ANALYSIS: US' ethnic groups fighting tension from war on terror

The year since 9/11 has shown that minorities seeking US acceptance have much work to do. But several ethnic groups are progressing by working together.

The year since 9/11 has shown that minorities seeking US acceptance have much work to do. But several ethnic groups are progressing by working together.

We have made it past the first anniversary of September 11, and a quiet relief is palpable across the nation. The build-up to the occasion was enveloped in anxiety. Some people worried about the possibility of new attacks. Others, especially those in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania, continued a tentative transition from grief to healing. In the media, journalists fretted over the best way to cover an emotional and historical day, arguing about the right balance between remembrance and ratings. That air of apprehension began to clear as the day ended and the commemoration passed in peace. But for South Asian, Arabic, and Islamic communicators, 9/11's anniversary represented a milestone of a different sort. The past year has tested the strength of both their organizations and their personal commitment to serving and explaining some of America's most pressured ethnic enclaves - and the coming year offers little relief. As the country moves forward in its war on terrorism, some cultural public relations professionals are preparing battle plans of their own, aimed at educating Americans about issues from Islam to INS practices. Many feel that they are the public face of communities trapped by fear and even violence, and that the messages they are spreading are keys to helping the country heal in positive ways. But the pressure seems to be mounting and the challenges growing for these public affairs specialists, spreading already thin resources to the breaking point. Now they are seeking help by joining together, telling their stories in the ethnic media, and finding savvier ways to reach out to mainstream America. "One of the biggest trends we're seeing is the rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric," says Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Washington, DC-based Islamic advocacy group, about the challenges his organization faces. "We've seen a shift from raw bigotry to a growing general hostility of Islam in society." Hooper spent last weekend in a way that has become familiar over the past months: helping media and authorities handle the story of Islamic Americans suspected of terrorist activities. This time, it was three young medical students traveling by car to Florida to reach their internships at a community hospital. A woman sitting at a table near the 20-something trio in a Georgia Shoney's told authorities she heard them discussing possible terrorist plans. The men were pulled over a few hours later in Florida's Alligator Alley based on the woman's information, and the story quickly caught the attention of national press. While the three - later identified as Kambiz Butt, Ayman Gheith, and Omar Chaudhary - were released by authorities and are not suspected of any terrorist activity, the hospital they were headed to canceled their internships after receiving numerous threats based on the men's ethnicity. Hooper - one of only two communications staffers at CAIR's national headquarters - has worked nonstop with investigators and the press to accurately find and disseminate the truth about the incident before the idea of Arabs as terrorists is further ingrained in the American psyche. "We did an initial news conference on Friday...and had another news conference on Sunday," says Hooper, who also monitored the media during that period. "Now we're booking [the men] on the morning shows and Larry King." Dealing with misperceptions Muslim public affairs agencies aren't the only cultural organizations facing post-9/11 pressure. South Asians - such as Hindus and Sikhs - have also felt the rising tensions with an increase in hate crimes and discrimination due to their similar appearance to many Arabic nationalities. More than 80 hate crimes linked to 9/11 - including a dozen murders - have been investigated or prosecuted since the attacks. And while no national statistics have been compiled, metropolitan areas such as Chicago and Los Angeles have seen the numbers of hate crimes skyrocket in the past year. "Since 9/11, we have been working around the clock, literally, just to put out the fires," says Navtej Singh Khalsa, executive director of the Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force (SMART), who says more than 250 hate crimes have been reported to his agency in the past year. Sikhs are a monotheistic religion from India whose men are often confused as Middle Eastern since they wear turbans. "Because of that, we're mistaken as terrorists," he says. Since last September, Khalsa and his organization have been lobbying on multiple fronts to both differentiate themselves from Middle Easterners, while at the same time encouraging tolerance. The organization has met with influential policy makers such as Attorney General John Ashcroft and Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, and has held seminars for dozens of local and state law-enforcement agencies. They have also done outreach to the media, and worked to educate the Sikh community about their legal rights. "We actually need to be about 20 times our size," says Khalsa, one of only two full-time staff members of SMART. "We do travel a lot. We've done these programs constantly." To cope with the growing demand and need for ethnic insights, many activist organizations have banded together to pool their resources. "There has been a lot of activism organizing that is bringing a lot of communities together that weren't traditionally working together before 9/11," says Vivek Mittal, spokesperson for Bay Area-based Alliance of South Asians Taking Action (ASATA), a mostly Indian group aimed at educating and empowering South Asians. "In an odd way, [9/11] has had a positive effect," he adds about the newfound cooperation. ASATA recently joined a five-member coalition that includes Muslim and East Asian groups - communities that did not have much contact or commonality with Mittal's organization before 9/11. "All these organizations are actually working hand in hand to get the same message across," says Khalsa of such alliances. Looking to minority media One of the most productive outlets for that shared message has been the ethnic press. While a debate continues over how well mainstream media handles difficult issues of race, many believe that minority and cultural media have better resources to understand the story, and can tap into the organizations that are telling it - providing a first step in getting cultural stories to a broader audience. "If I get a radio request, and I'm told it's an African-American outlet, I'll do the interview. That's all I need to know," says CAIR's Hooper. "Because I know it's not going to be right-wing Muslim bashing. I know there is going to be some understanding of what it's like to be in a minority community." "It is also an issue of what it means to belong to a minority of color and live in a degree of animosity in the community," adds Ashfaque Swapan, a reporter for India West newspaper. "Maybe since I belong to the same community, I'm probably more sensitive and aware of those issues." While many ethnic communicators have risen to the challenges of the past year, it is a situation with no end in sight. But the mainstream press has also risen to the occasion and struggled to tell inclusive stories. While that means more work, it is also a hopeful sign that America is interested in learning about its ethnic citizens, and that the messages of organizations like SMART and CAIR are showing results. "The level of activity has skyrocketed," says CAIR's Hooper. "We've got more media requests than we can handle sometimes." ------------------------------- Minority communities, post-9/11 A recent survey of California's minority communities conducted by Bendixen & Associates for New California Media and USC's Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism found that many Asian Americans, Middle Easterners, African Americans, and Hispanics felt that their daily lives had worsened significantly as a result of 9/11. Many also said that they or someone in their families had lost jobs or were making less money. Yet the majority of those surveyed also said that they felt an even stronger sense of patriotism since the terrorist attacks. 80% of Asian Americans and 81% of Middle Easterners feel their families belong and are welcome in US 59% of Asian Americans feel less secure going about their daily lives than they did a year ago 58% of Middle Easterners and South-Asian Americans say they have encountered increased instances of discrimination since the attacks 56% of Middle Easterners get depressed more often than they did before 9/11

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