15 January 2007

Fears of Sectarian Violence in Detroit

Via the CulturalConnect:
Attacks on Detroit Iraqi Businesses--Revenge By Other Arabs?

New America Media, News Report, Mohamad Ozeir, Posted: Jan 12, 2007

EDITOR'S NOTE: Recent vandalism of Iraqi-owned businesses in Detroit could be a retaliatory act by other Arabs for Iraqi Americans' recent celebration of the hanging of Saddam Hussein. Arab Americans trying to maintain a united front after Sept. 11 are worried the incident could split their community, writes NAM contributor Mohamad Ozeir.

DETROIT -- In what could be retaliation for some Iraqis' open celebration of the execution of Saddam Hussein, several Iraqi American-owned businesses and community offices on Warren Ave. in this city's west side were recently vandalized.

The damage, however, was more than the sum of the broken windows at three Shiite religious centers and nine stores and restaurants. It reveals fissures among groups within an Arab American community that is trying to maintain a united front following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

As the news of Saddam’s execution on Dec. 30 was broadcast, hundreds of Iraqi Americans took to the streets here, dancing, chanting and waving the Iraqi flag. They celebrated the death of a dictator who drove them and their families into the desert after the uprising that followed the first American invasion of Iraq in 1991. CNN, Al Jazeera and other TV networks covered the community celebration live.

Most of the Shiite Iraqi community in Detroit originally came from southern Iraq, where the majority was pushed out of their homes by Saddam. They spent a few years in Rafha refugee camp in Saudi Arabia before they were granted visas to the United States.

A week after Saddam’s execution, the Shiite religious centers and businesses near where the celebration on Warren Ave took place, were vandalized. A security camera showed images of unknown persons carrying stones under their coats and smashing windows, according to the owner of one damaged store.

While Detroit police have not made any arrests and the Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into the incident to determine if it is a federal offense, the nature of the assault is clear to its victims as a retaliatory act carried out by pro-Saddam elements against the Iraqi community.

“Judging from the targeted buildings, the message is clear,” says Ali Zwein, director of Al-Kufa Cultural Forum, one of the damaged religious centers.

The manager of Al-Rafedain restaurant, Sammar Ahmad, told reporters that she received threatening phone calls in both Arabic and English. Employees of other businesses gave similar accounts of prank calls and threats after the celebration.

News of the attacks was a top story for local television and newspapers, with mainstream media simply characterising them as a conflict between pro-Saddam Sunnis and anti-Saddam Shiites. Arab American organizations, however, kept a noticeable silence.

“It is obvious that the leadership of the establishment in the Arab community is lost somewhere between dismissal and denial,” says an Iraqi American activist, who didn’t want his name publicized.

Although Arab Americans have been victims of retaliation and racist attacks since Sept. 11, this incident would be the first reported case of violence within the community, if proved as the act of other Iraqis or Arab Americans.

Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News and head of the Arab American Congress, told reporters, “I don’t believe it’s the Arab community that has done this.” However, he described the celebration of Saddam’s hanging as in “poor taste.”

Imad Hamad, director of the leading Arab American advocacy organization, the Arab American Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC), counseled caution, telling the Detroit Free Press, “I want to believe it’s isolated and it’s an act of ignorance. We don’t want people to panic and take it beyond what it is.”

Emad Alkasid, editor of the weekly Iraq Sun, says these kinds of statements show a double standard in the Arab American establishment. Both Siblani and Hamad are known to oppose the American invasion of Iraq and are very vocal in defending Arab American interests, but Alkasid was disappointed that both leaders did not take a stronger stance against the violence directed at the Iraqi community.

Touring some damaged places, Alkasid says, “No one (from the organizations) came here to show support. They did not even send reporters to cover the story. If this was done to other Arab Americans we all know how the organizations would react, but when it comes to our community, they don’t show any support because they don’t agree with our politics.”

Alkasid warns that “as Arab Americans we have suffered a lot of double standards by politicians and the media in this country and we should know better than doing the same to ourselves.”

The Arab media in the Middle East covered the incident, with an Agence France Press report saying the vandalism was triggering fears of sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites in the Detroit Area.

“The real fear in the community is not more violence along religious lines,” Alkasid says. “What we fear is the Arab American establishment considering us a second class community among Arab Americans.”

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