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Gripped By Fear

By Shaik Ubaid

June 8, 2003

Two weeks ago, in the midst of the state of high alert, my brother-in-law called my children, saying that he had three free tickets for the Mets game that evening. My son and middle daughter jumped at this chance.

They were ready to leave when my wife and I arrived home that evening. We were aghast. With her hejab, our daughter is easily identifiable as Muslim. To send her into the charged atmosphere of a ballpark was out of the question. The most athletic member of our family, she tried arguments like, "Mom, I am bigger than my brother," or, "But, Dad, there are a lot of policemen in there." But nothing would sway us. My son went with his uncle, and my daughter sulked for days.

We were probably being overprotective, and in hindsight our son could have been in just as much danger of becoming the victim of a bias attack, but the last 20 months have been a very stressful time for our family and other Muslim Americans on Long Island. From the Iraq war to the terror alert levels to the Sept. 11 attacks, we're gripped with fear. And it's taking a heavy toll on the community, as some of us avoid placing ourselves in perceived situations of danger, change our everyday behavior or leave the
country altogether.

Some of our fears are caused by events on the national front. During the latest heightened alert, for example, a Muslim girl and a teenager were attacked in two different towns in Pennsylvania, and a Sikh man, mistaken for a Muslim, was shot in Arizona. But some of our fears are caused by events on the local front.

Some mothers pulled their sons out of Little League after Sept. 11, hearing of unrelated reports of mistreatment in the schools, never to send them back. Many motorists, especially women, avoid driving late at night because Muslims have become victims of racial slurs and verbal abuse. Many parents are even moving to Canada or returning to their countries of origin, causing great distress to their American-born children, because the United States no longer offers hope.

The paranoia many of us feel even consumes our social gatherings. At parties and other events that are supposed to be joyful, stories are told and retold of young men who are being arrested on suspicion of terrorism and deported, of professionals who are losing their jobs because of discrimination, of travelers being harassed on trains and at airports, and of couples being separated because of minor immigration infractions.

Our rampant fears are already inflicting far-reaching psychosocial trauma on our children. They are just as fearful as we are. We hear it in their questions. The younger ones ask, "Will there be more wars?" or "Why is the president not saying sorry when children in Iraq are killed?" or "What do 'towel head' and 'camel jockey' mean?" And many older ones have exhibited clear signs of stress, like falling grades and behavioral and mood problems.

Along with discussing our fears, we also play the blame game. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida get the major share of the blame for our problems, followed closely by right-wing commentators in the media who make anti-Muslim slurs. But much of the blame for our problems also falls on us.

Many local Muslims have been deported. But our community's leaders, long interested in gaining political support rather than focusing on social needs, never helped form support institutions like legal aid centers that could have helped us. Unlike African-American mosques, we have no strong ties to organizations involved in social justice issues.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Muslim leadership on Long Island, especially in the new immigrant community, was trying to leapfrog into position to claim a share of political power. These businessmen, lawyers and doctors thought that the way to do so was by stressing rising population figures on Long Island and by giving political donations to local politicians. They did this even as most mosques on Long Island and other large Muslim communities around the nation had no well-established projects such as soup kitchens to serve poor or needy fellow citizens.

Sept. 11 pulled the rug from under this strategy. Now, very few politicians are willing to openly court the Muslim vote or money. Had the Muslim leadership done things differently - paid as much attention to domestic issues as it did to concerns overseas, built alliances with other immigrants, stood up for the economically downtrodden as our religion teaches - we would have far more support from other segments of society.

Lately, it seems as though things are improving. Some mosques, including Islamic centers in Westbury, Valley Stream, Bay Shore and Selden, are strengthening outreach programs to help educate non-Muslim neighbors and student groups. They are also getting more active in interfaith programs.

In the meantime, a debate about the community's role in improving the environment is now taking place. Many are asking for accountability and elections in mosques. Young people are asking to get involved with local social justice issues. At the same time, Muslims who come from more pluralistic, democratic societies such as India and second-generation Muslims born and raised in America are becoming more assertive. They have
seen how unchecked hate and draconian laws can weaken democratic institutions. That offers much hope.

Once Muslims become more proactive, they will have more sympathy and grass-roots support from their fellow citizens, which in turn will help stem our fears.

(Shaik Ubaid, a medical doctor who lives in Baldwin, is the former national pokesman for the Islamic Medical Association of North America and the founding President of the Indian Muslim Council-USA.)

Copyright (c) 2003, Newsday, Inc.