"The whole Muslim community was praying day and night: 'God, please. There has to be no connection to Muslims,'" Faiz Rehman of the American Muslim Council said Thursday. "We'll probably have a backlash. People in a hurry will think that this is just a Muslim thing again. The community really fears it."
John Allen Muhammad, 41--who converted to Islam several years ago--and John Lee Malvo, 17, were arrested early Thursday as they dozed in their car at a rest stop outside Frederick, Md. The news hit Muslims hard. "It's like a ball in your stomach: 'Oh God here we go again,'" said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "Every time we seem to make some advancements, it's like we take one step forward and two steps back."
"We're doing what we did after Sept. 11: holding onto our seats, holding on for the ride and hoping this one will be shorter," said Jumana Judeh, an activist in the Arab-American community in Dearborn, Mich.
More than 2,000 bias incidents against Muslims were reported to authorities in the year after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. An Ohio man rammed his truck into a suburban Cleveland mosque; someone threw rocks through the window of an Islamic bookstore in Alexandria, Va. Franklin Graham and other evangelists denounced the religion as evil.
But from the White House and more ordinary homes, other Americans sent a different message. President Bush visited a mosque and repeatedly emphasized that his was a war against terrorists, not Muslims. Americans consumed books on Islam, and the FBI eagerly sought Muslims to join and educate their ranks. The overt name-calling had mostly stopped before the sniper ravaged the nation's capital and speculation began about whether it might be a new wave of al-Qaida-inspired terrorism.
Law enforcement officials said early Thursday there was no evidence of a connection to Osama bin Laden's terror network, but they haven't ruled out the possibility of other accomplices. Still, Muslims said, the release of Muhammad's name had done new damage. A few Washington-area Muslim leaders, for example, said they received threats after the arrests. "We're concerned that because of his last name, Muslims will again be scapegoated, and people who don't know any better will act on that," said Sabiha Khan, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Southern California.
Muhammad changed his name from John Allen Williams after converting to Islam. He helped provide security for Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan's "Million Man March" in Washington, D.C., said Leo Dudley, who lived a block from Muhammad in Tacoma, Wash.
There are key differences things mainstream Muslims want the rest of the world to know. For example, they disapprove of the sniper boasting to police: "I am God." "No good Muslim would ever call himself a god," said Mahdi Bray of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation. Also, Orthodox Muslims generally do not consider the Nation of Islam a mainstream religion. "We don't represent their views, they don't represent our views," said Rehman of the American Muslim Council.