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Embassies, Islamic groups fear attacks against Muslims

In the jarring aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, the Saudi Arabian embassy and consulate prepared for the worst.

They visited two injured citizens in the hospital, fielded calls from worried relatives back home, and made sure that the tens of thousands of Saudi students in the United States were accounted for, including one that law enforcement officials said some media wrongly pointed to as a possible suspect.

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Days after the Boston Marathon bombings, as authorities continue to search for suspects, foreign consulates and Islamic community groups are grappling with the fear of attacks against Muslims and anyone else who might get swept up in the maelstrom of suspicion. The bombings killed three people and injured more than 170.

“The backlash does not happen from the average American,” said embassy spokesman Nail Al-Jubeir. “Some of the things we’ve heard on television is utter recklessness. It’s easy to spew hate. It doesn’t matter if it’s on American TV or Middle Eastern radio.”

Many feared the kind of reaction that erupted after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, when Muslims and others were beaten and harassed on the street or in school.

New York Police said a 30-year-old Bangladeshi man was attacked Monday outside an Applebee’s in the Bronx by a man who made anti-Muslim statements. On Tuesday, a pilot at Logan International Airport returned an airplane to the gate because some passengers were upset that two men were speaking a foreign language on the plane, a state official said.

In Malden, a young doctor pushing her baby daughter in a stroller down Commercial Street on Wednesday was punched hard in the shoulder and cursed at by a man who then ran away.

“He said, ‘[Expletive] you. [Expletive] you Muslims, you are terrorists, you are the ones who made the Boston explosion,’” said Heba Abolaban, 26.

Abolaban was with a friend, who also had a baby. Both wore the traditional hijabs, or head scarves, and they were headed to a play group.

“I was really, really completely shocked. I didn’t know what to do. Then I realized what happened. I was crying and crying,” she said, adding, “I was so afraid he might hurt my baby.”

Normally Abolaban is worried about her family’s safety in war-torn Syria, where water, bread, and electricity are in short supply. She is Palestinian and her husband is a doctor from Syria and they came to America more than a year ago to study and complete medical fellowships before returning home.

On Thursday, Abolaban said she was encouraged by the support she received from officials and community groups in Malden, a city of 60,000 with the second-highest percentage of immigrants in Massachusetts.

As she waited for police to arrive, she said, workers at the nearby Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program came outside to protect the women. The police arrived within minutes, soothed her and took her statement.

Then the calls came: Mayor Gary Christenson and Police Chief Kevin Molis phoned her at home. The Islamic center in Malden also checked on her.

“They were so kind. They were so helpful,” she said of the police. “The Malden police chief — he called me two times.”

Police did not find the attacker but vowed to keep looking. Molis called the attack “an intolerable act” that violates state law and “the very essence of our Constitution.”

“No investigative strategy will be overlooked in order to determine who’s responsible for this,” Molis said. “This is something that as a city and as a police department we take seriously.”

No other episodes had been reported as of Thursday, he said.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., praised the Malden police’s response to the attack but said the episodes were worrisome.

“We haven’t seen a major backlash but now with these two cases and the airline incident I think the potential is there,” he said. “The vocal minority of Muslim bashers is just chomping at the bit to blame this on Muslims and Islam.”

After any emergency, consulates and embassies typically mobilize to help their citizens abroad with medical care, contacting family back home or even evacuating citizens if needed. But consulates from predominantly Muslim countries typically take additional precautions because of the harassment many received after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

“There’s always that concern naturally because they’re Muslims,” said Barry Hoffman, the honorary consul general for Pakistan in Massachusetts. He said he had not received any reports of harassment so far, however.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, hundreds of foreigners were arrested by federal officials for alleged immigration violations. Their names were not released and many were unable to notify their family members. Concerned that it could happen again, the Saudi embassy now tracks detained individuals and assigns them a lawyer, Jubeir said.

Jubeir said one Saudi citizen was arrested this week for alleged immigration violations that he said had nothing to do with the Marathon bombing.

This week, some media also pointed fingers at a slim young man from Saudi Arabia who lives in Revere, but he has not been identified as a suspect in the bombing or taken into custody.

Jubeir said US officials told the embassy the man was not a suspect, and by the embassy’s account, he is legally in the United States to study English in Cambridge — part of a Saudi government campaign since Sept. 11, 2001 to send more students to the United States to get to know America better.

Before 2001, fewer than 2,000 Saudi students studied in the United States. Now, nearly 80,000 are studying here, in big cities such as New York to small towns in Kansas, including 2,500 in Massachusetts and 1,000 in the Boston area.

The man’s Facebook photos portray him as a young man exploring America — leaping for joy at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, marveling at the Six Flags roller coaster, and wobbling on ice skates on a frozen rink in the thick of winter.

According to the account the man gave to Saudi officials, his solo trip to the Boston Marathon on Monday was another glimpse of Americana.

He arrived late and tried to watch the runners as they neared the end of the race. Then, a blast propelled him into the air. He stood up, stumbled, and fell.

The next thing he remembers is being bundled into an ambulance and taken to a Boston hospital, where he has been cared for ever since.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.
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