Friday, October 10, 2008

Anti-Arab racism continues to plague southwest Chicago suburbs

It has been nearly a decade since residents of Palos Heights sullied their community by rising in protest against their neighbors who happened to be Muslim who sought to open a Mosque where they could observe their religion.

The move pushed nearly 2,000 people to sign a petition protesting the mosque plans, and sparked a high profile public battle led by some members of the Palos Heights City Council.

A few years later, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 700 residents of Orland Park tried but failed to prevent Muslims from doing the same there, claiming that building a Mosque for the region’s Arabs who bring Osama Bin Laden’s terrorism to the suburb.

Although both incidents have faded from public view, the anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hatred that sparked the incidents of community racism has not dissipated at all. There have been many less publicized incidents.

So it was not surprising when on Sept. 16, 2008, a 17-year-old girl working a late night shift at T.J. Grinders in Palos Heights on Harlem Avenue claimed she had been sexually assaulted by a man who looked “Arab” or “Indian.”

According to police, the girl had sent a text message to a friend saying a strange man who looked “creepy” had been ogling her through the sandwich shop’s window before coming in an ordering a sandwich.

Two hours later when she was alone and closing the store, the “creepy man” put a knife to her neck, ordered her into the back seat of his black car, and threatened to kill her if she made a sound. He drove around for 20 minutes and then took her to the forest preserves where he sexually assaulted her.

After the 30 minute assault, she said he drove her within blocks of her home and dropped her off in her t-shirt and underwear.

The police drawing of the suspect, based on the young girl’s description, clearly described a man who looked Middle Eastern. It was a horrible thing to see for Arabs and Muslims in the area as the flyer was distributed everywhere, from Palo Heights to Burbank and to Orland Park, communities with large Arab American populations.

The story immediately became a major report on the weekly FOX News Crime program “America’s Most Wanted,” a program that has done so much good to capture criminals and make the public aware of crime. But you could sense the animosity reflected in the tone of the words of the host, John Walsh when he spoke about the “vicious sexual assault” and the “disturbed sexual predator.” The report noted repeatedly that the suspect was “Arab” or “Indian.”

And it repeated the claim by the victim that the alleged suspect “emitted some minor but offensive body odor,” according to America’s Most Wanted.

Over the past few weeks, emails have been circulating through the Internet about those “Arab animals” and “Muslim monsters” who live in Palos Heights, Orland Park, Burbank and elsewhere.

The Southwest suburbs have a large concentration of Arab Americans. Although they are mostly Christian, the Muslims whose women wear Hijabs of head coverings, stand out making them more obvious targets of the growing hatred.

This week, Palos Heights police announced they were closing their investigation into the alleged sexual assault. The girl’s attorney, Martin A. Dolan, issued a statement that apologized to the “Southwest suburban community” for “the unnecessary concern and the time and effort from everyone involved.”

Dolan’s statement continued, "At this time, we assure you our community is safe and always has been... we ask you to continue your prayers for the family and avoid criticism or anger as they move forward and cope."

It must be terrible to be the parents of a young child that is disturbed enough to make up such a story. I wonder how people in the Southwest Suburbs feel about a child who found it so easy to point a finger of blame against an “Arab” or an “Indian.”

I wonder how many of the people who sent the hate emails around warning about the vicious Arab rapist who was wandering our community from Burbank, to Palos Heights to Orland Park still believe this?

Dolan said he did address the issue of the racism and the family specifically apologized to the specific ethnic groups that were mentioned. This was the action of a young, immature girl and she did not intentionally try to single out Arabs and Indians, he said. “But I think maybe it might be a wider problem and I can appreciate it for sure," Dolan said.

But, I wonder how long it will be before all of the phony police sketches of the “Arab” or “Indian” suspect will be removed.

It probably will happen faster than many people in the Southwest suburbs will be able to cleanse their hearts of the racism that helped make this tragic young girl’s lies so believable.

-- Ray Hanania

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