Leaders of Muslim and Arab-American advocacy groups are braced for a backlash if U.S.-led military strikes in Afghanistan lead to a terrorist reprisal on American shores.
There already have been hundreds of reports of hate crimes against Muslims and other religious and ethnic groups following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, numbers not seen since the Persian Gulf war, leaders of the advocacy groups say.
Verbal threats and property damage have been reported across the country, and at least four homicides are being investigated as possible hate crimes, according to law enforcement officials.
"I think it would be reasonable to expect there would be another backlash if something else happens," said Ziad Asali, president of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington.
700 possible hate crimes
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington organization, said his group has collected reports of more than 700 possible hate crimes across the United States. Federal officials said they are investigating at least 120 incidents.
"There's really nothing I can compare it to," Hooper said. "During the Gulf War, there were isolated problems, and after the crash of Flight 800 [off the coast of New York in 1996], but nothing like this."
Laila Al Qatami, a spokeswoman for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee agreed. She said her advocacy group also has collected hundreds of reports, turning many over to the Justice Department.
The organization compiles lists of incidents for publication about every two years, and Al Qatami said the committee has collected more reports since Sept. 11 than it has recorded in any of its previous books. Its book for 2000 chronicled more than 200 incidents, for example, and the group has collected more than 300 reports since last month's attacks.
"The incidents have ranged from hate mail to verbal assault to crimes that have resulted in deaths," she said. "It's an unbelievable situation. The number of calls we're getting is unprecedented."
Officials said Muslims, Sikhs and those of Middle Eastern, and Central and South Asian descent have been targeted most often.
The latest killing being investigated as a possible hate crime took place Sept. 29 in Reedley, Calif. Fresno County Sheriff's police said Abdo Ali Ahmed, a 51-year-old convenience store owner, was shot to death, and investigators are seeking four teenage suspects. The FBI also is investigating, police said.
Imam Alaeddin Elbakri of the Badr Islamic Center in Fresno spoke at funeral services for Ahmed.
Before the shooting, Elbakri said, the most serious incidents he had heard of in the area involved some local cashiers refusing to serve Muslim women in stores. The killing has increased tensions significantly, he said.
Ahmed, the father of eight children, migrated to the U.S. more than 30 years ago, Elbakri said. He had worked his way up to owning his own convenience store.
He had received threats the week he was shot, including a hostile note left on his car, Elbakri and police say.
3 killings on Sept. 15
Three shootings that occurred Sept. 15 also are being investigated as possible hate crimes.
In San Gabriel, Calif., an Egyptian was gunned down in his import shop. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said the murder of 48-year-old Adel Karas also is under investigation by the FBI.
In Mesa, Ariz., Balbir Singh Sodhi, a 49-year-old Sikh, was shot to death outside his gas station by a man in a passing pickup truck. A local man has been charged with murder.
And in Dallas, police and the FBI are looking into the death of Waqar Hasan, 46. The Pakistani was found shot to death in his grocery store.
Those in academia who study hate crimes say the fact that the Sept. 11 attacks took place in the United States has fueled an intense backlash against minority groups that some identify with those responsible.
Jerry Kang, a law professor at UCLA, said the people who carry out hate crimes have little understanding of those they are targeting, as evidenced by the attacks against Indian Sikhs.
"There is little understanding, I think in this country, of what Islam is," Kang said. "And we don't know who Muslims are."
Americans have been told that those who attacked the country were extremists but had a Muslim connection, Kang said. And they have been told by American leaders that there is a continuing terrorist threat, he said, which may be prolonging the backlash.
Kang and leaders of advocacy groups say many Muslims have grown concerned for their safety.
Asali, of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said there are good stories as well. Rallies in support of Arab Americans and Muslims have been held in several cities.
"Some of the best things about America have been revealed in this as well," Asali said. "When the dust settles, we'll see and hear of some amazing things."
At the federal level, hate-crime indictments have been returned against two men allegedly involved in separate incidents in Seattle and Salt Lake City.
Patrick Cunningham, 53, was charged with shooting at worshipers at a Seattle mosque on Sept. 13 and attempting to set the building on fire.
In Salt Lake City, James Herrick, 31, was arrested for allegedly setting fire to a Pakistani restaurant.
Other suspicious fires are under investigation at a Pakistani-owned tire store in Houston and an Anaheim restaurant that served Pakistani and Indian cuisine, officials in those cities said.
13 arrests in Chicago
Chicago police report 13 arrests for alleged hate crimes since Sept. 11, most of them involving verbal threats. The Sept. 11 beating of a cab driver remains under investigation.
Officials said the trend has shown up in cyberspace as well.
A police department employee in Griffin, Ga., was asked to resign Wednesday after circulating an e-mail advocating the destruction of the Arab world.
"I told him I considered his e-mail to be bigoted and offensive," Police Chief Armand Chapeau said of civilian crime analyst Ray Sanford. "Since he filed it as a representative of this department, I told him I thought it reflected negatively on the men and women who work here."
Chapeau said that among the lines in the e-mail was a call for a bombing of the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, that would force worshipers to pray "at a crater 25 miles across."Copyright © 2015, CT Now