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TERROR IN OKLAHOMA CITY : American Muslims Feel Sting of Accusations in Bombing's Wake : Reaction: Talk of a Middle East link led to epithets against the ethnic community. The arrest of a Midwesterner has spurred a collective sigh of relief.

April 22, 1995|LARRY B. STAMMER and CARLA HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Between the thunderous explosion and the anguish, between the search for the missing and the laying of blame, what was it like to be a Muslim in America as this country struggled to cope with the deadliest bout of terrorism in its history?

For Aslam Abdullah it was shouted profanities as he stood at Vermont Avenue and 4th Street in Los Angeles. "We'll shoot you! We'll send you back. You don't belong here," a stranger yelled to Abdullah, the editor of an Islamic newspaper.

For members of the Al Fajar Mosque in Indianapolis, it was a bullet-shattered window.

For Sayyid Syeed of Plainfield, Ind., counting the cost of the bloody Oklahoma City explosion went beyond the death of scores of innocent children and adults--as horrible as that is.

Another victim, he said, was "American pluralism. American tolerance."

Muslims and Arab Americans were breathing a collective sigh of relief Friday as Atty. Gen. Janet Reno told reporters that all evidence indicates the Oklahoma City bombing was "domestic in nature."

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But Wednesday, shortly after the morning explosion, news reports said two men of "Middle Eastern" appearance were being sought for questioning. And a short time later, a Jordanian American from Oklahoma was stopped in London and spirited by authorities back to the United States for questioning. He has since been released.

American Muslims, shocked by the images of the bombing, suddenly felt the sting of being among the accused.

"It was as if we were accomplices to what happened in Oklahoma City, while all we wanted to do was unite with other Americans in the healing process," said Salam Al-Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

On Friday, 1,000 gathered in Los Angeles for the weekly noon prayer ritual at the Islamic Center of Southern California, and vented their frustrations and expressed their relief that the media glare has shifted, for now.

Civil engineer Sameer Etman considers most of his colleagues well-educated, decent people. Nonetheless, the morning of the bombing as he arrived at work, "Someone said, 'Where were you this morning?' "--a tasteless joke meant to imply a connection to the bombing.

"I'm 50 years old," said the Egyptian-born Etman, now a U.S. citizen. "I've been here 26 years. The person who said this to me is 23. I'm more of a citizen than he is."

The Islamic Center had logged about a dozen harassment phone calls since Wednesday afternoon, according to Salam Al-Marayati.

" 'Baby killers.' . . . 'What are you Muslims doing now? You should all be run out of town.' . . . 'You are animals.' . . ." Al-Marayati ticked them off as he waited for prayers to begin. Outside, private security guards watched the doors to the center.

Muslim leaders said they understand that the involvement of Muslim terrorists in the bombing two years ago of the World Trade Center in New York helps explain why the rage of so many was suddenly directed at them.

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In Orange County, there was some relief among Muslims at the apprehension of two suspects, but mostly there was sadness because of the bombing and lingering dismay at the anti-Muslim backlash.

"My feeling is that this was a horrible act against humanity, and whoever did it ought to be punished, whoever they are," said Shabbir Mansuri, director of the Council on Islamic Education in Fountain Valley.

"We wanted very much to see the culprits apprehended . . . but we are against any kind of collective guilt as we saw (Wednesday and Thursday in which) all Middle Eastern people are suspect and there is harassment of innocent people."

Orange County Muslim leaders said the threats they received immediately after the Wednesday bombing stopped Friday, and that many calls of support for the community had come in. Mansuri said his organization got two supportive calls from local rabbis and that a pastor from Community Church of Corona del Mar invited 20 members of the Muslim community to have dinner with 100 members of his congregation.

But while the epithets and hate directed against Muslims have cooled, many fear that underlying suspicions and ignorance of Islam by many Americans only awaits arousal by a new provocation.

USC Prof. Richard Hrair Dekmejian, who has taught courses on terrorism and studied Islamic fundamentalism, said the backlash is nothing new.

"This is not the first time in American history when this has happened. Every time there is some type of violence in the United States, immediately we tend to look at the Middle East and blame the Islamic extremists," he said.

Despite cautions from President Clinton and other government officials not to stereotype or to single out a particular ethnic or religious group, Muslims across the country reported hundreds of threats.

The Islamic Center of San Diego had received eight threatening calls within hours of the bombing. One caller said the center would be blown up Friday if it was proved that Arabs were responsible for the Oklahoma bombing.

In Orange County, gates were locked around the Islamic Society-run school in Garden Grove because parents feared their children might be in danger. A carwash planned for Sunday was canceled.

"I'm scared. I really am," said Kathy Abdelmaksoud, mother of two children who attend the Crescent School.

"Every time something happens, they go after the Muslims. How do we know they're not going to come here? Yeah, I'm worried about my kids," she said Thursday.

As Muslims went to mosques and Islamic centers on Friday, two prayers were on their lips.

"We prayed for those who are innocent victims of the disaster in Oklahoma City," said Anwar Khan, fund-raising coordinator for Islamic Relief Worldwide in Downey. "We also pray that America will keep its tradition of accepting other faiths and other creeds."

Times staff writers Ken Ellingwood, Julie Marquis and Ching-Ching Ni in Orange County and Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this story.

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