Sade and four of his twentysomething friends sit at a hookah cafe almost underneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in Brooklyn. It’s late, but the summer heat is strong and hangs in the air. They sit on the sidewalk in a circle, water pipes bubbling between their white plastic chairs.
Sade is upset. He recently found out that his close friend of almost four years was an undercover police detective sent to spy on him, his friends and his community. Even the guy’s name, Kamil Pasha, was fake, which really irked the 24-year-old Palestinian-American. After appearing as a surprise witness at a recent terrorism trial in Brooklyn, Pasha vanished. That’s when Sade (who doesn’t want his last name used) discovered the truth.
“I was very hurt,” he says. “Was it friendship or was he doing his job?” He takes a puff from his water pipe. “I felt betrayed.” The smoke comes out thick and smells like apples. “How could I not have seen this? The guy had four bank accounts! He was always asking for a receipt wherever we went. He had an empty apartment: a treadmill, a TV and a mattress. No food, no wardrobe.” He shakes his head. “We were stupid not to figure it out.”
Informants and spies are regular conversation topics in the age of terror, a time when friendships are tested, trust disappears and tragedy becomes comedy. “You have to know the family,” Sade says. He goes around the circle. “His mother is my aunt. I’ve known him since I was in second grade. I know where his family lives, and he’s also my cousin,” he says, ticking off each person in turn. He gets to me. “You I’m not so sure about!” he says, and all the young men laugh loudly.
If questioning friendship isn’t enough, Sade has also had other problems to deal with. He quit his Wall Street job last year because of all the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim invectives slung at him. He’s happier now in a technology firm owned and staffed by other hyphenated Americans, but the past five years have taken their toll. I ask him about life after September 11 for Arab-Americans. “We’re the new blacks,” he says. “You know that, right?”
Sade’s comment points to the persistent racism of the past half-decade, a new prejudice concocted out of old-time religious chauvinism, classic ethnic bigotry and a hefty dose of political repression. Arabs, South Asians and Muslims around the country have had to deal with a series of laws, executive orders and policing strategies–dubbed “designer” laws by some American Muslims–that target them almost exclusively. Many have become accustomed to drawing links with the wartime fate of Japanese-Americans.
But “designer” laws produce more than historical comparisons. Japanese internment occurred at a time in American history when Asian exclusion laws were still on the books. Jim Crow was alive, and racism was formally a part of the American system. Today’s “war on terror,” by contrast, plays out in our post-civil rights era. In a society that mouths the virtues of multiculturalism, the present war has legislatively produced the first virtual “race” for the twenty-first century, the Muslim race.