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.”
The chill reaches far beyond college campuses. “Throughout our community people have started to not attend group activities,” says Orange County-based Michel Shehadeh, western regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “Membership in organizations has dropped. Subscriptions to publications have dropped. More and more people are changing their names. Lots of students have left the country. People have started identifying themselves by religion rather than by nationality. It’s very, very sad.”
Al-Maryati also says that funding for Muslim relief work has all but dried up since the US government shut down several charities it claimed were financing terrorism. “This is really counter-productive,” he says. “All it does is worsen the conditions of already desperate people and thereby ripens them for recruitment into terrorism.” He also agonizes over what kind of long-term effect the events since 9/11 might be having on the youngest Arab-Americans and immigrants–elementary school kids now exposed to constant teasing because of their ethnicity. “I fear this could lead to some sort of bifurcation,” he says, “a split between those who might assimilate completely and lose their roots and those who become so alienated that they become one more group of permanent victims.”
Attorney Hamud, for his part, has felt the political and financial freeze in one very dramatic case. Two weeks after the 9/11 attacks, federal agents staged a high-profile detention of young San Diego Muslim students identified as “material witnesses.” The three had casually known or worked with two of the nineteen September 11 hijackers. They all prayed together in the same mosque. “All three were taken in as material witnesses, they were cooperating fully the whole time, they were not trying to flee, and yet they were still arrested,” he says. Hamud is still fuming because the government rarely if ever arrests cooperative witnesses. But in this case, some of the detainees were thrown into solitary confinement.
Since their detention, one has been released with no charges. The two others have been charged with minor offenses relating to statements made on their immigration forms and to the grand jury–none of this having anything to do with terrorism or the 9/11 attacks. Of the two charged, one is out on bail and the other is still behind bars unable to make bail. “The bail in a case like this should be about $20,000,” says Hamud. “Instead, they are asking twenty-five times more–a half-million dollars! And I can’t raise the bail because contributors to a bail fund could have their names read in open court and people are just too afraid. So my client is rotting away for a charge that under normal circumstances might carry a six-month sentence.”
There have also been some bright spots. On April 30 a federal judge in New York ruled in the case of one of Hamud’s clients that it was unconstitutional to jail material witnesses. Federal prosecutors are threatening to appeal the decision. But in the meantime, the judge’s ruling could do much to begin to reverse some of the more noxious aspects of the government crackdown. At the local level there have also been some positive signs. The often notorious LAPD made a decision after 9/11 to continue complying with the longstanding “Special Order 40” barring police officers from reporting the immigration status of routine arrestees (though the Justice Department is now pressuring all local police departments to override such statutes). Arab students report being the recipients of broad gestures of solidarity from other campus groups. UCLA’s Chicano MECHA group, just to cite one example, provided security for on-campus Muslim religious services. Filipino and African student organizations have also offered solidarity and moral support to Arab students, as have Asian-Pacific organizations.
Soon after the post-9/11 detentions began, the Southern California ACLU set up a twenty-four-hour hotline and updated and distributed thousands of copies of “Know Your Rights” pamphlets–including editions in Arabic and Farsi. And a number of ACLU-backed lawsuits being pressed across the country could have dramatic implications for those arrested from Southern California. Michel Shehadeh says: “For every hate e-mail we have gotten, we have gotten twenty in support from outside the community giving us their solidarity and sympathy. We have gotten offers from security guards to protect us. Other people have left roses at our doors. My neighbors come to check on me every day. It has been really beautiful, something we didn’t see in the first days after the Oklahoma City bombing when the first suspects were Arabs.”
There’s also a segment of the local Arab and Muslim population that has found itself first outraged but later politically emboldened by the events of the past six months. “While it’s true that too many of our people, certainly a majority, are trying to lie low, others have become much, much more activist and are doing their best to reach out to other communities,” says Ra’id Faraj of the Anaheim-based Council on Islamic-American Relations.
Empowering the Arab-American community to assert its rights by making it clear the 9/11 terrorists have nothing to do with them is now one of Shehadeh’s major goals. “We have to come out and say we are here as part and parcel of this mosaic,” he says. “We are as American as anyone else. This tragedy offers the opportunity to stop being so invisible and to finally take our place in shaping the discourse of this country. After all, we are here to stay.”