- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 3, 2011

DEARBORN, Mich. | Arab Americans hope they finally can get the target off their backs now that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is dead.

Here, in the city with the highest concentration of Arabs in North America, residents are tired of the “terrorist” stereotyping they have attracted in the decade since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They are upset with bin Laden for discrediting them by association and also disappointed by their treatment from fellow Americans. They’re ready to move on.

“He hijacked our religion,” said Wassim Mahfouz, executive director of the Lebanese American Heritage Club in Dearborn. “He put us in a corner where we always have to defend ourselves and our citizenship and our loyalty to this country. We hate him because of what he did to us as Muslims.”

Ilham Hussein, an Iraqi who fled Saddam Hussein’s regime and works at an Arab clothing store here, called bin Laden “a bad guy” whose death has made Dearborn happy.

“I’m very happy. Everybody’s happy. I wish now that we don’t have any more problems,” she said, though she noted that some people were surprised by her reaction to bin Laden’s death at the hands of American commandos.

“They ask me about Osama bin Laden. I tell them I’m happy. They say, ‘Why are you happy?’ Because he’s a terrorist. He’s given the Muslim people a bad name,” she explained.

American Muslims say bin Laden never represented their religion. Just as Christianity is split into denominations such as Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist and so on, Mr. Mahfouz said, Islam contains different sects, though he said bin Laden would be the equivalent of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church that pickets soldiers’ funerals.

“People think Muslims. Period,” Mr. Mahfouz said. “But this guy created his own religion.”

Many Muslims also see bin Laden as not being a religious person, saying he was not particularly devout until he realized he could use the name of Islam to promote his grievances against the Saudi government and the U.S. presence in the Middle East.

“People questioned whether he was a true Muslim,” said Kassem Allie, executive administrator of the Islamic Center of America, the largest mosque in North America.

Imad Hamad, regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said he and other Arabs felt a “shadow of suspicion” cast around them after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that they say led to them “being guilty until you are proven innocent, and not the other way around.”

“That created a wedge, and so many fellow Americans began looking at us differently and questioning our loyalty,” he said.

Mere names could be enough to excite suspicion, Mr. Hamad said, going on to point out that many Arabs aren’t Muslim but share the same names. “Lots of Christians in the Arab world are named ‘Osama.’ “

Mr. Allie said his family has been here since the 1890s but has had to “start from scratch again trying to re-establish ourselves.”

“The thing that really troubled me after 9/11 was the fact that my children would probably have it tougher than I do,” he said. “We’ve tried all our lives to be good Americans.”

Ms. Hussein hasn’t been here as long — her family left Iraq in 1997 — but she’s just as proud to be an American.

She also said that living in heavily Arab Dearborn muffles stereotyping. “I feel happy here,” she said. “I don’t see the problem.”

For others, dislike of bin Laden went beyond his causing Americans to stereotype Muslims, but included his killing Muslims around the world and Americans without regard to their religion.

Thirty-seven of the people killed in the World Trade center attacks on Sept. 11 were Muslims, according to Mr. Allie, as were some of the police officers and firefighters who helped with rescue efforts.

Even in the Middle East, bin Laden slaughtered Arabs and Muslims who disagreed with him or were in his way. He also fomented sectarian strife between Muslims.

“It’s been largely overlooked,” Mr. Allie said, “but probably the largest group of victims have been Muslims.”

“I believe we were victimized by what he did,” Mr. Allie added. “We have suffered twice. Once as Americans, and again because we were unfairly associated with him.”

So, naturally, most American Arabs are surprised when people outside their ethnicity question why they are celebrating bin Laden’s death.

“Muslims, overwhelmingly, are as patriotic as any other Americans,” Mr. Allie said. “We consider this our country.”