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September 11th Attacks Cause Anti-Muslim Backlash

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 trigger a violent outbreak of American xenophobia against Arab Americans and others perceived to be Arab or Muslim.

Four days after hijacked planes tore into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, shopkeepers were shot to death in California, Texas and Arizona as an anti-Muslim backlash broke out across the country.

"It's an unbelievable situation," Laila Al-Qatami, a spokeswoman for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) told the Chicago Tribune.

"The incidents have ranged from hate mail to verbal assaults to crimes that have resulted in deaths. The number of calls we're getting is unprecedented."

By Oct. 11, one month after the terrorist attacks, the ADC had collected more than 700 reports of hate crimes. The Council on American-Islamic Relations had 785 reports.

At hate-crime hotlines set up by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the volume of calls per hour peaked at 70. In Los Angeles alone, the police and sheriff's departments reported 167 hate crimes in the first four weeks of the backlash.

The targets were not limited to people of Middle Eastern descent. Frank Silva Roque's alleged drive-by shooting spree in Mesa, Ariz., began with the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a 49-year-old Sikh, who was hit outside his gas station.

Roque allegedly then shot, but did not kill, a Lebanese-American clerk at another gas station before opening fire on the home of a family of Afghan descent.

"I'm an American! I'm a damn American all the way!" Roque bellowed as police handcuffed him and shoved him into a squad car.

Aside from natives of the Middle East, the American Sikh community was the hardest hit. Before the end of September, a Web site set up for reports of harassment and hate crimes against Sikhs had received 274 complaints.

Indian Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and natives of Israel were also finding themselves the targets of "patriots" like Roque.

"The pattern is similar to the knee-jerk reaction after the Oklahoma City bombing," said Marvin Wingfield of the ADC.

Similar, but by all accounts more widespread. The range of hate crimes, from Orlando to Oregon, was even broader than the range of victims. Hate mail and verbal threats were reported by the hundreds. Arab Americans and Muslims were shot at, spat on and physically assaulted in schools, on the streets and in their workplaces.

Mosques and worshippers became the targets of rocks, bullets, arson and — at a Hindu temple in New Jersey — a Molotov cocktail.

In Salt Lake City, a man was arrested for allegedly setting fire to a Pakistani restaurant. In Palos Heights, Ill., a man used the blunt end of a machete to attack a Moroccan gas-station attendant.

On Sept. 29, a Yemeni native was shot dead — apparently by a group of four local teenagers — at his convenience store in Reedley, Calif. Two days before the killing, Abdo Ali Ahmed had found a death threat note on his car after grocery shopping in nearby Dinuba.

Stan Peterson, who runs a bar next to the store, told The Associated Press that Ahmed, who had moved to the United States 35 years before, had recently asked him for some American flags to display. "He wanted people to know he supported the U.S.A."

Flying American flags, shaving off beards and eschewing traditional Islamic garb — self-defense measures taken by some — was not enough to quell the violence.

Nor were frequent pleas for tolerance, like the one President George W. Bush delivered from a Washington mosque.

"These ugly episodes are not entirely unexpected," said Yale University Professor Donald Green, an expert on hate crimes and racial bias. "Like all hate crimes, these incidents are driven by anxiety, fear, anger and hate."

On right-wing talk radio and on the Internet, those emotions were on full and fiery display. "We just need to nuke 'em, Rush," one caller told the nation's top-rated radio host, Rush Limbaugh.

In Griffin, Ga., a police department employee was asked to resign after circulating the kind of e-mail message that was far from rare: It called for bombing the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, so worshippers would be forced to pray "at a crater 25 miles across."

With unintended irony, one of the more moderate postings on provided a glimpse into a newly unfettered form of American xenophobia: "We will always be at risk as long as we allow scum from other countries to live in our free society."

When the United States and Great Britain began bombing Afghanistan on Oct. 7, Muslim, Arab-American and Sikh advocacy groups began bracing for more violence at home.

"If there is a prolonged U.S. military action in the Middle East," said Donald Green, "these events will continue to happen, and may increase in occurrence and intensity."