NEW YORK – Since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Arab-Americans report that they feel increasing suspicion from American police and government agencies and from the public and media, a U.S. Justice Department-funded study by a legal reform group has found.
The survey initially examined 16 representative cities in America representing about 9 percent of the total Arab-American population, then focused on four of those sites, which were not named in the report by the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit think tank in New York City that focuses on crime, law and justice issues.
"Our inquiries confirmed that September 11 had a substantial impact on Arab-American communities," the report released Monday said.
"In every site, Arab-Americans described heightened levels of public suspicion exacerbated by increased media attention and targeted government policies (such as special registration requirements, voluntary interviews, and the detention and deportation of community members)," it said.
Hate crimes reported against Muslims skyrocketed from 28 incidents in 2000 — typical of the preceding years— to 481 in 2001, then rapidly leveled off to about 150 a year thereafter.
"Although community members also reported increases in hate victimization, they expressed greater concern about being victimized by federal policies and practices than by individual acts of harassment or violence," the Vera Institute report said.
"The fear is that someone just picks up the phone and tells (the FBI) to target individuals," the report quoted one unnamed Arab-American community member as saying.
"At what point do I become an American," asked another unnamed person. "It reminds me of Syria. If someone wants to get you, they just call the police."
The report cited a series of federal actions targeting Arab-Americans and other groups that came under suspicion following the 9/11 attacks: adoption of the USA Patriot Act and thousands of swift interviews conducted by federal agents in 2001; more interviews in 2002 and institution of a special registration program for many migrants; new rounds of interviews focusing on Iraqis and Iraqi-Americans in 2003; and renewal of the Patriot Act in 2006.
"Relations between Arab-American communities and law enforcement agencies fell into two categories overall," the report found.
"Toward local police agencies, Arab-Americans reported a fair amount of goodwill, even in jurisdictions where the two had little interaction. Where departments invested resources to cultivate this goodwill, the evidence points to dividends in the form of reduced tension."
But, the report found, "Community perceptions of federal law enforcement were less positive. Even though most of the FBI field offices in the study had reached out to Arab-American communities, many Arab-Americans remained fearful and suspicious of federal efforts."
This partly reflected the major shift in federal law enforcement agencies to focus on counterterrorism.
The survey initially contacted 38 police officials, 16 FBI agents and 53 community leaders in the preliminary 16-community interview. In its focus on four representative communities, the Vera Institute expanded to face-to-face interviews, ultimately contacting about 111 police and FBI officials and 98 Arab-American community leaders.
"With the shadow of September 11 unlikely to lift anytime soon, local and federal law enforcement agencies are likely to continue to feel pressure to incorporate counterterrorism into their work," the Vera Institute found. "Our research suggests that even within this environment they should continue to be mindful of the principles of community policing and the promise these practices hold for good results for public safety."