The tide of Islamophobia

April 23, 2013

Aziza Berg documents the anti-Muslim bigotry that flared and spread in Boston.

IT TOOK less than an hour for a "suspect" to be found after the bombings at the Boston Marathon last week that killed three people and injured nearly 200, many of them critically.

Only it was the wrong "suspect."

A 20-year-old student from Saudi Arabia had been tackled by a bystander. He was taken to a local hospital where he was questioned by police. Within hours, the New York Post was reporting that a "Saudi national" was in custody. The young man was no longer one of Boston's 350,000 students, but the suspected bomber and the object of widespread speculation in the hours to come.

FBI and ATF agents, and Boston police were deployed to his apartment building. They were accompanied by two K-9 units, a bomb squad, officials from Immigrant and Customs Enforcement, Massachusetts state police and assorted other personnel from the Department of Homeland Security.

The student's roommate, Mohammed Hassan Bada, arrived home on Monday night to find his apartment building entirely surrounded. Bada conceded to a search and police interview. Five hours later, he watched as police carried his roommate's possessions away in paper bags.

The New York Post rushes to cast suspicion on a Saudi spectator at the Boston Marathon
The New York Post rushes to cast suspicion on a Saudi spectator at the Boston Marathon

By Tuesday morning, it was clear that this "suspect" was actually a witness to the bombing--and a victim of it, having been hit in the legs by shrapnel. His only "crime" was to respond to an explosion the way so many others did--to run in fear--only he did so while also being Arab.

The case of this still-unnamed student demonstrates how alarmist claims and racist stereotypes were immediately legitimized by the "war on terror" apparatus meticulously constructed over the past decade.

And now, with two Muslim men implicated in the bombings, one killed by police and the other severely wounded and captured, whatever restraint the media may have exercised in the early days after the bombing--the New York Post and Fox News excepted--is long gone. Many of the same myths, distortions and lies about Islam that were peddled in the wake of the September 11 attacks are making a comeback.

Those who oppose racism and violence need to speak out and expose this new tide of Islamophobia.

THE STUDENT "suspect" wasn't the only person racially profiled in the aftermath of Monday's bombings. The same morning that his name was cleared, a Chicago-bound plane was grounded after passengers complained that two different men were speaking Arabic--the fifth-most-spoken language in the world, incidentally. The two men weren't talking to each other, nor sitting together--but both were pulled off the plane anyway.

The next day, Heba Abolaban, a Palestinian doctor, was verbally and physically assaulted while walking with her friend and their children in Malden, a suburb of Boston. A man approached Abolaban, punched her in the shoulder and screamed, "Fuck you Muslims! You are terrorists! I hate you! You are involved in the Boston explosions! Fuck you," according to Abolaban's account to a local newspaper. She and her friend were able to get away from the man and seek help nearby.

In New York City, 30-year-old Abdullah Faruque, who was born in Bangladesh and grew up in the Bronx, was standing outside a restaurant when he was confronted by three or four men who asked him if he was Arab. Unsatisfied with the answer they got, the men began to beat Faruque, while screaming "You fucking Arab!" They dislocated his shoulder and left him nearly unconscious.

Though these incidents of abuse and violence might simply seem like the work of a few crazed individuals, they are very much the product of the state-authorized treatment of Arabs and Muslims in this country over the past 12 years. Numerous Arabs and Muslims were detained in the days following September 11, 2001, and surveillance of Muslim student groups and mosques has continued since, giving state sanction to the deeply racist idea that Muslims are violent because of their religion.

The rampant Islamophobia of the past decade is a direct product of U.S. imperialist projects abroad. And it has served as the justification for a massive homeland security apparatus, under which covert surveillance, entrapment and unjustified imprisonment have become part of the status quo.

Prominent Muslim American community members have been routinely asked to participate in surveillance of their communities over the past 10 years. For some who refused, the consequences have been life-altering.

For example, Tarek Mehanna, a Muslim American pharmacist from Sudbury, Mass., was approached by the FBI and asked to spy on his mosque. He refused. He later found himself and the antiwar views he expressed online at the center of an FBI investigation.

In 2008, he was arrested, then released on bail. In 2009, he was arrested a second time and placed in solitary confinement for more than 700 days without trial. Eventually, he was found guilty of providing material assistance to al-Qaeda--among the "evidence" from prosecutors was the claim that Mehanna translated an Arabic book that is widely available on the Internet.

AS THE world now knows, police were able to release pictures, taken from video surveillance cameras, of the suspected bombers, and late Thursday night, a series of events led to a shootout between 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, his brother, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and police in Watertown, Mass. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed that night, but his brother managed flee the confrontation and evade police.

More than 1 million people in the Boston metro area awoke on Friday morning to find themselves living under a lockdown. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick "requested" that people stay at home, with their doors locked. Thousands of law enforcement personnel were deployed to Watertown. News photos showed a Boston Police Department tank rolling through the streets--a clear symbol of the massive show of force that was outsized for pursuing one badly wounded suspect.

Though we were advised not to leave our houses, many of us living in Cambridge and Boston had no sense of what people in Watertown were subjected to. A video taken by a Watertown resident shows how police carried out house-to-house searches.

The video shows seven officers, armed with automatic weapons, standing on the porch of the house they are about to search. They grab the person who answers the door and force them out onto the sidewalk. All of the other residents and the family dog are removed in similar fashion, with guns trained on them. Once outside, the police proceed to aggressively frisk them. This treatment ends only after police conclude their search, and the family is allowed to return home.

The police have since argued that these aggressive measures were necessary to ensure the safe capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. This claim is undermined by the fact that the 19 year old was caught only after the "stay home" order had been lifted. A Watertown resident, seeing blood in his yard, inspected his boat, and found Tsarnaev lying inside.

Tsarnaev's capture was therefore neither the product of the massively militarized police force nor the regional lockdown. Not surprisingly, in reporting the story about how Tsarnaev was found, many media outlets focused on the police using infrared technology to confirm that someone was in the boat--obfuscating the fact that Tsarnaev's capture occurred in spite of the lockdown, rather than because of it.

The mainstream media coverage shows us how this whole situation will be exploited in the coming days and weeks.

First, there has been a clear effort to celebrate and legitimize the use of overwhelming militarized force against "terrorism" on American soil. Almost no one in the mainstream has questioned the extraordinary declaration of a lockdown covering an entire region--nor has there been much mention of the excessive force used in searching Watertown homes.

Second, Islamophobia has been a persistent and now pervasive presence. The distortions and myths that are being spread about Islam in relation to the Tsarnaev brothers are outrageous.

For example, in a press conference held on Friday afternoon, Maret Tsarnaev, the aunt of the two suspects, mentioned that Tamerlan started praying five times a day several years ago. Since the press conference, this has been used by a number of major news sources to claim that Tamerlan Tsarnaev had turned toward radical "fundamentalism."

Completely ignored is the elementary fact that praying five times a day is one of the most basic tenets of Islam. To describe such a basic Islamic practice as a form of radical fundamentalism is not only ignorant, but also dangerous.

Unfortunately, this seems to be just one example of a reinvigorated Islamophobia. For Arabs and Muslims in the U.S., the ramifications will be harsh. Activists must confront Islamophobia in the media and the state, be vigilant in our defense of our Arab and Muslim brothers and sisters, and confident and unceasing in our solidarity.

For many Bostonians, the past week has been marked by two tragedies. The first is, of course, the bombings themselves, which left three people dead and many more with injuries that will affect them for the rest of their lives. The bombing remains an utterly devastating and horrific act.

But adding to this tragedy is the way the legitimate grief and outrage of our city has been cynically manipulated to further bolster the priorities of the "war on terror." For the past week, people throughout Boston watched state and federal officials use the bombings to malign Muslims generally in the press, put an entire metropolitan area on military footing, and withhold basic civil rights.

We're told that this is the cost of keeping this country safe. We need to challenge both the effects of this project and the very assumptions on which the "war on terror" was founded.

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