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Sept. 13, 2001: Locals of Arab descent receive threatening phone calls

Local people with ties to the Middle East have received threats after Tuesday's terrorists attacks in New York and Washington.

"It's an unfortunate thing. It's a sad time," said a longtime Rock Hill resident who requested anonymity. He said that his brother who lives elsewhere in South Carolina has been threatened, as well.

"There are some people, they don't understand who's what," he said. "We are Americans. I'm just as American as you are. I've lived here for 20-something years."

The Rock Hill businessman said that like people all across America, he has been deeply hurt by Tuesday's events.

"I've been lost," he said. "Whoever has done this has to pay a high price. It's not right. It's totally against humanity."

As news emerged of Arab suspects connected with the hijacking of four commercial airliners and subsequent attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, local residents of Middle Eastern descent are fearful that they may become the targets of violence.

"We are getting threatening phone calls. It happens every time there is a bombing," said Mohammad Banawan, a spokesman for the Charlotte Islamic Center. "We will close the mosque for the next day or two. Our school will be closed for the next day or two for precautionary purposes. "

So as they watch the television coverage of the America under attack, Middle Easterners — natives of Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Jordan, Syria and Egypt — are trying to keep a low profile.

"I really am concerned. You have to be low-key," said an Iranian-American in Rock Hill, who asked not to be identified. "I've talked to some friends and threats have been made to them."

Iranians are not Arabs, but many people tend to group Middle Easterners as the same.

"I don't know anything about the politics," the Iranian-American said. "Instead of placing blame and guessing, I hope we will let the government take over and do what's necessary. As an American, I want the best for our nation like anyone else.

"I hope that the Muslim community will not be a target of insensitive talk and action," he said.

There is historical tendency for scapegoating after catastrophies such as Tuesday's terrorist attacks, said Patrick Maney, chairman of the History Department at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

While some are comparing the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Maney said Tuesday's events were closer to the Red Scare of May 1, 1919.

Then, bombs were detonated in eight American cities, including Pittsburgh, New York City, Cleveland, Boston, Philadelphia, Patterson, N.J. and Washington, D.C.

"There was this kind of fear because it was happening in so many places. People thought it could be the beginning of something greater and no one was safe," Maney said.

The 1919 bombings began the Red Scare during which Russians were targeted and about 6,000 immigrants were rounded up and detained. Most were released and about 500 were deported, Maney said.

"History doesn't look kindly on that episode. They weren't treated fairly. No evidence has ever been produced that they had ever done anything wrong," Maney said. He said he has heard some conversations similar to those after the Oklahoma City bombing when foreign, not domestic terrorists, were suspected.

"This is a different situation," Maney said. "It's a much more coordinated attack. It may well turn out to be an international terrorist organization behind it.

"Our history suggests we shouldn't panic. We should take the necessary precautions. We don't know who did it. It's too soon to act. History has not responded favorably to instances when we jumped the gun and started rounding up people because of their national origin."