Unleashing a wave of hate

August 22, 2012

Arabs and Muslims--and sometimes those who simply appear to be Arab or Muslim--are bearing the brunt of a series of hate crimes caused by institutional racism.

THE UGLY fruits of institutional racism against Arabs and Muslims are becoming more apparent every day--with terrifying results for already embattled communities.

In the wake of the shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., a series of ugly attacks have been carried out against several mosques and Islamic While Sikhs are not Muslims, Sikh men wear turbans, and so they and their temples have become frequent targets of racist threats and violence.

Such attacks are not carried out in isolation, however. They come in the context of increasingly toxic rhetoric from right-wing Republicans bent on demonizing Muslims, bolstered by a far-right Islamophobic hate industry. But the Democrats are implicated, too. While the party establishment may not engage in openly racist rhetoric, Democratic politicians are largely content to allow the right's demonization of Arabs and Muslims to go unchallenged. That's because there's bipartisan support for the "war on terror" that was used to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, and few Democratic politicians are willing to risk being seen as "soft on terror."

Islamophobic vandalism found last week covering a grave in Evergreen Park, Illinois
Islamophobic vandalism found last week covering a grave in Evergreen Park, Illinois

So it's little wonder that anti-Muslim bigots and thugs think they have a green light.

An August 14 Salon.com story noted eight violent incidents in just 11 days, including paintball attacks, a homemade chemical bomb and arson. In one grotesque act of vandalism, women threw pig's legs in the driveway of the proposed Al-Nur Islamic Center in Ontario, Calif.

In another incident, which came to light after the Salon story was published, racist anti-Islam graffiti was discovered defiling the gravesite of a Muslim man in Evergreen Park, Ill. The gravestone has been defaced at least six times in the last 16 months, according to authorities.

JUST AS with any other struggle against racism, the deciding factor in stopping anti-Muslim and anti-Arab violence will be a movement that stands in defense of those oppressed communities. But to succeed, the movement will need to challenge not only neo-Nazis like Oak Creek shooter Wade Michael Page, but the powerful political forces that incite such violence.

Among the leading hate-mongers is Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. Bachmann--who seems to think a jihadist spy is hiding behind every door--recently charged that prominent figures including Huma Abedin, an aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress, had shadowy ties to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. According to Bachmann, the Muslim Brotherhood is working for "America's demise" though an attempt to influence the federal government.

Bachmann has been joined in her accusations by various current and former GOP congresspersons, as well as commenters and heads of conservative groups.

In such a climate, those of Middle Eastern or Arab descent--or people who might simply be deemed to "look" Middle Eastern or Arab, including South Asians--easily become targets.

It's no surprise, for example, that several of the recent anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate crimes were centered in suburban Chicago and came just days after Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh held a town hall meeting where he "warned" a crowd of his mostly white supporters:

I'm looking for some godly men and women in the Senate, in the Congress, who will stand in the face of the danger of Islam in America without political correctness. Islam is not the peaceful, loving religion we hear about...[T]here is a radical strain of Islam in this country...trying to kill Americans every week.

For Walsh and other politicians, this kind of rhetoric is the crassest kind of dog-whistle politics--a way of mobilizing racist sentiment to boost the right's voter turnout. This approach means never having to answer any meaningful questions about the things that matter most in people's lives: how can we fix the economy, pay for health care, create good jobs and schools.

Four days after his comments, the impact of Walsh's racism became clear. In Morton Grove, Ill., David Conrad began shooting an air rifle at the mosque next to his house as 500 congregants were gathered inside for evening prayers. And just two days after that, a soda bottle filled with household chemicals designed to explode and make a loud noise was thrown at an Islamic school in Lombard, Ill.

As journalist Ghazala Irshad, who attended the Morton Grove mosque as a child, wrote, "My baby sister wonders if she will have to wear a bulletproof vest during Eid prayers. If this isn't terrorism, then I don't know what is."

Joe Walsh may be a right-wing crank, but he is an incredibly powerful one--in his position as a member of Congress, he sits on the Committee on Homeland Security.

As the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Aymen Abdel Halim told ABC 7 Chicago, the words of people like Walsh are directly responsible for letting bigots off the leash:

What we've seen is a trend during election times where there's this rise in anti-Muslim sentiment, there's this Islamophobic rhetoric that gets spewed out by various public figures and public officials, and we feel that contributes to these acts of violence. We need our public officials to stand up against it. We need them to come out and say these acts are not okay. Sure, there might be some issues that [Muslims] need to address, however, an entire community, 1.5 billion people, are not to account for any crimes whatsoever of a few.

THE RIGHT-wing assault on Arabs and Muslims isn't just promoted by Washington hacks like Walsh. Politicians like him take their cues from an organized Islamophobia industry spearheaded by virulent racists like Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer.

Geller and Spencer--two of the most prominent opponents of the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" in New York City in 2010--are currently funding pro-Israel bus ads in San Francisco which read: "In the war between the civilized man and the savage, you side with the civilized man." A court has cleared the way for the ads to appear on New York's MTA system as well.

In a positive sign, a public outcry forced San Francisco's transit authority to counter with its own large disclaimers on buses, reading, "[San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency] policy prohibits discrimination based on national origin, religion, and other characteristics, and condemns any statements that describe any group as 'savages.'"

The transit agency has also announced that money from the sale of the ads will be given to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, and several unknown "artists" have countered the ads by pasting the words "Hate Speech"--and more--over them.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes and hate groups in the U.S., the last several years have seen a spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes as a result of the kind of rhetoric from Geller and others:

Anti-Muslim hate crimes soared by 50 percent in 2010, skyrocketing over 2009 levels in a year marked by the incendiary rhetoric of Islam-bashing politicians and activists, especially over the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" in New York City.

Although the national statistics compiled by the FBI each year are known to vastly understate the real level of hate crime, they do offer telling indications of some trends. The latest statistics, showing a jump from 107 anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2009 to 160 in 2010, seem to reflect the consequences of a rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric from groups like Stop Islamization of America...It was the highest level of anti-Muslim hate crimes since 2001, the year of the Sept. 11 attacks, when the FBI reported 481 anti-Muslim hate crimes...

It's not provable precisely how hateful rhetoric from public figures drives criminal violence. But anecdotal evidence suggests the link it a tight one.

BUT DISCRIMINATION against the Muslim and Arab communities is not solely a feature of the right.

It is also fueled by the Democrats' wars abroad and tacit demonization of Arabs and Muslims, as well as the Democrats' hesitancy to stand unapologetically in defense of the rights of those oppressed communities.

As Deepa Kumar notes in Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire:

Domestically, [President Barack] Obama has attacked Muslims and Arabs by continuing Bush's policies of torture, extraordinary rendition and pre-emptive prosecution. American Muslims continue to be harassed and persecuted by the state. The drama of "homegrown terrorism" was only heightened under Obama in 2009, paving the way for the far-right-wing Islamophobic warriors.

In fact, state surveillance, harassment and intimidation of Arab and Muslim communities by law enforcement has been a wholly bipartisan effort that continues across the U.S. Mosques have been spied on, and FBI officials have sent in informants to pose as converts and attempt to bait mosque attendees with talk of "jihad" and "Osama."

This week, an Associated Press report noted:

In more than six years of spying on Muslim neighborhoods, eavesdropping on conversations and cataloguing mosques, the New York Police Department's secret Demographics Unit never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation, the department acknowledged in court testimony unsealed late Monday.

The Demographics Unit, according to police, was supposed to serve as an "early warning system" for terrorism. Instead, it served as a system for harassment. And it was a model for other police departments across the U.S.

Civil liberties attorney Jethro Eisenstein described it as "a terribly pernicious set of policies. No other group since the Japanese Americans in World War II has been subjected to this kind of widespread public policy."

THE COMPARISON is an important one. During the Second World War, when Japanese Americans were interred as part of official wartime policy, the effects of institutional anti-Japanese racism were similar. Bigots circulated "Jap hunting licenses." A 1944 Gallup poll showed a significant portion of the U.S. population (13 percent) was in favor of the extermination of all Japanese people--every man, woman and child.

Today, Arabs and Muslims similarly have been declared Public Enemy Number One in the war on terror, with occasional trumped up terrorism prosecutions like that of the Newburgh Four, or Tarek Mehanna--people who are clearly not terrorists by any conventional definition, but who can be entrapped or railroaded by zealous government prosecutors looking to score cheap political victories.

A 2010 Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans hold an unfavorable view of Islam. And in a Washington Post-ABC News poll the same year, 31 percent of respondents said that mainstream Islam "encourages violence."

And while there may not be "Muslim hunting licenses" today (at least not in "polite" society) racist thrill seekers can now participate in a re-enactment of the killing of Osama bin Laden (in the comfort of St. Paul, Minn., for those who don't want to go to Pakistan)--all for the bargain price of $325.

As part of the experience, former Navy Seal Larry Yatch, who runs the shooting gallery, tells his would-be soldiers to aim for "anything above the moustache to below the turban."

Think about that. A former Navy Seal selling an "adventure" to people in which they get to shoot at and "kill" a turbaned man, wearing Middle Eastern clothing, for sport.

Are we really so surprised when the lines between official rhetoric and policies bleed over into acts of racist hate that terrorize communities and even take lives?

Since a gunman opened fire on a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colo., in July, both Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have made separate visits to grieving victims and their families. But for the families of those killed at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, there have been no similar visits--from the Obamas or from Mitt Romney.

"Why wouldn't they, at some point, make a stand? Make a stand for everybody out there who's ever been robbed, or gunned down or has faced this hatred," asked Amardeep Kaleka, whose father was killed in the attack on the gurdwara.

He added:

If this was a Christian church and it was a Sikh shooter, I'm pretty sure we'd have a different response if the same exact situation happened. That's pretty sad, because we'd have undeniable recourse and actions from the government, or at least a show of support. Here we barely have any support from the federal government or even the local government.

Kaleka is right. There is a not-too-subtle message being sent: some victims are worthy of official grieving, some are not. Some lives are worth more than others.

This kind of climate raises the real possibility of further attacks. We need to do everything we can to counter this climate of hate by taking on the politicians that help fuel it and standing in solidarity with our Muslim, Sikh and Arab brothers and sisters--as well as any other community that becomes a target.

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