Like all New Yorkers, Muslims are living in a climate of fear. Federal and local officials warn that the war in Iraq has increased the chances of a terrorist retaliation here at home.
But as they feel the threat of the attack on their home in the United States, they must also cope with feelings of watching their native region being bombed overseas.
On top of this, Muslims here have had to deal with an anti-Islamic backlash that began after September 11th, and has the potential to be reignited in this current climate. The Department of Homeland Security has been accused of unfairly targeting Arabs and Muslims with new immigration regulations.
More than anything, Muslims in Queens are being mindful of their safety, aware that the war in the Middle East has opened the possibility of being in harm’s way at home. Through all of this, they try to go on with life as normally as possible.
At the Razi School in Woodside, all outside activities and field trips have been canceled. A letter from the State Department of Education has advised private schools in New York to keep their students indoors for safety precautions.
“We worry that if our students are not contained inside, we may not be able to protect them as well, so all activities outside of school have been canceled until further notice,” said Azam Meshkat, assistant principal at the Razi School.
Meshkat said that the school has also tightened security, keeping a closer eye on who enters the building. All doors to the school are kept locked during the day, and the alarm system remains set.
“We have conducted evacuation drills with the students to make sure that they know what to do in case of an emergency,” Meshkat said. “It’s not fun.”
The school also has counselors on hand so that if students have any problems, there is someone on hand for them to talk to. The faculty at the school has talked about the war in Iraq with their classes.
“We have explained to them in a very blunt manner about the war,” Meshkat said. “They are exposed to it on television once they leave school, so we had to do it just as it’s done on T.V. It’s as uncomfortable for them as it is for us.”
None of the students have reported hearing any taunts, or encountering physical abuse from other people. However, both Meshkat and another faculty member have been subjected to slurs since the war broke.
Meshkat heard insults while she was riding the train to Woodside from her home in Long Island.
“Some comments were made directly to me, but that is understandable because we are living in very intense times,” she said. “What is needed is a little bit of understanding by everyone right now.”
The Manhattan-based Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund has accused the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigrant Services of bringing Pakistani and Saudi Arabian boys into its office “for fingerprinting, photographing and interrogation under oath, usually without the presence of an attorney.” The BCIS office is a component of the Department of Homeland Security.
The defense fund has also accused BCIS of detaining or initiating people for deportation. The BCIS has instituted a special registration program for male nationals from Middle Eastern countries, that has also come under harsh criticism.
Although many Muslims in America—and in Iraq—want to see Saddam Hussein and his regime taken out of power, there is a disagreement how they believe it should be done. Some have expressed support for the war, while others have condemned it.
Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani, president of the Al-Khoei Muslim Center in Jamaica, has said in published reports that he supports the current war. The center is home to an estimated 50 Iraqi families.
However, Mohammad Sherwani, director of the Muslim Center of New York in Flushing, is a strong opponent of the war against Iraq by the United States and its allies.
“It’s an unjust war,” he said. “Everybody hates Saddam and everybody wants the regime to be taken out, but people should be given the chance to do it on an international level, through dialogue and the United Nations.”
The Muslim Center of New York, which has been in Flushing for 30 years, held an open house last weekend as a way to bring the entire community together to get to know one another. It was an effort to open its doors to the non-Muslims in Flushing.
The center has not beefed up security at its facility, but Sherwani said his people have a good relationship with police in the area, and is confident they will be there if something should happen.
“We also put our trust in Allah,” he said. “The community has been very cooperative, and on the surface there are no problems so far.”
As he watches the conflict in the Middle East on television, Sherwani said he can’t help but feel that the “war has defeated the peace.”
“Baghdad is burning and it’s not just the buildings, it’s also the people who are burning,” he said. “People are innocent. People are people. We should not de-humanize human beings. War is always bad. It means death and destruction. We pray for the soldiers and for the people living there.”