Hasson Awadh grew up in a part of the world scarred by terrorism, but he never stared down the barrel of a rifle until last week. At 2:25 a.m. last Wednesday, a man wearing a white rubber mask and a black hooded coat walked into Awadh's Marathon gas station in Gary, Ind., and, with no evident purpose other than vengeance, opened fire with a high-powered assault rifle. The 43-year-old native of Yemen dived for cover behind his cash register, as a fusillade of bullets pierced the one-inch-thick supposedly bulletproof glass he stood behind. Awadh crawled to a back room and prayed to Allah to spare his life. "I still hear the sound of the bullets," says Awadh, whose assailant is still at large. "That scary mask. It is still in front of my eyes."
As America reels from last week's deadly terrorist attacks, Muslims and Arab-Americans are experiencing an isolating terror all their own. In Washington, D.C., Muslim women have had hijab scarves snatched from their heads. A mosque in San Francisco was splattered with pig's blood. A bomb threat at a mostly Arab school in Dearborn, Mich., sent frightened teens running into the streets. Times have certainly changed since Pearl Harbor, when the government fueled ethnic hatred by interning Japanese-Americans. Last week political leaders from President George W. Bush to New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani urged tolerance. But these socially evolved messages may be little match for today's equally evolved high-tech networks of intolerance, the often faceless, underground nature of which leaves many Arab-Americans fearing payback around every corner. Even as law enforcement promises them extra protection, Arab-Americans are targeted for suspicion and detainment. The paradox has left many with an uncomfortable struggle--in a forever altered America, how do they show both their patriotism and their ethnic pride?
The instant and anonymous connectivity of the Internet and talk radio became a hothouse for hate. "You are the true coward now sand n-----r. Police won't protect Muslims now," raged one e-mail to a Muslim organization in Florida. Radio jocks are amping up callers with comments like, "Death to ragheads." Even legitimate journalists have vented rage. Political analyst Ann Coulter wrote in an op-ed: "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." Many Muslims are confronting the vitriol with a careful retort that being a good Muslim and a good American are not incompatible. When caught off guard by insults last week, Rashad Hussein, a legislative aide, reminded his accuser that Islam is about peace. Arab groups urged members to show patriotism by donating blood and raising money for victims.
Still, in some places it is a perilous time to openly display Muslim identity. Virginia college student Faiza Mohammed has avoided going out in public since a police officer asked her last week to take off her head scarf--which, to a devout Muslim woman, is like asking her to take off her clothes. When the officer asked to search her car, she first asked if he had a search warrant, but quickly relented under his intimidating stare. "There's a line between our desire for security and for civil liberties," says Faisil Gill, of the American Muslim Council. "Right now none of us knows where that line is."
The cruel irony is that many of those bearing the brunt of the fallout came to this country to escape terrorism. Mariam Bakri, 47, whose family fled to the United States from Lebanon, says she feels, at moments, as if she is without a country. She was sickened as she watched televised images of West Bank Arabs celebrating the attack on America. She is equally sickened when she hears of her Arab neighbors being spit on. "Now people are going to think that if you're Arabic, you are a terrorist," says Bakri. Contemplating the national mood as collective grief turns to desire for vengeance, she says: "And the worst is yet to come." The best parts of America hope she's wrong.