American Muslims are on edge
In the time it takes you to read this piece, it is possible that another anti-Muslim incident might have occurred in the United States. I began reporting this piece on February 11, after news broke that a 68-year-old Afghan American Muslim man, Abdul Jamil Kamawal, was beaten to death the previous day by a 27-year-old white man outside his family’s home in Portland, Oregon. In the following weeks, the number of subsequent attacks was so high, that Muslim Americans here in Portland often tripped up when I referred to Kamawal’s death as “the incident.”
“Which one are you talking about?” Dana Ghazi, the Syrian-born student body co-president of Portland State University asked me with a nervous laugh. “I am losing track.”
Islamophobia is not only on the rise; it is also proving an effective campaign strategy for future presidents. Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump has done particularly well among supporters who favor a total ban on Muslims in the U.S.
On March 1, he won seven more states, emerging as the clear favorite to secure his party’s nomination. According to an ABC news exit poll conducted on Super Tuesday, 6 out of 10 Republican voters want to keep Muslims out of the U.S. In states such as Arkansas and Alabama, the number is as high as 78 percent. In an ordinary election campaign, the news of a frontrunner disregarding the U.S. Constitution and proposing to ban an entire religious group might grab headlines. But this has been anything but an ordinary presidential contest.
It is a frightening change of direction for the U.S. In just eight years, the country has gone from electing its first black president to courting a candidate, Trump, who thinks little of quoting the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini.
Joseph Santos-Lyons, the Chinese American executive director at the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, believes the hateful rhetoric we are witnessing today is part of a familiar pattern that often peaks during elections. The costs, he fears, can be dangerous. “We see this often during [an] election, of xenophobic political rhetoric that often leads to incidents of violence. The Islamophobia we are witnessing today is often racialized, where brown skinned people are often assumed to be Muslim,” Santos-Lyons said. “The solution is to have a broader conversation not just about hate crimes but also the institutional reasons why racism, Islamophobia, and white supremacy endure.”
What worries civil rights activists is that the number of anti-Muslim crimes is now so high that groups no longer have the capacity to pursue the cases. Zahra Billoo, the executive director of the Northern California chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), said the number of cases has made it “even more difficult to develop the necessary groundswell to urge law enforcement to investigate the matter as a potential hate crime and mainstream media to cover the story adequately.”
Indeed, this was the case with the killing of Kamawal, a man widely considered a pillar of the Portland Muslim community. Aside form local coverage, his story merited little mention in the media.
Kamawal was born and raised in the Afghan city of Kama and changed his name to Kamawal out of a fondness for his home town. In the early 1980s, Kamawal, his wife, and his six children fled to Pakistan after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They lived in a refugee camp in Peshawar for a few years before moving to the U.S. in 1985.
At Kamawal’s memorial service on November 12, hundreds overfilled a Portland mosque, many others standing in the rain, as they paid tribute to a loss of their own. Many told me they were unsettled by how quickly the police reached the conclusion that his killing was not a hate crime. “It has not even been 24 hours since his death,” said Salim, a 23-year-old Portland native, who insisted I not use his last name. “I don’t get it. I am not saying he was killed because he was Muslim or because of his skin color but these days, I don’t think we can ignore these issues.”
One of Kamawal’s sons, who also insisted that I not use his name, believes there is little use establishing that his father was murdered in a hate crime. “It won’t change a thing. He is gone. When we came to America in 1985, we Afghans were the heroes because back then, we had a common enemy with the U.S., the Soviet Union. Today I guess we are the enemy,” he said.
When I continued to return to the same mosque Kamawal frequented, the attention would shift each time.
“Did you hear about this incident,” 25-year-old Yahya told me, holding out his smart phone. It was a story about three young men, two of them Muslim, who had been killed “execution style” in Fort Wayne, Indiana on Wednesday, February 24. On Sunday, February 28, I went back to the mosque to ask more questions about Kamawal’s case but another story was gripping its congregants, many of whom are from Somalia. The previous night, a 17-year-old Somali refugee, Abdi Mohamed, was shot by a police officer in Salt Lake City, Utah while he was holding a broomstick. He remains in critical condition.
As community leaders began discussing Mohamed’s case, the conversation was interrupted once again. “Minneapolis this time,” a mosque volunteer said, referring to a mosque in Minnesota that had been vandalized. Later that night, February 28, I learned of another incident, in Indiana, where a mosque was spray painted with the words “sand nigger,” “f*** Muslims,” and “f*** ISIS.”
Kayse Jama, the Somalia-born executive director of the Portland-based Center for Intercultural Organizing, believes it is important to take a broader view of the challenges Muslims face today in America. Many Muslims, Jama said, face trouble finding jobs, securing housing leases, and accessing mental health services. Often the slights they experience, he pointed out, may not be blatant or involve overtly racist or Islamophobic language. It could be through hearing phrases over and over again like “you speak English well” or “you don’t seem like a Muslim” that reinforces alienation.
But religion alone may not explain this mistreatment. Oregon has around 8,000 families from Somalia, many of whom, according to him, “face hostility because they are black, because they are Muslim, and because they are refugees.” Women in particular, he added, experience a “disproportionate amount of abuse.” He often encourages people to speak about their experiences but he recognizes why many are reluctant to do so. “They are afraid. It’s simple,” he said.
Jama believes what is needed is an intersectional examination about why these incidents happen. “Sometimes the cause may be Islamophobia, sometimes it could be white supremacy, sometimes it could be both, sometimes it could be something else,” he said.
This is true of last year’s killing of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that caused uproar in the American Muslim community. The suspect, Craig Stephen Hicks, shot Yosor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, her husband Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, and her sister Razan, 19, in their apartment. The Chapel Hill police interpreted the murder as likely been “motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking,” while the FBI later opened an investigation into the killings. The results have so far been inconclusive.
Some of these incidents may, in fact, not be examples of hate crimes and as Dan Nielsen, a former FBI special agent who spent 23 years covering Portland, told me, “just because an incident occurs between two people of different races or different faiths does not automatically mean it is a hate crime.” Nielsen added that it is very difficult to establish when an incident is a hate crime and even when there is tangible evidence, a person may not bring this evidence to court because the prosecution may not feel like it adds to the case.
For an incident to be determined as a hate crime, it needs thorough investigation. It helps too if there is strong media spotlight, something that often does not happen. The Kamawal story, for example, was only reported in a few national news outlets. But even after facts emerge that these incidents may not be religiously motivated, many Muslim Americans I interviewed say the events leave them feeling just as uneasy.
Nielsen believes the problem is that “there is a minority of Muslims who we always hear from who only complain.” According to him, “the vast majority, the silent majority as I call them, are happy in this country and experience no problems but we never hear from them.”
There may other reasons why some Muslims in America chose to remain silent. One Somali university student I spoke with, who insisted I not use his name, said police have at times roughed up him and his Somali friends, one time throwing them to the ground and calling them all “Mohammed.” His friend was even told by a police officer, “I killed your people when I was serving in Somalia.”
When I asked why he does he not report these incidents, he laughed. “Are you serious? I need a job after I graduate. No one wants to hear these stories.”
Even those who have fled conflict abroad now feel unsafe in the U.S. Mohanad Elshieky, a 25-year-old college student, left Benghazi in Libya after his friends were killed by Daesh. Today he cannot return home because he fears the terrorist group will go after him, too.
Once while riding a bus in Washington D.C., someone shouted “ISIS” at him when they heard him speaking Arabic. In Portland, he said he has been asked so many times to condemn Daesh that he recently started doing stand-up comedy to raise awareness about what he and other Muslims experience in America.
“I left Libya because of violence. I was traumatized by violence. But some days, especially after I heard about Kamawal’s killing, I feel like I have not left. I feel like I am an outsider here.”
In a recent article for Bloomberg, the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra argued that Islamophobia is an “undeniable fact…the most insidious and volatile mass prejudice of our time.” The data suggests he may have a point. According to CAIR, there were more hate crimes against Muslims reported last year than any previous year, an average of one a day. Since the Paris attacks on November 13, 2015 there have been 69 anti-Muslim incidents reported, with the actual number likely to be much higher. One study by Muslim Mothers Against Violence, a U.S. advocacy group, showed that an estimated 80 percent of Muslim youth faced harassment and a 2011 report by Pew Research found that “more than half (56 percent) of U.S. Muslims ages 18-29 say they have been treated with suspicion, called offensive names, singled out by law enforcement or physically threatened over the past year.”
Media portrayals of Muslims, Arsalan Bukhari of CAIR told me, are partly to blame. He cited a study of prime time news for the period from 2007 to 2013 in which the analysis organization, Media Tenor found that Islam is featured more than any other religion and that this coverage is overwhelmingly negative.
To put things in perspective, today hate crimes against Muslims are at five times the pre-9/11 levels. After 14-year-old Sudanese American Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for bringing a clock to school last year, two researchers released a report saying “people saw Muslims as apes, or worse.” All this has many wondering: how did things get this bad and when did this hysteria begin?
Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, a professor of Religion at Reed College and the author of A History of Islam in America, believes it is hard to say. He said that during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, there were reports of Iranian students beaten up in the U.S. One of the key differences between then and now, GhaneaBassiri said, is that today the incidents “are far more frequent.” One of the problems, he believes, is that Muslims are “still racialized as Arab and seen as the other, as well as denied access to the public space.”
The antidote to this anti-Muslim hysteria, some say, is to discuss Islamophobia more. In December, the Portland City Council became one of the first cities in the United States to approve a resolution in support of the Muslim community and against Islamophobia. Muslim leaders in Portland welcomed it as a critical step but others told me these efforts often mask the real work that has to be done, such as hiring more Muslim teachers, teaching more books that feature complex Muslim characters, and taking steps to make Muslim students feel safe.
Dana Ghazi, the student body co-president, recently wrote a proposal to make her campus more inclusive for homosexuals, Muslims, students of color, disabled students, and transgender students. However, she received so much backlash in response that she had to call for extra security after some accused her of bringing a “Middle Eastern agenda” on campus. “I am afraid today. Absolutely. As a woman, as an Arab, as a Muslim. Absolutely,” she said.
Today she is happy many are discussing Islamophobia but she wants the conversation to go further. “Sometimes when I speak on this topic, people tell me, ‘Oh don’t make people uncomfortable.’ That makes no sense because as someone who studies women’s issues, I know that change only comes when we make things uncomfortable,” Ghazi said.