They’re fanning the flames of anti-Muslim hate

December 16, 2015

Nicole Colson reports on a wave of anti-Muslim hate crimes and its root causes.

THE PREDICTABLE consequence of anti-Muslim racism whipped up by U.S. politicians and a complicit media: That's the only way to describe the surge of disturbing incidents--ranging from vandalism to assault, and possibly worse--directed at Muslims in the past several weeks.

Following November's terrorist attacks in Paris and the more recent shootings in San Bernardino, California, Republicans and the right are singling out Islam as an inherently violent religion and casting suspicion on all Muslims as potential sympathizers with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)--giving the green light to some of the worst hate crimes against Muslims since 9/11. But Democrats are avoiding a firm stand against the hate, adding to the climate of scaremongering.

Republican presidential contender Donald Trump has arguably been the most vitriolic, calling for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and a compulsory registration of Muslims in a federal "database." He also recycled the long-discredited lie about "thousands" of Muslims celebrating the September 11 attacks.

Republican presidential contenders Ben Carson, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz
Republican presidential contenders Ben Carson, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz

But other politicians are banking on bigotry as a campaign tactic. Ben Carson, for example, suggested that a Muslim shouldn't be president because Islam isn't "consistent with the Constitution."

Ted Cruz--the latest GOP presidential hopeful to become a challenger to Trump, based on his standing in the polls--says that Christian refugees from Syria should be allowed into the U.S., but not Muslim refugees. Last month, Cruz took to Fox News to smear the world's 1.6 billion Muslims: "If you look at Islamism, it is a theocratic and political ideology that says that they are compelled to use violence and force to murder anyone that doesn't share their radical faith or to forcibly convert them."

Then there's Tea Party Republican and Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, who did the popular right-wing proposal for a ban on Syrian refugees one better, and said she would be willing to fly overseas to kill some: "What--are you kidding me? I'm about to fly to Paris and shoot 'em in the head myself! I am not okay with Syrian refugees. I'm not okay with terrorists. I'm okay with putting them down, blacking them out, just put a piece of brass in their ocular cavity and end their miserable life."

Fiore later clarified that she was "only" talking about shooting terrorists in the head.

Underlining how poisonous things have become, Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), told CNN, "I have never seen it like this, not even after 9/11."

THE ANTI-Muslim rhetoric coming from those the top of society doesn't just vanish into the ether. It's the equivalent of waving a red flag in front of hateful individuals lower down the right-wing food chain.

Just a partial list of anti-Muslim incidents from late November and early December includes:

Graffiti and broken windows at the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix; a pig's head left in a Philadelphia mosque; and graffiti, broken windows and a fake grenade left at the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Baitus-Salaam Mosque in Hawthorne, California. A Sikh temple in Buena Park, California, was also vandalized with anti-Islam and anti-ISIS graffiti.

A mosque in Coachella, California and a Somali restaurant in Grand Forks, North Dakota, were each set on fire after being targeted with graffiti, including Nazi symbols and the words "Go home."

The Washington, D.C., offices of CAIR were closed and evacuated after a death threat and a white powdery substance was received; CAIR's St. Louis office received voice messages threatening to cut off the heads of Muslims.

A Muslim middle school student in Georgia carrying a backpack was asked by a teacher if she was carrying a bomb in it. A school spokesperson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that officials don't believe the question was asked with "ill intent."

A New York middle school student wearing a hijab was assaulted by three fellow students who called her "ISIS" and tried to rip off her hijab as they punched her.

A deli owner in Queens was beaten by a man yelling, "I kill Muslims."

A group of Muslims who were praying at a park at Lake Chabot in Alameda County, California were accosted by a woman who accused them of being anti-Christian terrorists and threw hot coffee at one Muslim man.

After asking if they were Muslim, a man began yelling at workers at a Manhattan restaurant and slapped one--he returned later to smash glass partitions with a chair.

A 21-year-old Muslim woman waiting for a bus in Brooklyn was kicked by a man after he told her, "I can't wait for the U.S. to get rid of you trash."

A Seattle ride-share driver was punched in the head by a passenger who accused him of being a terrorist;

A Muslim woman in Tampa, Florida, was chased by a car. The driver reportedly threw something at the woman and yelled, "I'm gonna cut her." In another incident, also in Tampa, another Muslim woman was shot at while leaving an Islamic Center.

In a case that is being investigated as a possible hate crime after an outcry from the community, Hamza Warsama, a 16-year-old Seattle student, died after falling or possibly being pushed off of the roof of a six-story building. He was allegedly beaten by another student before his death.

Calling such attacks "growing and deeply menacing trends aimed at American Muslims," journalist Glenn Greenwald noted at the Intercept, "There is, it turns out, a serious problem of domestic terrorism in the U.S., but it's not the kind that typically receives attention or concern."

ACCORDING TO CAIR, the threats against and vandalism at U.S. mosques are hitting record highs. Instances of "vandalism, harassment and anti-Muslim bigotry" are up threefold since last year, and running at the highest level since the Muslim civil rights group began keeping track in 2009. Plus, say officials, hate crimes against people are typically twice as high as those against property, and most hate crimes go unreported.

CNN pointed out that previous surges of anti-Muslim bias were often expressed in the form of bigotry at zoning hearings to prevent Muslims from opening places of worship--but the current round of attacks carries a "sharper edge" in the form of death threats, vandalism and violence.

Millions of Muslims living in the U.S. feel like they have a target painted on their backs--and given the escalation of right-wing rhetoric and the wave of violent attacks, such fears are by no means overblown. As Mubeen Shakir described in the Washington Post:

I am afraid that on the train home from the hospital, someone will think my backpack contains a bomb. When I walk through a crowd, I fear being accosted by young men calling me "Arab" or "terrorist." I am afraid that all the talk of Muslim registries, rabid dogs and closing mosques will lead to someone shooting at the mosque that my mother attends every day. If I feel this way walking down the streets of Boston, with the privileges of a well-educated, English-speaking male, I can only imagine the fear of the many people who share my religion without such privileges.

Fifteen-year-old Hebh Jamal, who has grown up in the Bronx, told the New York Times that she recently has had to "adjust her routines" to avoid attacks and figure out how to justify her religion to those around her. "You feel like the whole world is against you," she told the Times. "It's exhausting."

THE IRONY, of course, is that the unbridgeable, intractable "clash of civilizations" rhetoric spewed by politicians and much of the media echoes that of ISIS--whose strategy reinforces the narrative embraced by the cheerleaders for war and empire since 9/11 that "the West" and "Islam" (both misleadingly defined) are fundamentally at odds.

As CAIR spokesperson Corey Saylor told CNN, "Daesh [ISIS] wants Americans to turn on each other, and with November seeing the highest number of mosque incidents since we started keeping data, it seems they are getting their wish."

The rhetoric coming from the likes of Trump and Cruz is the most rabid expression of anti-Muslim bigotry, but Democrats have their own share of the blame to shoulder.

Hillary Clinton has denounced Trump's Islamophobia, but as Secretary of State, she helped prosecute a "war on terror" built on the foundation of anti-Islam scaremongering. One of her campaign's most vocal supporters is retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a key architect of the war on Iraq who, in July, called for "disloyal Americans" to be put in internment camps.

Think that's an overstatement? Consider his statement: "If these people are radicalized and they don't support the United States and they are disloyal to the United States as a matter of principle, fine. It's their right, and it's our right and obligation to segregate them from the normal community for the duration of the conflict."

An open letter to Clinton from advocacy groups including CREDO Action,, Demand Progress, and the Muslim American Society of Boston stated:

We are not aware of any statement from your campaign condemning Gen. Clark's frightening remarks. Please immediately remove Gen. Clark from his role in your campaign, and promise to do the same with any campaign surrogates aiding and abetting the dangerous anti-Muslim mob mentality fostered by your opponents.

Clinton hasn't responded.

Likewise, while Barack Obama's recent televised speech after the San Bernardino shootings was crafted to avoid implicating all Muslims for terrorist acts, Obama called on the Muslim community to "speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect and human dignity"--reinforcing the idea Muslims somehow bear collective responsibility for terrorism.

This "kinder, gentler" style of heaping blame on Islam ignores the root causes of violence and oppression in the first place. As contributor Jennifer Roesch wrote at Jacobin:

[I]f our side succumbs to panic about Trump, we miss the greater dangers we face. It is the "war on terror" carried out by a Democratic president for the last eight years that has created the breeding ground for racism and terrorism. It is the devastating social and economic crisis wrought by austerity that creates the conditions in which right-wing scapegoating can seem to provide answers. And as long as we remain trapped in the logic of lesser evilism, trailing the Democratic Party further to the right, we are weakened in our efforts to build the kind of strong, independent left and social movements that could pose a real alternative to Trump.

DEMOCRATS LIKE Obama and Clinton have been particularly important in feeding the media's deceptive narrative about "radicalization"--which suggest that the problem is impressionable young people spending too much time on the Internet.

"We're going to have to have more support from our friends in the technology world to deny online space," Clinton said. "Just as we have to destroy [ISIS's] would-be caliphate, we have to deny them online space...You're going to hear all of the usual complaints, you know, freedom of speech, et cetera. But if we truly are in a war against terrorism and we are truly looking for ways to shut off their funding, shut off the flow of foreign fighters, then we've got to shut off their means of communicating."

Not only is this a brazen call for censorship, but such facile explanations misdirect attention from the barbarism of U.S. wars and occupations that gave rise to ISIS in the first place--after all, the Islamists had no base in Iraq before the U.S. invaded in 2003.

The way to combat the depths of alienation that apparently led to the San Bernardino shootings would be the development of a movement that can challenge the U.S. war machine at home and stand in solidarity with Muslims against every instance of bigotry and hate. As Mubeen Shakir wrote in a plea for solidarity:

The physical and political violence perpetrated against Muslims in this country will only worsen unless we stand together against this fear-mongering. No one should be a bystander on a train or at a school as Muslims are assaulted and our rights questioned. We need others to speak out and stand with us.

Today, we can see the beginnings of this kind of resistance--in places like Pflugerville, Texas, where hundreds of protesters rallied in defense of Muslims after a mosque was vandalized. And some 100 turned out last week in a show of support for Sarker Haque, the deli owner who was beaten in an anti-Muslim attack in Astoria, with protesters holding signs reading "#StandWithSarker.” This growing solidarity is also visible on college campuses, where Muslim activists are building coalitions with other social justice movements, including Black Lives Matter, to address shared grievances of inequality and oppression.

As Black Lives Matter activist Alicia Garza wrote on social media:

To my immigrant, Muslim, South Asian folks, Black and non-Black, I stand with you in solidarity against xenophobia, white supremacy, Islamophobia and for a world where we can all be our full selves with dignity, determination and respect.

Our futures are interconnected. My fight is your fight, your fight is my fight.

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