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After The Terror Attacks On 9/11, Muslims In Chicago Were Targeted, Lived In Fear

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The rush to work for Hatem Abudayyeh on September 11, 2001 was rooted in fear.

"No idea what was happening," Abudayyeh said. "It was a terrifying day and terrifying experience."

Abudayyeh is Arab American. He grew up on Chicago's North Side and went to Catholic school as a kid and public school as a teenager. On 9/11, he was managing the Arab American Action Center in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood.

"It became clear pretty quickly that the U.S. government believed it was Osama Bin Laden. Immediately we knew it was perpetrated by Arabs. Arabs and Muslims would bear the brunt," he said.

His fears were valid.

Just hours after the attack, outside his Chicago office, Abudayyeh said, "A big biker guy on his Harley, pulls up and sees us Arab looking guys. Jumps off his bike and begins verbally assaulting us right in front of the center on 63rd Street. 'You're responsible for these murders. You all are terrorists. Go back to where you came from.'"

"I had heard that so many times. I come from the far North Side of Chicago, if that's where you want me to go," he added.

In the days after the terror attacks, hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims took place all across the city and suburbs. The feeling of fear was unmistakable. The incidents continued for months.

In early December, Abudayyeh got a call. His community center was on fire.

"I walked in the door here. Firefighters all over the place. Holes in the ceilings. I immediately thought arson," he said.

Across the United States, hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims spiked after 9/11. In 2000, the FBI reported 80 hate crimes. In 2001? 860.

"It was devastating for our community, calling kids terrorists," said Abudayyeh. "Women had their hijab torn off."

Even those only perceived to be Arab or Muslim were caught up in the ugly web of hate. In the first month after the attacks, the Sikh Coalition reported over 300 violent attacks against members of their community.

"Racists see brown skin, and they don't know the difference between Arab, Muslim, Sikh, Indian," said Abudayyeh.

With the spike in hate crimes, President Bush cautioned Americans not to equate all Muslims with Sept. 11.

"Islam is peace," the president said. "These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war."

An FBI investigation revealed the 9/11 suspects had spent several months in Venice, Fla., where they learned to fly planes.

"In this new war, our enemy's platoons infiltrate our borders, quietly blending in with visiting tourists, students, and workers," Attorney General John Ashcroft said at the time. "Their camouflage is not forest green, but rather it is the color of common street clothing. Their terrorist mission is to defeat America, destroy our values and kill innocent people."

Less than two months after the attacks, Congress passed the Patriot Act, granting the government unprecedented surveillance and access to information on all citizens.

"Polls showed that Americans would give up their civil liberties if it meant we were being safe and secure, but guess what, they're not the ones being asked to give up their civil liberties." Abudayyeh said. "It wasn't them that were being targeted."

And on the heels of the the Patriot Act came the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System (NSEERS).

That required men from certain countries, with majority Arab populations, who were not permanent residents of the U.S, to register with the U.S. government.

The program was dismantled 14 years later. Critics called it a complete failure.

"Know how many were convicted of terrorism? A big fat zero," said Abudayyeh. "We cast this wide net, and we cast it on top of the Arab and Muslim community. We basically tell them, you are the enemy.' "

Abudayyeh said bias from those policies still runs deep. In January, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order barring visitors from seven predominantly Muslim counties.

About 5,000 protesters shut down part of O'Hare International Airport, demanding the ban be lifted.

"It was the same kind of anger and frustration and apprehension that we felt post 9/11," said Abudayyeh.

Since 2001, the numbers of hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims is down--from that high of 860 in 2001 to 228 in 2020.

The community has also grown. An estimated 3.7 million Arabs live in the United State, and over 142,000 live in Illinois.

"We have gotten more professional, stronger, better at defending our community and going on offense as well," said Abudayyeh. "One of my biggest regrets, never forgive myself for; we did not offer an immediate political analysis to the September 11 attacks. It was important to hear from Arab and Muslim community. This is a horrible day in the history of this country. But we need to understand context."

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