Middle East still divide them and hard-liners on both sides continue to spew out invective, but voices of reason appear to be cutting through the shouts.

In the aftermath of Rashid Alam’s brutal beating, several rabbis contacted the Council on American-Islamic Relations to express their outrage at the crime, said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the group’s Southern California chapter.

Rabbi Allen Krause of Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo is among those who stood alongside the council. Krause, who has participated in several local interfaith events with Muslims and Christians, said he has long preached tolerance from his Orange County pulpit. The rabbi thinks that Jews, themselves victims of discrimination, should become more vocal in supporting American Muslims.

“The Torah doesn’t say Jews were made in God’s image. It says all humans were made in God’s image,” he said. “We are our brothers’ keeper.”

That’s not to suggest that relations between Arab Americans and Jewish groups have warmed considerably since the second intifada broke out in Israel more than two years ago. They have not. But the chill that plagued them seems to have begun to thaw ever so slightly.

“We oppose any kind of anti-Semitism,” said Jean Abinader, managing director of the Arab American Institute, a Washington-based advocacy group. “One, we’re Semites. Two, any kind of bigotry against somebody because of their religion or ethnicity is an act against humanity.”

Even before a single shot was fired in Iraq, hate crimes committed against people, institutions and businesses identified with the Islamic faith have skyrocketed, with 414 now under investigation by the FBI.

Already, some Muslims have grown fearful about speaking Arabic in public. Others have “Americanized” their children’s names to Sam from Osama or to Mo from Mohammed, said Ayloush of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“There’s a lot of anxiety and worry,” he said. “Now, it’s almost commonplace these days for Muslims to be subjected to verbal abuse, especially men with the beards and women in head scarves.”

Some Arab American leaders have criticized the Bush administration for helping to create a hostile environment. They are especially angry that federal agents have imprisoned, without formal charges, scores of Muslims initially suspected of terrorist activities but later deported for minor visa infractions.

Activists complain of discrimination against Arab Americans on domestic airlines, with several dark-skinned passengers being asked to leave planes without cause. The groups also grouse about right-wing Christian evangelicals demonizing Islam.

A growing number of American Jews also are under attack. Hate crimes against Jews, both nationally and locally, jumped significantly last year, according to a report soon to be released by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). “I’m worried about people targeting synagogues and having hateful feelings about Jews,” said Amanda Susskind, the ADL’s regional director in Los Angeles.

As delicate as the situation is for Jews, it is arguably worse for American Arabs.

In a reflection of their potentially dire situation, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller recently met with leaders of national Arab American, Muslim and Sikh organizations. (Sikhs are neither Arab nor Muslim. But Sikh men wear turbans and have been attacked by extremists who mistake them for Middle Easterners.) Among other issues, they spoke about possible vigilante attacks against the groups and the need to continue working with the FBI.

Against this backdrop, the ADL has forcefully condemned violence against American Muslims, especially since Sept. 11. The human rights advocacy group will “continue to be outspoken on the issue,” national spokesman Todd Gutnick said. “We think attacks against Muslim Americans is wrong and un-American.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he detects no hostility toward Arab Americans. If extremists begin to harass them, though, the center will “publicly urge people to focus on the enemies of the United States and not on innocent Muslims living in America.”

On the eve of war, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo joined Hier, Cardinal Roger Mahoney and other religious and community leaders at the Museum of Tolerance to oppose hate crimes and discrimination. Delgadillo said his office would prosecute all perpetrators of such acts to the fullest extent of the law, adding that some good might emerge from these uncertain times. “I’m hopeful that all of L.A.’s diverse communities can unite and rise to the occasion.”