Terror Alert Resounds in Muslim Communities

Sitting on a sofa in the corner of his living room, Robert Hall turns on the television to watch the evening news on a major network station. He tries to focus on the program, but cannot. He turns to another station and then another. With a remote control in his right hand, he flips channels for a few minutes and then turns off the TV.

"I have terror alert fatigue," says a furious Hall, 54, a long-time resident of New York. "I am tired of various government agencies telling me to be suspicious of my environment and my friends."

Hall, an American of European ancestry, says he feels that obsessive TV coverage of the "terror alerts" coming from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security could compromise the safety and security of his friends and fellow New Yorkers who have roots in the Middle East and South Asia.

"Some of my friends were abused and physically attacked after (the terrorist attacks of) Sep. 11, 2001, just because they were Muslims or looked Middle Eastern," he says.

Last Sunday, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge not only issued an official warning of possible terror attacks on major financial institutions in New York, neighboring New Jersey and Washington, he also made a series of conference calls to television anchors and newspaper editors about the threat.

Hall’s concerns about the negative effects of the much-publicizied alerts are widely shared by immigrant right groups and Muslim and Arab civil liberties organizations in New York and throughout the country.

"It is creating a lot of paranoia in the Muslim community," says Rabia Ahmed, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a prominent Washington-based rights and advocacy group. "It also encourages hate crimes, which are already happening," she added, in an interview.

CAIR estimates that in 2003 incidents of violence, discrimination and harassment against Muslims in the United States increased by 70 per cent. The group identifies the war in Iraq and a lingering atmosphere of fear from the 9/11 attacks as principle factors in the sharp rise.

Other reasons, the group says, included an increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric by some individuals in government and the media, enforcement of the USA Patriot Act, (a law passed in response to 9/11 that gives the justice department sweeping powers to round up, detain and deport immigrants) and increased reporting and documentation by members of the Muslim community.

"The disturbing jump in reports of anti-Muslim incidents is a wake-up call to those commentators who use their public positions to spread anti-Muslim hate," said Mohamed Nimar, who authored CAIR’s report on anti-Muslim bias.

It found more than 1,000 reports of anti-Islamic acts in the United States in 2003, ranging from business and housing discrimination to violent threats, biased law enforcement and hate crimes.

Businessmen from Muslim countries, for instance, complained that they face huge economic losses due to long delays from U.S. customs authorities in releasing their goods at airports.

"It is destroying consumer confidence," says Nadeem Mirza, a Pakistani businessman in Boston who has been importing antique rugs for several years. "This whole psychology of security and terror has ruined the rug business in the past three years. It’s destroying consumer confidence," Mirza told IPS.

Minority rights activists say in the aftermath of Sep. 11, many non-Muslim and non-Arab immigrants have also been targeted for hate crimes, simply because they fit the stereotyped image of "terrorists".

In July for instance, Rajindar Singh Khalsa, a 54-year-old Sikh, was brutally beaten by a gang of young white men in New York who assumed he was a Muslim.

"All peaceful people, including Muslims, South Asians and Arabs, are totally against any terrorism, and any new threats — fake or real — put them under a lot of stress and anxiety," says Partha Banerjee, a community organizer at New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), a cross-cultural rights advocacy group based in New York.

"They fear about being picked up by law enforcement. They fear bias crimes," added Banerjee.

Others expressed similar concerns about the possible arrests of immigrants on questionable charges of being linked to terrorism. As the terror alert was in full swing this week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said it arrested two Muslim men in New York State who tried to help an undercover agent posing as a terrorist who wanted to buy a rocket-launcher.

Published reports say the agent is a Pakistani who had violated immigrations laws, but was promised a lenient sentence after he agreed to work for the FBI.

Authorities claim the two men, one from Iraq the other from Bangladesh, agreed to launder money from the sale of the missile, meant to kill a Pakistani diplomat in New York. Family members of the accused have rejected the FBI story and right groups, such as CAIR, are skeptical about authorities’ claims.

"The government’s allegations against the two men are deeply troubling," said a CAIR statement. "All too often, these types of cases are used by those with political and religious agendas to smear Muslims and demonize Islam. We should stick to the facts of the case and avoid generalization and stereotypes."

The arrests were widely reported by national and local media, along with news of the ongoing terror alert.

While activists view such raids with skepticism, many ordinary U.S. citizens, like Hall, believe they are tactics used by the administration to create a general atmosphere of fear, for political ends. President George W Bush is in a tough battle to retain his job in November’s presidential election.

"This is disgusting," says Hall. "I wonder where we are going with all this?"