Arab Americans fear bombings backlash

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AFTER Friday prayers, worshippers were having animated discussions outside the Farooq mosque in Brooklyn about whether the terrorist bombs in Africa could have been the work of Islamic fundamentalists. The Muslim community in the US fears that a cloud of suspicion is falling on them, even before the full facts of the attack are known.

Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, which runs from the East River all the way to Queens, is home to the most vibrant Middle Eastern community in New York City. The stretch is lined with halal butchers and shops with Arabic signs selling embroidered slippers and scented oils.

At the Tripoli restaurant, as diners tucked into dishes of couscous, the owner, Mohammed Salem, was resigned to an anti-Islamic backlash. "You have a gap between a bomb attack like this and evidence emerging about who did it. During that gap, people always want to throw garbage at this community," he said.

The Middle Eastern community here has painful memories of the US reaction to the Oklahoma bombing in 1995 and the crash of a TWA flight over the Atlantic in 1996. These incidents were instantly and wrongly blamed on Islamic fundamentalists. Now they worry the same thing may happen again.

"So far no hard evidence has surfaced about who perpetrated these horrible attacks. But some people are already trying to associate this ... with the Muslim community in America. That is what led to the anti-Muslim hysteria following the Oklahoma bombing," said Ghazi Khankan, who works for the Islamic Centre of Long Island.

Both the Oklahoma bombing and the TWA crash triggered a wave of violent attacks against Muslims. According to a report issued last month by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, there has since been a marked increase in discrimination, including a 60 per cent rise in recorded incidents over the past year.

But with Islam now the fastest growing religion in the US, its adherents have become less willing to be passive targets and are increasingly assertive and self-aware. Somewhat to the surprise of many Americans, they have discovered that with five to six million adherents, Islam is in the process of overtaking Judaism in America.

On Atlantic Avenue, this once predominantly Syrian neighbourhood is now home to a wide range of Middle Eastern businesses from Lebanese restaurants to Yemeni mini-cab companies. The area is calm, but the people tend to be watchful. In 1982 an arson attack by the Jewish Defense League burnt down a local restaurant.

Staff and customers at the Dar-Us-Salam trinket shop, which sells "I Love Islam" mugs and car stickers proclaiming "Islam is the Solution", were discussing the bombings. "There should be a proper investigation, instead of straight away pointing the finger at Muslims," said a female shop assistant, who did not want to be named.

At the Damascus Bakery, which offers an array of tempting sweet pastries and sesame bites, the owner, Denis Matli, said: "When something happens the Arabs are blamed right away. It is just not right." Mr Matli, who was born in Syria, admitted that sometimes members of this community are left uneasy by such incidents. "It is sad because I see the people who come in here upset," he said. "Incidents like this make the Arab people look bad. We are made to feel more foreign in our adopted home."

Africa bombings, Focus, page 19