Feeling Like the Enemy Within
Her four children in tow, the suburban mom climbs out of her Toyota minivan and heads into the MainPlace mall in Santa Ana. She wears a red, white and blue button, “USA All the Way!” as a symbol of her loyalty.
But as she approaches the entrance, she murmurs in Arabic: “May God protect us.”
For all her American trappings, Wijdan Abdelkarim is conspicuous in her Islamic head scarf, and she knows it.
In fallout that has unnerved countless other Muslims and Arab Americans, last week’s terrorist attacks have upended the family life of Wijdan and her husband, Riad. Wijdan’s routine shopping trips are now tension-wracked forays into the fearful unknown. FBI agents have questioned Riad, a prominent Anaheim physician, about his Muslim associations in encounters he says first intimidated, then angered him.
The Abdelkarim children have reported slights at school: Nine-year-old Zuhdi says someone told him the attacks were his fault because he’s Arab; someone else glared at him while his class sang “America the Beautiful” and proclaimed that Arabs and Muslims had attacked the country because they were jealous of it. Asked how that made him feel, Zuhdi shrugged. “Not good,” he said.
“It’s so hard, because I’m proud to be a Muslim,” said Wijdan, 33. “Now I can’t go out because everyone looks at me like I’m an enemy.”
The shopping trip to the mall this week was the first major outing that Wijdan has been willing to make since the attacks last week. Normally, she is an active, adventuresome woman who goes out daily to shop, meet friends, pray at the mosque and take her children to the park.
But she has been frightened by recent reports of Muslims being shot at, removed from airplanes and accosted by hostile strangers who pull off women’s head scarves. The backlash has affected her and most of her female friends in ways real and imagined. They have, among other things, sequestered themselves and their children inside their homes except for essential trips to school or the grocery store.
On this Tuesday evening, the family decides it’s time to test the waters. As they stroll down the mall, Wijdan is visibly tense. No one, however, gives them even a sidelong glance.
They stop in at the Imaginarium toy store. Ali, 4, and Omar, 2, get Space Voyagers airplanes. Zuhdi gets a Bionicle Lego action figure. The cashier is cheerful and polite. “You guys have a great night!” she says. Wijdan seems to relax.
The shopping trip was instigated by Riad, 33, who is as uncowed as Wijdan is fearful. He was the one who argued against his wife’s instincts to keep their children home from both public school and Saturday Islamic school after the attack. Riad argued that their absence could invite more suspicion and mistreatment. He won; the children went to school.
The tall, articulate physician, a Santa Monica native of Palestinian descent, is used to standing up to anti-Arab sentiment and succeeding despite it. He grew up in Torrance, the oldest of six children. His father ran a grocery store in Hermosa Beach named after him, Riad’s Market. One of the only Arab families in town at the time, the Abdelkarims had to weather the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81, the Persian Gulf War of 1991 and the slurs that went along with such events: Towel Head. Oil Can. Exhortations to “go back home.”
The Abdelkarims’ cars were vandalized, their lawn destroyed by thugs pouring gasoline on it or driving their cars over it. The boys frequently got into fights, Riad recalled. And the day he won the local spelling bee, garnering front page coverage in the community newspaper, someone called his home and terrorized his mother with a false claim that he had been kidnapped.
All the Trappings of American Success Story
In 1986, Riad made class valedictorian at Torrance High School with a perfect grade point average. He applied to UCLA, UC Berkeley, Stanford and Yale and got into all of the schools. He says he chose UCLA because he got a free ride, winning every scholarship he applied for. He graduated summa cum laude, went to medical school at UC San Diego, and became a doctor of internal medicine. Last year, he made partner with the Southern California Permanente Medical Group in Anaheim.
The family bears all the marks of an American success story. Wijdan drives the Sienna minivan; he drives a Lexus. Their abode is a perfectly kept, 3,200-square-foot expanse with soaring ceilings, skylights and a marbled entryway with stunning city views in an Orange County neighborhood of $500,000 homes. The yard bursts with color--impatiens, roses, fruit trees, all products of Wijdan’s green thumb.
Plastic U.S. flags now adorn their front entrance and Riad’s office.
At work, Riad appears to be a popular doctor, even with patients he meets for the first time. Working the emergency room at a Kaiser Permanente hospital in Anaheim this week, Riad treats Jill Henderson, 32, who was diagnosed with colon cancer last year and has now developed a blood clot in her leg.
He jokes with Henderson and her mother, Carol, as he asks a battery of questions. He takes the time to respond to their inquiries with detailed, candid answers. At the end of the treatment, Henderson tells him she likes him so much she wants to follow-up with him instead of her own doctor.
Asked if she had any trepidation about a Muslim doctor, Carol Henderson looks surprised. “It didn’t even dawn on me,” she said. “All I know is that he’s concerned with my daughter. I’ve learned more from him today than I have through this whole thing.”
The physician says the attacks have not caused him any problems at work; to the contrary, they have engendered support and sympathy for him. Eileen Simpson, a nurse practitioner at Riad’s medical clinic in Anaheim, says one of her first thoughts after the attack was of her friend’s safety and her fear of a “backlash, big time” against him and other Muslims.
Simpson says the physician has been a good-humored professional mentor who has reshaped her views of Muslims. Before, she said, “I thought they were a radical group of people who wanted to kill Americans.” Now she says she sees Muslims as simply average Americans.
“We need more people like him in the Islamic community to enlighten us,” Simpson says.
Riad spends most of his hours outside his busy medical practice engaged in Muslim community activities. His first visit to Palestine in 1986 was a turning point, he says. As a UCLA student in psychobiology, he began organizing lectures and other events on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. During that first visit to the region, he met Wijdan, a Palestinian native. They married two years later.
Back in Los Angeles, Riad helped start the first Muslim newspaper at UCLA, Al-Talib. Today, he is active with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights advocacy organization, and the Holy Land Foundation, an American Muslim relief agency for needy Palestinians. He also writes and speaks on American Muslim affairs, trying to demystify the faith for the broader public.
In these days of terror, that activist role has landed him on the FBI’s radar screen. On Sunday, as he was downing Chicken McNuggets at home, two FBI agents knocked on the door.
“I’m a confident person, but my voice cracked talking to them,” he said.
He asked the agents to meet him the next evening at the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Anaheim office. The agents never showed up. The rendezvous was rescheduled for Tuesday at the Tustin Marketplace shopping center. This time, FBI special agents Jeffrey Palumbo and George Krumpotich were there, conspicuous in their dress shirts, ties and sunglasses.
They questioned him for an hour. Riad later says they asked about his political views: “Are we the bad guys in all this?” Riad says he told them that he condemns the terrorism and wants the perpetrators brought to justice but that American “one-sided, unconditional, blind support of Israel” is fueling widespread resentment in the Mideast against the United States.
The agents homed in on his association with the Holy Land Foundation, Riad says, telling him the intelligence community suspects that some American Muslim charities are funneling donations to terrorist groups. Riad, a new member of Holy Land’s board of directors, says he responded that the suspicion is “ridiculous,” rooted in a pro-Israeli campaign to weaken what is the most successful American Muslim charity working to aid Palestinians.
After the interview, Palumbo said that Abdelkarim was not suspected of any link to last week’s terrorism. He said the FBI has interviewed thousands of Muslims in the last week and is sensitive to their fears that they are being singled out, but that national security needs demand the targeting.
“We are enforcing the law fairly. This is not a fishing expedition,” Palumbo said. “Any lead, no matter how ridiculous, might be a significant clue. We wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we didn’t look at everything.”
One Test Passed, but Worry Remains
Nevertheless, Riad says he feels offended by the interview and what he calls the false information about Holy Land that led the agents to him. “We do support the FBI investigation, but think they should start with the thugs, not the doctors, physicians, journalists and business owners,” Riad says.
He wonders if the FBI visit will affect his career, since the agents turned up at his medical center that morning looking for him.
“I would hope I am judged at work by the quality of the care I provide to my patients,” he says.
Back at the mall, the family heads to the food court for dinner. Baja Fresh burritos for the parents, McDonald’s Happy Meals for the children. A security guard approaches, but not for them. He tells a photographer that pictures are not allowed in the mall without prior permission.
The family stops off at the Sanrio gift shop, where Rasmieh, 12, gets to choose her trinket. She selects a Hello Kitty wallet. Wijdan buys four blow-pops for the kids--"to keep them quiet,” she says.
The shopping trip is over. They made it through without so much as one glare. Wijdan manages a wan smile. “I feel fine,” she says.
Asked if she’ll come here again, she shakes her head emphatically.
“No no no. I go out by myself? No.”