Here on the tony outskirts of UCLA, the handful of Middle Eastern cafes that dot the university village are still doing wall-to-wall business, just as they did before September 11. Places like the Gypsy Cafe and the Habibi Cafe overflow weekend nights with Arab and Muslim students who plunk down ten or fifteen dollars to kick back at a sidewalk table and indulge in a whiff of homesickness by smoking a mound or two of apple- or cherry-flavored tobacco through an ornate water-cooled hookah pipe. But beneath this surface calm there’s a palpable jitteriness and uncertainty that still ripples through the 600,000-strong Southern California Muslim community, which stretches from Hollywood down through Orange County into San Diego. “Our people are still terrorized,” says Lebanese-American attorney Randall Hamud, who has been active in defending Arab immigrants detained since the attacks on the World Trade Center. “Even those [Arabs] who are naturalized US citizens still feel the fear.”
No one knows exactly how many Southern Californians have been caught up in the federal security sweep unleashed after the attacks, thanks to the sealed lips of the Justice Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. But Salam Al-Maryati, director of the LA-based Muslim Public Affairs Council, estimates that “about 100″ immigrants in Southern California have been taken into federal custody. And those numbers might grow, given the March 20 Justice Department announcement that an additional 3,000 Muslim immigrants were now wanted for questioning. The expanded crackdown, coming more than a half-year after 9/11, is merely the latest stage of what Anthony Romero, the new executive director of the ACLU, called the “greatest challenge to civil liberties since World War II” while he was on a recent visit to the area.
The skittishness is understandable. “We simply don’t know who and under what conditions or charges these people have been arrested,” Al-Maryati says. “Mostly it seems they are minor technicalities of immigration laws.” What most concerns Al-Maryati is not the level of racial profiling that underlies these arrests but rather what he calls “political profiling”–the notion that Arab immigrants and Arab-Americans are by definition suspect and now have to prove their patriotism. Indeed, a wide canvassing of Arab and Muslim groups in Southern California reveals that more worrisome than the actual number arrested–relatively small, given the community’s size–is the political, racial and social chill the dragnet has imposed.
Among the hardest hit have been immigrant students, the group most closely scrutinized by investigators. “There’s no way you could say we are back to normal life,” says 21-year-old Mohammad Mertaban, publisher of UCLA’s Muslim student magazine Al-Talib. “While the university administration has been supportive to us in many ways, we are nevertheless greatly concerned that student records were handed over to all the federal agencies.” No surprise, then, that Muslim student leaders at the two local campuses with the biggest Middle Eastern populations–UCLA and the University of Southern California–report that their membership activities have suffered since September 11. And many foreign students have simply packed up and returned home. “Right after the attacks we organized a campus forum and had a huge turnout,” says Milad Ershaghi of USC’s Muslim Student Union. “But ever since then, the Muslim students have been really withdrawn. They seem to have a lot of reservations about everything, like they are afraid to be involved in anything public.”