Turning on our own

Local Arab Americans were saddened by Sept. 11’s events—and fearful of possible violence against them

A Sparks police officer, present at the Northern Nevada Muslim Center because of threats made to the center, talks to several members.

A Sparks police officer, present at the Northern Nevada Muslim Center because of threats made to the center, talks to several members.

Photo By David Robert

While local churches and synagogues were joining in a national day of prayer and remembrance last week, members of the Northern Nevada Muslim Center in Sparks were also congregating. Unlike the other groups, however, they were surrounded by police officers and their vehicles.

About six Sparks Police Department cars surrounded the building, and an officer stood near the doorway. The mosque had received several threatening phone calls in wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. A window on the east side of the building had been broken shortly after the attacks.

That afternoon, members gathered for a service for a small child who had died after an illness. Nadiah Beekun was sad but composed as she watched the child’s tiny, white coffin being carried into the hearse.

“I think about the children and how many of their parents didn’t make it home,” said Beekun of the terrorist attacks. Beekun, a U.S.-born citizen, was carrying a box filled with red, white and blue ribbons that she was passing out to the congregation.

“Muslims across the country are handing out ribbons in support, because [the United States] is our country,” she said.

As people left the building, they carried these symbols of patriotism. A picture of the American flag was taped to the window of a pickup truck in the parking lot. Children talked to a police officer, and worshippers shook hands with the men in uniform.

“As Muslims, we feel very sad,” said Mohammad Gharaibeh. “It was very hard for us to see what happened, especially seeing the buildings falling down.”

Gharaibeh said he has not been threatened by anyone, but he knows people who have been. After the near-fatal attack on Dr. Eltag Mirghani earlier this year (which was determined to be a robbery and not a hate crime) and the reports of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim protests, local Muslims certainly must feel on edge. Gharaibeh said the NNMC members appreciate the Sparks police presence and feel safe coming to the center to pray.

Gharaibeh, a Jordanian who has lived in Reno for three years, said he understands the anger and sadness Americans are feeling, because Muslims feel the same way. He said that whoever is responsible for these attacks should be punished, although he hopes the United States won’t rush to judgment.

“The president said not to judge wrongly [and] wait for the investigation,” he said. “This is what I hope for Americans and Muslims.”

Fortunately, Reno and Sparks haven’t seen the kind of backlash that has affected other cities in our nation.

Chris Good, a city of Reno spokesperson, said that a few threats have been made toward local Muslims and people of Arab or Middle Eastern cultures, and the Reno Police Department is investigating them.

But there have been worse reports across the nation. In Chicago last week, 300 people marched through the streets threatening to destroy a mosque. Muslim women have been harassed at businesses and on the streets after angry citizens identified them by the head coverings required by their religion. In Mesa, Ariz., a gas store attendant may have become the first casualty of this backlash. He was shot and killed in what appears to be a racially motivated attack. Ironically, the man wasn’t Arabic, Middle Eastern or even Muslim. He was a Sikh of East Indian heritage.

Tune in to any radio talk show, and you’ll hear the messages of paranoia.

“Go home!”

“Round them up and send them back!”

On the Rusty Humphries Show on KKOH last week, callers made their feelings known.

“If they’re not citizens, they have no rights. … They should be rounded up and deported,” exclaimed a caller named Leo.

Although host Rusty Humphries disapproved of people venting anger on Arabs and Arab Americans, he did agree that people who are in the country with work and student visas should be sent back to their country of origin until a more thorough background check and security system are in place.

“This is about protecting American people,” he said.

Are we a nation at war with international terrorists, or with ourselves?

"[I]f you create pain, any species on this planet of any organization, from spiders to human beings, they attack,” said University of Nevada, Reno, psychology department chairman Steve Hayes. “It’s one of the most reliable findings in psychology. … We’re looking for—and I think this is a very low-level, primitive thing, this is not a high-level, cultural, intellectual thing—we’re kind of naturally looking for things to attack. You know that domestic violence is going to go up, and suicide, murder and all those rates are going to go up, and indeed, attacking people who are different than [our]selves is going to go up as well.”

Hayes said the emotional trauma inflicted on this country will lead to what he calls a national mental-health challenge, and it’s up to us to overcome our feelings of depression, helplessness and bitterness. He said many of us will be able to move through this, especially people who take an active response to the tragedies by donating blood or by turning to their religion for solace. But some of us may not be able to do so, he said, and in the years to come, we might see the effects of the event in higher rates of substance abuse or violence.

Hayes believes that, as a culture, America has advanced to a point where we wouldn’t allow the kind of internment that happened to Japanese Americans during World War II. However, people might still interpret the actions of a few Arabs as the intentions of all Arabs.

“The people you saw dancing in the streets were not Arab Americans. They were not the people at the Reno mosque,” he said. “… I think we should envelop and kind of embrace the Arab community within the United States, because you know they’re hurting probably as much or more than any of us, and they especially need our support, not our attacks.”

For the most part, Reno and Sparks residents appear to be reaching out to the local Muslim communities. People of all faiths have gathered together to heal emotional and spiritual wounds.

Ahmed Essa, a former professor who has lived in the United States for 50 years, said that despite the attacks on some Arabs, Muslims and people of Middle Eastern cultures, he believes that the American people have exercised restraint. He also thinks most Americans realize that Muslims are not to blame for the actions of a few extremists.

He said Islam is a religion of peace and forgiveness, and what these terrorists have done, if they are proven to be Islamic extremists, goes against the teachings of the Koran.

“I am a man of peace,” he said. “This is what my religion stands for. A lot of people distort my religion.”

He said he believes the people responsible for the terrorist attacks should be punished, but he hopes this terrible event will convince countries to work together to bring peace to the world.

Perhaps this commitment to peace will first start at the local level.

At a prayer service last Friday, local leaders from the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths gathered at UNR. Students, teachers and members of the public filled up the ASUN Auditorium to share their grief. Rabbi Myra Soifer of Temple Sinai led the crowd in a solemn chant. Soifer, Yosef Kelly of the Islamic Center of Reno, Ruth Hanusa of the Campus Christian Association and Father Frank Murphy of the Our Lady of Wisdom Roman Catholic Church called for peace, tolerance and forgiveness.

As the service neared its end, the audience—Christians, Jews and Muslims, and perhaps those not affiliated with any religion—held hands and hummed a mournful song.