A string of bank robberies, carried out by people disguised in traditional Islamic woman's garb, has prompted concerns among religious, government and law enforcement officials in the Philadelphia area.
The robberies, at least five since December, were carried out by people wearing full-length robes and veils to hide the hair and part of the face, according to some surveillance tapes broadcast by local stations in Philadelphia. Muslim leaders fear use of the disguises could put Muslim women in danger or make them objects of scrutiny.
"We regard this act as discriminatory," Imam Isa Abdul Matin told reporters at a news conference Tuesday. "It is in actuality a type of hate crime against Muslims."
The Muslim leaders offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the robbers.
The use of Muslim disguises seems to be contained to the Philadelphia area, according to Muslim groups and law enforcement officials.
In the past, bank security officials in other parts of the country raised concerns about the potential for Muslim head scarves to hide identity, Amina Rubin, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said by telephone from Washington. They were worried that the scarves might hide faces from security cameras; when shown that the scarves don't in fact hide faces, they were satisfied, she said.
"We recognize legitimate security concerns, so we met with some banks and straightened it out," Rubin said.
In the Philadelphia case, the robbers tried to hide their identity as much as possible, also wearing face veils.
Although the only recent reports involving Muslim attire designed to hide the identity come from the Philadelphia area, a CAIR official said there may have been a handful of similar reports over the years from elsewhere.
In addition to the bank robberies, a man wore such garb this month as part of a robbery of a barber shop in the Philadelphia area. One person was killed in that case, and a suspect was arrested.
The robberies and disguises have reignited concerns that arose from the radical Islamic attack against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Civil rights groups have warned that some Muslims have been targeted for surveillance and investigation since then.
There is a danger that the disguised robbers could inflame ethnic tensions. "These type of cowards set us back," Philadelphia Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. said.
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