Letter From Dallas

After September 11, Metroplex Mulsims Are Holding Their Breath


The patch of southeast Dallas traversed by the 10000 block of Elam Road is one of those places where it seems the city has only a loose hold on things, where old pastures try to reassert themselves in empty lots thick with prairie grass, and where, one recent afternoon, all was quiet but for the strain of conjunto music floating out of somebody’s stereo. On that block is Mom’s Grocery, which from the street resembles any other convenience store in a lower income neighborhood, with its aluminum siding and barred windows, the Job Connection bulletins out front and the hand-painted “Check Cashing 1%” sign in the parking lot. The memorials lately left by the door for Waqar Hasan, the store’s recently deceased co-owner, are discreet: a few melted-down candles, two wreaths, several notes taped to the door–”To the family of Hasan. He was a wonderful person–Jean McCallum.”

Hasan, a Pakistani immigrant, was killed at the store, by a single bullet to the head, sometime close to 10:00 p.m. on Sunday, September 15. His killer has not been found, but given the timing and the fact that no money was taken, many believe that the murder constituted someone’s notion of revenge for the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It was the most grave in a recent string of crimes against Arabs and Muslims that have taken place around the Metroplex. In the days after the airplane crashes, vengefulness ricocheted through the suburbs here: A mosque in Denton was firebombed, another in Irving was shot at, and a brick was thrown through the window of a third one in Carrollton. Shots were fired at the house of a Pakistani family in Coppell. A Romanian jogger in Carrollton was beaten by men who apparently mistook him for a Middle Easterner. Two Ethiopians visiting the Fort Worth botanical gardens were stabbed. Such crimes have not been limited to the Dallas area, but in the number and severity of reported incidents, the area has been significantly affected. Out of the 104 anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate crimes that were reported nationally to the FBI’s 56 field offices between September 11 and the end of the month, 12 of them occurred in North Texas, the majority of those in the Metroplex. (In Houston, where twice as many Muslims live, the FBI has opened three anti-Muslim hate crime cases since September 11.)

“I’ve been here almost 20 years, and this is the first thing like this that ever happened,” says Rokaya Jawaid, who awoke early one mid-September morning to the sound of gunfire outside her two-story house in a Coppell subdivision. At first, she says, she thought the noise was the sound of someone’s broken garage door. But later, downstairs, she and her husband noticed the plaster dust on the living room floor and the quarter-sized holes in the wall; they found a bullet lodged in a window frame in the dining room. In the weeks since then, says Jawaid, “I’m very scared inside. Me, my kids, our lives are changed, totally changed.”

While only a small number of people have been directly targeted in such incidents, the reverberations have affected many more. “I cannot tell you what an awful feeling it is,” says Hind Jarrah, a Lebanese-American who lives in North Dallas. “Your basic sense of security is gone completely. You think what will happen if I go here, if I go there, if they notice my accent. Many of the ladies who wear the hejab (head scarf) don’t go outside any more.”

There are well over 100,000 Muslims in the Dallas-Fort Worth area (as well as thousands of other potential harassment victims, such as Arabs who are not Muslim, and Sikhs who are neither Arab nor Muslim). Naturally, their responses to both the September 11 attacks and their local aftermath have been varied: Among the Muslims I spoke with on a recent trip to Dallas, some said they were fearful of being harassed, or worse, while others said they were not. What many people did seem to have in common, whether they were Arab Muslims or white Christians, was a sharpened and at times painful consciousness both of self and community, and of the state of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in the city.

“Seventy percent of the (Muslim) community are immigrants, and they are typically very busy establishing their lives here, learning the culture, learning the language, learning the laws,” says Mohamed Elmougy, president of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which he helped found in Dallas three years ago. “We forget that we’re part of a bigger community, and we need to talk about ourselves. We have neglected that. We have the responsibility to open up so we’re not immediately painted with that brush and become a scapegoat.” A similar sense of obligation seems to have sprouted up among non-Muslims, large numbers of whom have been contacting mosques and other organizations to condemn the recent anti-Muslim crimes and express support.

Another note on the door of Mom’s Grocery, taped there along with a dried-out yellow rose, reads: “I leave a yellow rose a symbol of our state. I feel so badly that people of our country can be so selfish–Valentina.” The store has remained closed since the murder, while the Southeast Dallas Chamber of Commerce has posted a $2,500 reward for information leading to the capture of Hasan’s killer. “We’ve posted flyers with the rewards,” says Kathleen Melton, the chamber’s president. “Some people are afraid to go out and post the flyers. We have a lot from other cultures and a lot of mom-and-pop operations. It’s really affected our community greatly. But the neighborhood is really uniting and trying to catch whoever did this. We’re good-hearted working people.”

Forget the melting pot and the salad bowl: In Dallas, the emblem of multicultural society is the strip mall, or rather the countless strip malls that line the city’s vast web of highways. Here chain restaurants and cabrito joints exist side-by-side; a Whole Foods Market full of yoga yuppies and an Indian vegetarian restaurant devoid of white people share the same big parking lot. There are times, perhaps, when this seems to capture the way many of us live, adjacent but separate–and when the country’s diversity seems to be reflected more in the number of dining options than in friendships across cultures. Since September 11, though, Muslims and non-Muslims in Dallas have made numerous attempts to open more channels of communication. Instances include a Pakistani-sponsored candlelight vigil, a Saturday afternoon Sikh gathering, an anti-war and anti-racism rally planned by a group of young activists, and public events at mosques.

On the second Sunday after the terrorist attacks, the Islamic Society of North Texas sponsored a “Know Your Muslim Neighbor” open house, at the Dallas Central Mosque in Richardson. The Society is one of the oldest and largest Muslim organizations in the city, and the mosque complex has expanded over the years to include a library, classrooms, a medical clinic, a basketball court, and a mortuary. Located at the intersection of two six-lane roads, the mosque is scarcely visible from the street, its copper-domed minaret rising up from behind a flank of cedar trees. (This modesty may have been encouraged by the Richardson City Council, which initially opposed the minaret when the mosque was built 20 years ago.) But on the day of the open house, a banner out front advertised the event–”Y’all Come See Us!” it read–and the heavy parking lot gates were flung open. Inside, it was as if the throngs that had lately disappeared from airports had all been re-routed here; the mosque would later estimate that 2,500 people had attended over the course of the afternoon.

After entering the sunny, crowded lobby, where several volunteers hastened to greet me, I joined five others on a tour of the mosque. We were led by Nazreen Hasan, an elegant, well-spoken college senior from Southern Methodist University and the president of SMU’s Muslim Students’ Association. An experienced guide, she nonetheless seemed somewhat taken aback by the large and chattery crowd, and my own attention kept wandering from her summary of Islam’s five pillars, distracted by all the suburban grandmothers and the young couples and the curly-haired children skipping across the prayer room. As she took us through the building, Hasan answered questions from our group about subjects like Mecca and Ramadan. Finally a largish older woman, who had been piping up every so often with something she remembered having learned in college, said she hoped she wasn’t out of line but there was something else she wanted to ask.

“Are you glad we’re here,” said the woman to Hasan, “Or do you feel… invaded?”

“I’m glad you’re here,” Hasan replied quickly. “The thing that’s really hurting us is ignorance.”

She went on to say that while she hadn’t herself been harassed or threatened, she’d heard about other students who had been. Then, solemnly, she stated what everyone there seemed to know already, and what everyone had shown up to affirm: “Our religion doesn’t teach terrorism.”

The following evening, I attended a very different gathering born out of the same spirit. Held in the basement of an East Dallas church, it was the third in a series of meetings organized by the Dallas Peace Center to contemplate responses to both the local anti-Arab incidents and the national threat of war. I’d arranged to meet beforehand with Hadi Jawad, a Peace Center board member of Iraqi heritage, who immigrated to the Dallas area from Pakistan when he was 19. Now 49, Jawad has a family and a forklift business here; nevertheless, he told me, in the wake of the targetings of mosques and persons thought to be Arab, “I have felt an uneasiness that I’ve never felt. This is my home, I’ve lived here most of my life. But the way people look at me…” His soft voice tapered off and then continued: “I’m afraid to go into new areas. I never felt that discomfort before; I felt I could travel without any qualms. Now I really consider where I’m going. I try not to look around too much when I’m driving a car. I’m grateful for my tinted windows.”

The meeting attracted around 50 people, most of them white men and women over 30, and it began with the lighting of a candle and a moment of silence. Then Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth state representative and one of the peace center’s three part-time staff members, introduced an invited guest, Parvez Malik, founder and president of the Dallas-Fort Worth Pakistani Chamber of Commerce. Addressing the group, Malik echoed what Jawad had said to me earlier: “For the first time in three decades here I’ve felt that I am a foreigner. I do not belong in this land that raised my children.” His words served as preface to a lengthy group discussion of a project that had been in the works since the first meeting, in which volunteers would accompany Muslim women who were afraid to leave their houses to go on errands.

Central to the discussion was what to call the project. “The Accompaniment Project,” an early choice, seemed to be on the outs. In fact there seemed to be some question as to whether any Muslims were actually interested in the accompaniment service. More general names were suggested–”Arab-American Support,” “The Solidarity Project,” “Friends Supporting Friends–and various activities other than accompaniment were proposed, such as inviting Muslims over to dinner or attending a Muslim event. One woman, recalling the pen pals of her youth, proposed the name “Dallas Peace Pals,” which was modified to “Dallas Peace Partners,” and kept on mutating. By the end of the meeting, it wasn’t clear to me whether the naming issue had been resolved–though I believe there may have been a committee assigned to examine it further.

Tempting as it might be to dismiss all of this as a bureaucracy of good intentions, the questions embedded in the attempt to name (and in essence, to define) the Peace Center project were ones being asked by a much broader group of people in response to the recent hate crimes: What can we do? How do we condemn such crimes? How do we stop them from happening? After an earlier meeting, the Accompaniment Project had been mentioned in the Dallas Morning News, and as a result the Peace Center was flooded with calls from prospective volunteers.

Given the low overall numbers of reported anti-Muslim violent crimes, the fact that many such crimes go unidentified as hate crimes, and the unquantifiable nature of other, less severe acts of harassment, it’s impossible to say whether Dallas has suffered more or less than other cities. What is certain is that for every report of a serious incident, there are many more of harassment and hostility. “A number of the people I’ve talked to, they feel they’ve been stared at, they have been looked at, they just don’t feel right,” says Parvez Malik.

Some Muslims suggested to me that local factors feed into this hostility. “There are always a few elements in any society that are resentful of certain groups,” says CAIR’s Mohamed Elmougy. “The Dallas Muslim community is very sophisticated, it’s a yuppie community, with professionals and engineers. We’re highly visible in the workplace, highly visible in society, and that doesn’t sit well with some reactionaries.”

Others point to the news media and to what they see as unfavorable portrayals of Muslims. Published and broadcast reports have investigated alleged connections to terrorist and militant groups in the Middle East, and those reports have at times come under fire. One Islamic charity, the Richardson-based Holy Land Foundation, has long been at odds with The Dallas Morning News, ever since the newspaper (following the lead of The New York Times and CBS News) began in 1994 to report on accusations that the foundation had ties to Hamas, the militant Palestinian group. (The Israeli government accused the foundation of supporting Hamas, and court records have implied that the U.S. government is investigating the group, but the foundation has not been charged with anything, and the FBI neither confirms nor denies the existence of an investigation.) The foundation has always said that it collects money for Palestinian orphans, and the Muslim community, which has generously supported the foundation, reacted negatively to continued Morning News articles.

Also controversial was the coverage of the arrest of an Arlington Muslim who was later convicted in connection with the American Embassy bombings in Africa, and a story on Osama bin Laden accompanied by a photograph of bin Laden in front of a mosque; in both cases some felt the paper was drawing too strong a connection between violence and Islam. And last year, the Holy Land Foundation sued the newspaper for defamation, while a group called Muslims Against Defamation protested in front of the newspaper’s offices and urged Muslims to boycott it.

“According to the FBI, we have more hate crimes here in North Texas than anywhere else, and we attribute that to the hostile media,” says Shakri Abu Baker, the foundation’s president. According to HLF spokeswoman Dallel Mohamed, the foundation itself suffered after one local news program flashed an image of Osama bin Laden followed by one of its Richardson office; the station later apologized, but the damage was done: Hostile phone calls and e-mails poured in.

Muslim community leaders now meet every other month with Morning News representatives, which has helped ease some of the strain between the community and the newspaper, says Elmougy. “We have a very good relationship with the Dallas Morning News, which has sometimes in the past been a little too harsh,” he says. “It takes two to tango. There are a lot of misconceptions about us in the press, just like there are a lot of misconceptions in our community about the press.” The September terrorist attacks and their aftermath, however, threaten to renew old tensions. On the day of the Dallas Central Mosque open house, the Morning News reported
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migrant had been detained for questioning; one Islamic Society board member at the open house criticized the article as “guilt by association.” The same day, a front-page headline–”Soldiers of Terror Living Next Door”–angered many Muslims.

“I went that day to my neighbor, who I’ve known for many years, and said, ‘I’m living next door to you; you know I’m not a terrorist!'” jokes Aziz Shihab, himself a former editor at the Morning News and the publisher of an Arab newspaper in Dallas. (He is also the father of TO poetry editor Naomi Shihab Nye.) “I was a member of the press for 30 years. I wrote for The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times. I have no respect for any of them,” he says. For Shihab, the problems with post-September 11 coverage by most American media, local and otherwise, have resided less in what is said about American Muslims and more in what isn’t said about U.S. foreign policy. Over lunch at a Greek café in (where else?) a strip mall, Shihab and several friends had sharp words for what they’d been seeing and hearing on the news. “It’s so simplistic when you say you’re going to eliminate terrorism. A terrorist can be born in two hours,” Shihab said. “Terrorists are not born terrorists.”

“I don’t think whoever promoted this (the terrorist attacks) wakes up in the morning and says ‘I don’t like those Americans because the women wear shorts,'” said Dr. Ahmad Sbaita, the Lebanese-born board chairman of the national Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “There are issues and gripes that these people and the rest of the Arab world have with this country. Whether these gripes are real or imaginary I’m not going to argue. The fact is, people act on perceived truth. Unless we recognize and decide to address these issues and gripes, then I don’t think this is the last thing that is going to happen.”

Though hate crimes and foreign policy are very different subjects, the criticisms of both around the lunch table began to sound similar. In both cases, it was suggested, Arabs have been discriminated against out of ignorance and simplistic thinking; the terrorist label has been too broadly applied.

On my last day in the Metroplex, I visited the sister- and brother-in-law of Waqar Hasan, the man who was killed at Mom’s Grocery. Akhtar and Uzma Nadeem live in Irving. (Uzma is the sister of Hasan’s widow, who lives in New Jersey with her four daughters.) Hasan, they told me, had come to America, like so many others, to escape the violence in his native country; his father and brother had both been kidnapped in Pakistan.

“He did not know anything about politics,” Akhtar said. “He could not even spell Afghanistan. He would pray, and somebody maybe had seen him. I told him, ‘do not pray in public, especially after the New York incident,’ but he was saying ‘it’s my prayer, it shouldn’t bother anybody else.'”

Hasan moved from New Jersey to Dallas six months ago, Akhtar said, in order to purchase a business more cheaply than he could have back east. He used the bulk of his savings to buy the store with a partner. His wife and daughters were to come join him once he had gotten settled and found them a house. “He was a quiet guy, a workaholic, fifteen hours a day. He said when the family got here he would change his schedule to be more with them, but in the meantime why not work?”

A week before the murder, Hasan and his partner had bulletproof glass installed around the cash register counter, to protect them at night. “He used to close the deli at 8:00 or 9:00, because it was outside the bulletproof glass,” Akhtar said. “But if somebody came in after he closed the deli, he would come out and make food for them.” Hasan’s body was found beside the deli area. A bun and a piece of meat had been placed on the grill, and there were french fries out on the counter.

With no income and four daughters, Akhtar said, Hasan’s widow “is in very bad condition, all the time crying: ‘Why did they do that? What do I do now?'”

“She kept asking me, ‘Did you see him with your own eyes?'” said Akhtar. “She said, ‘I don’t believe anybody, the detectives, the police.'”

“We were actually the victims of terrorism,” Akhtar continued. “A lot of people leave Pakistan because of terrorism, to start making a living here… Now we are scared.”