Muslims hope bias ends with bin Laden's death

May 9, 2011

PATERSON, N.J. (RNS) Hours after Osama bin Laden's death was announced,
the American Arab Forum received a phone call. The person on the line
was looking for Aref Assaf, the Paterson, N.J.-based organization's Ivy
League-educated president.

"`Tell your boss that we got his friend and we're going to get
him,"' the man said, according to Assaf, who dismissed the threat as
kids pulling a prank. While the call represented a kind of hostility
Assaf said many Arabs commonly endure in the United States, he believed
bin Laden's death might create an opportunity "to open a new chapter."

"We have been paying the price for bin Laden for the last 10 years,"
Assaf said. "Enough castigating our community. We hope this will serve
as a reminder to America that the real source of terror was not in
Paterson or Dearborn, Michigan, but in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

In the mosques of Jersey City and Arab-owned shops along Main Street
in Paterson, opinions differed about whether the death of the world's
most notorious terrorist would alter perceptions that have persisted for
nearly a decade.

Across the country, there are already signs that anti-Islamic
sentiment has not yet ebbed.

In Portland, Maine, the message: "Osama Today, Islam Tomorrow" was
spray-painted on a mosque. A Texas teacher was suspended after allegedly
telling a 9-year-old Muslim girl in his algebra class, "I bet that
you're grieving." And in Anaheim, Calif., eggs were thrown at a
nightclub, hitting its owner, Mohammed El Khatib.

It will take more than bin Laden's death to dispel ignorance, said
James Yee, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Council
on American Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy
organization. "It is disheartening, and tells me our work is not going
to stop," he said. Bin Laden's death "is not going to change much
regarding Muslims being accepted."

But it may end an era, one in which bin Laden stood as a convenient
excuse for bias, said Salaheddin Mustafa, who heads the state chapter of
the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. He compared "the
picture of evil that was bin Laden" with the recent pro-democracy
movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Libya. "There is the sea change
that people will recognize," he said.

Mustafa, a Palestinian born in Jersey City, said more Americans will
separate bin Laden "and his cronies" from "people like me and the vast
majority, who had nothing to do with" the terror attacks.

Mohamad Hamamou, an Egyptian native who lives in Secaucus, remembers
feeling doubly wounded on Sept. 11. He grieved for the thousands killed
-- which included scores of Muslims -- and despaired at what the attacks
meant for his community.

"Uneducated people just look at it from a perspective of, `What a
Muslim person does is to try and hurt people,"' Hamamou said.

His concerns were realized. He has been cursed at on the road,
threatened by strangers, and glanced at suspiciously in malls.

Bin Laden's death, while welcomed, will do little to sway those who
already have negative perceptions of Muslims, he said. Those views, he
added, "have been in their brains for a long time."

When his wife was worried about raising children in an environment
that was at times hostile to their religion, he reminded her it would be
their children who would lead by example.

Al Ghazaly, the Jersey City elementary school where he sends his
children, has a sign greeting visitors written in Arabic calligraphy:
"Everyone smiles in the same language."

"If we teach our kids love and respect, we know this is going to
fade away," he said later that night.

Yursil Kidwai, a 33-year-old American-born Muslim who lives in
Basking Ridge, N.J., isn't so sure. Pointing to anti-Islamic rhetoric
prevalent in portions of American discourse, Kidwai said bin Laden, and
the mistrust he engendered, remain an albatross around the neck of
American Muslims.

"I can't imagine his death would change anything," he said. Kidwai
has dealt with the common stereotypes for years. His mother still asks
him to shave his beard, fearing it is too conspicuous and will draw
needless attention to his religious beliefs. He was friends with Amir
Celoski, the Haledon native whose burial in an Islamic cemetery in
upstate New York received national attention when the town administrator
wanted the body disinterred.

"The whole thing was just about bias and hatred," Kidwai said.  

Whether bin Laden's death will change those feelings, Mustafa
couldn't say for certain.

"But I'm optimistic," he said. "My hope is this is a cycle we're
going through, and that in 10 or 15 years, people, like those in
Bridgewater, will realize that they were wrong. And that what they did
and said violated everything good that America represents."