THE war in Iraq has entered its second week and by all accounts it is not going to be short and easy.
The US, with its overwhelming firepower, has miscalculated the will and resolve of the Iraqis to fight and are still waiting for the heroes' welcome by the masses that were to have risen up against the Saddam Hussein regime.
The mass destruction of Baghdad, a city steeped in history, with bombs and cruise missiles is not winning the US friends around the world.
It has hurt the people it is trying to “liberate.” The deaths of innocent civilians will make the Iraqis hate Americans more and the reconstruction reconciliation after the war will be a harder task.
While the war is playing out some 5,000 miles away, Muslims living in the US are worried about a possible backlash.
After the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, life has changed for Muslims, especially those coming from the Middle-East, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Indonesia. Even non-Muslims like Sikhs are affected.
Detentions, deportations and special registration requirements have created fear among immigrant communities.
On March 19, the New York Immigration Coalition, an NGO, wrote to Mayor Michael Bloomberg over its concern for the safety of immigrants who fear they may become victims of hate crimes because of the war in Iraq.
The organisation’s executive director Margie McHugh said victims of hate crimes may not report such incidents because they fear the police will report them to immigration officials.
She said that in March the federal government announced a domestic war contingency plan enlisting the participation of joint terrorism task forces, including state and local police, to investigate thousands of Iraqi and other immigrants.
She claimed that broad-based enforcement sweeps were part of the plan.
“This plan has dramatically increased immigrant New Yorkers’ fear of interacting with the police, since it appears that the police will be actively involved in implementing these measures,” she wrote the mayor.
An imam in New York recently advised Muslims to take extra precautions.
“You could be targets of hate crimes once the body bags start returning home in bigger numbers,” he said.
But there are those who do not share his view.
“I don’t think so. Americans know that they are the ones going to war. No one is attacking them so I don’t expect them to attack Muslims,” said Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani, the imam of the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center in Jamaica, New York.
Sheikh Fadhel, a Shia Muslim from Basra, Iraq’s second biggest city, while expressing sadness for the suffering resulting from the war, felt it had to be done.
“It’s like a sick person who has to undergo an operation. We may not like to do it but we have to.
“If Saddam was concerned for the people, he should have left the country,” said Sheikh Fadhel, who has lived in the US for 14 years and is the director/minister of religion and vice-president of the Imam Al-Khoei Foundation.
He claimed that most of the Iraqi refugees who came to the US in the early 90s shared his view.
Office administrator Shaaina Remtulla is also confident there would be no attacks against Muslims in New York because “it is so cosmopolitan, nearly everyone is an immigrant.”
Since the orange high alert was issued, armed police personnel have been stationed outside places of worship like mosques, churches and synagogues while enforcement agencies like the FBI are making extra efforts to reach out to Muslims.
Mayor Bloomberg underscored this point when he and a group of officials from City Hall were present during Friday prayers at the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center.
(Last Sunday, he attended service at an African-American church in Harlem.)
His visit was to assure Muslims that the city had taken steps to address any case of discrimination.
“Salam Mulaikum or peace be upon you for those who don't speak Arabic,” he told the congregation and a large group of journalists covering the event.
“Today, almost 40% of New Yorkers are people from other lands, including 600,000 Muslims from 20 countries, and we benefit tremendously from your hard work, talent and desire to create better lives for yourselves and your families.”
He said the city respected the rights of everyone to practise his or her faith, free of intimidation and discrimination.
“More than a 100 years before the American declaration of independence, the people of the town of Flushing in Queens took a stand for religious freedom. They sent a letter to Peter Stuyvesant, the Governor of New Amsterdam, reminding him that ‘the law of love, peace and liberty’ covered people of every faith and they specifically mentioned people who worshipped Allah.
“That was the spirit of the people of New Amsterdam in 1657 and it is the law of New York City. As long as I am mayor, that law will be enforced.
“We will not tolerate any illegal or disrespectful acts directed against Muslims, the community, businesses, mosques or any other institutions.”
He said the city’s Human Rights Committee and City Office of Immigrant Affairs were conducting a survey documenting instances of anti-Arab or anti-Islamic discrimination and the city would use the information to prevent further incidents.
The mayor’s efforts to assure the people that he will not tolerate abuse and discrimination is one thing. Whether this message filters down the line is another. At the moment, there is great distrust for law enforcement agencies.
o Johan Fernandez is Editor, North America Bureau, based in New York (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)