The racial epithets don't surprise Maher Martha anymore. He most often hears the anti-Muslim rhetoric when he stands outside the San Francisco electronics store where he works. He says the hatred intensified after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and worsens every time the government increases the terrorist alert level.
Martha, a Christian who is originally from the Palestinian territories, says those who discriminate don't bother to look beyond his physical features. Shortly after war broke out between the United States and Iraq, a passer-by told Martha: "We've taken over your country, now we're going to take over your women."
"To them, Middle Eastern is Middle Eastern," said the Rohnert Park resident. "We're all alike."
Martha is expecting heightened tensions after Attorney General John Ashcroft warned the nation that al Qaeda is planning an attack on U.S. soil in the next few months. On Wednesday, Ashcroft released photos of seven suspected al Qaeda operatives that the FBI has been pursuing for months.
"Every time there's a threat, people start to act differently," said Martha. "They see a Middle Eastern guy and start thinking maybe he's the one."
Helal Olmeira, executive director for the Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, based in Washington, says high-profile events such as Ashcroft's warning are often catalysts for heightened anti-Muslim sentiments.
"It comes in spurts," said Olmeira. "It's been especially difficult in the last three months as more of our sons and daughters have come home dead from Iraq."
Olmeira said his organization was barraged with hate mail after the U.S. invasion, as fighting intensified earlier this year and following the videotaped decapitation of civilian Nicholas Berg.
"It's often one-liners like 'Go home' or 'Get the hell out of my country,' " he said...
Olmeira says the solution is more outreach.
"There's been a lot of stress put on the Muslim community in dealing with these issues," he said. "The way to turn the tide is through education. Ninety-nine percent of the issues we deal with are about ignorance, and not ignorance in the pejorative sense. People just don't know anything about us."