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Saturday, 1 December, 2001, 04:20 GMT
Shadow over Ramadan
Detroit
One of the largest Arab communities in the US lives near Detroit
By BBC Washington Correspondent Stephen Sackur

As darkness falls in Dearborn, Michigan, kitchen plates are piled high with lamb and rice and a delicious yogurt inside Mohamed Abdrabboh's home.

Another day of Ramadan fasting is drawing to a close and around 20 members of Abdrabboh's extended family are ready to share the traditional iftar meal.

But this year a shadow has been cast over Ramadan.

These are uneasy times for many Muslim Americans. Their comfort in the rituals of the faith has been soured by suspicion and fear.

Caught in the dragnet

A few hours earlier I sat in Mohamed Abdrabboh's office as the 27-year-old civil rights lawyer greeted a nervous client.

Ahmed was born in Lebanon, he's a Canadian citizen, but his engineering job and his temporary home are in Detroit, which makes Ahmed a target in the massive FBI investigation launched after 11 September.

It is a question of "profile".

Ahmed, a young, recently arrived Arab with a temporary US visa represents a "potential threat", according to the template established by US law enforcement agencies.

The fact that the government is doing this means they're further alienating Arab Americans from other American people, and that's dangerous

Mohamed Abdrabboh, civil rights lawyer

No surprise then, that Ahmed has been caught up in the dragnet, which has been stretched over Arab American and other Muslim communities since the World Trade Centre attack.

Entering the country from Canada he has been detained by INS agents several times. He has been arrested and interrogated.

And even though he's been released, he resents what he calls "the intimidation".

"Once they handcuffed me so hard I couldn't take it any more," he said. "They started asking me when did I leave Lebanon (and) did I have any connection with terrorist groups."

Racial profiling

Ahmed's is just one case among thousands. Indeed the FBI is now sending out letters to thousands of young men, mostly Arab, between the ages of 18 and 35 asking them to "volunteer" for interviews with federal investigators.
John Ashcroft
Attorney General John Ashcroft defends his aggressive moves in the name of national security

Civil rights campaigners point to the thousands of arrests already made and the failure of the authorities to give details of the 500 or so detainees still being held for alleged immigration infractions. They call it an outrageous exercise in racial profiling.

"Making people suspects when they've done nothing wrong is counterproductive", says Mohamed Abdrabboh. "The fact that the government is doing this means they're further alienating Arab Americans from other American people, and that's dangerous."

National security defence

The Bush Administration's defence rests on one powerful phrase - national security.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, chief architect of many of the law enforcement initiatives taken in recent weeks, says the massive FBI investigation, the new powers to extend wiretaps and eavesdrop on lawyer-client conversations, and the controversial plan to try terrorists in military courts without juries - all are necessary to counter the continued threat posed by the al-Qaeda network inside America.

We want to beat the terrorists, but not at the expense of the values that make America what it is

Imad Hamad, civil rights campaigner

Mr Ashcroft claims some al-Qaeda operatives are already in custody, though he won't specify who, or with what they will be charged, but he seems convinced that many more sleeper agents are still at large.

Which may be why he's now combining his tough approach, the stick, with a hint of carrot. Non-American informers who hand over useful information about the terrorist network will be offered special visas and a route to US citizenship.

Muslims sceptical

But sceptical American Arabs see it as a cynical manoeuvre based on a false premise - that important information is being held back by a community at best half-hearted in its defence of American values.

On the contrary, says Imad Hamad, a tireless civil rights campaigner in Michigan.

"Hundreds of Muslims were killed in the World Trade Centre," he said, adding: "This sort of terrorism doesn't differentiate between religions or ethnic origins.

"It hurt our community just like all other American communities. Arab Americans came to this country because of its freedom and democracy and civil rights.

"We want to beat the terrorists, but not at the expense of the values that make America what it is."

A thought echoed in many households in Dearborn and beyond during this unsettling Ramadan for many Muslim Americans.

See also:

14 Nov 01 | Americas
US spells out terrorist tribunals
19 Sep 01 | Europe
EU acts on terrorism
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