These are difficult days to be a Muslim in the United States.
There was, for example, the drunk man who chased Linda Sarsour and her friend down a New York City street earlier this month calling the two women “f---ing Arabs” and threatening to “chop off your f---ing heads and see how your people like it.”
There was also the gang of young Jewish men who circled her mosque in cars earlier this summer, blasting sirens at worshippers as they arrived and screaming anti-Arab slurs in the pre-dawn darkness.
Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, says she sees evidence of it all the time at her office, which provides various social services. More than once, she said, Muslim women wearing the same traditional headscarf she wears have arrived shaking with fear after being spat on in the street.
“Psychologically, it makes people feel like they aren’t wanted,” said the Brooklyn-born Sarsour, who bristles at the suggestion that she isn’t a “real” American. “Don’t tell me I don’t belong here, to go back to my country,” she said, echoing the taunts she’s heard on the street. “This is my country.”
The turmoil in the Middle East over the past months has metastasized into heated rhetoric and violence among Muslim communities in cities across Europe, particularly in countries where Muslims are not integrated into the mainstream of society and are viewed with suspicion.
The United States has been luckier in that respect and it’s largely because U.S. Muslims are generally well integrated into the community. But as violence erupted this summer between Israel and the Palestinian population of Gaza, and as the murderous terrorist group ISIS publicly beheaded American journalists in Iraq as part of its campaign to establish a so-called Islamic State, increasing anti-Muslim sentiment seems to threaten the very integration that has helped protect the U.S. from violence at home.
The New York City Police Department, for example, recorded seven anti-Muslim hate crimes in all of 2013. There have been 17 so far in 2014, 14 of which have happened since July 1.
“The sad thing is if it is happening in New York City, one of the most diverse and liberal cities in the country if not the world, God only knows what’s happening in the rest of the country,” said Sarsour.
“There’s definitely been a rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric in our society,” said Maya Berry, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Arab American Institute. “Regrettably…the situation is worse than immediately after 9/11.”
The AAI’s most recent survey on “American Attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims,” conducted this summer, found that Arabs and Muslims have the lowest favorable and highest unfavorable rating of all ethnic and religious groups assessed. The survey also found that 42 percent of Americans “support the use of profiling by law enforcement against Arab Americans and American Muslims” and that many do not believe an Arab or Muslim citizen should be allowed to hold significant public office.
Unfortunately, in some parts of the country, lawmakers seem to be doing their best to aggravate the situation. Earlier this month, Republican Oklahoma State Senator John Bennett repeatedly made statements attacking the Islamic faith, calling it a “cancer that needs to be cut out” of the United States.
Rather than repudiate Bennett’s remarks, Oklahoma State Republican Party Chairman Dave Weston backed him up, saying, “If we as Americans were ruled by Islam, then Christians and Jews like you and I could only keep practicing our faith if we paid a protection tax. But if you’re Christian or Jewish and don’t immediately convert to Islam, they imminently decapitate you. This is proven by ongoing observation around the world today.”
Mark Potok, spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes, called the statements “despicable,” and said that the rise in anti-Islamic rhetoric in the U.S. almost certainly leads to an increase in hate crimes against Muslims.
“Words have consequences,” Potok said. “Certainly people may make these kinds of statements under the first amendment, but it doesn’t make them any less poisonous. The comments of leaders play out in the criminal activities of people who listen to them.”
Indeed, just days after Bennett’s remarks, Imad Enchassi, senior Imam at the Islamic Council of Greater Oklahoma started receiving specific threats that his congregation’s mosque would be burned down during Friday services, with his congregation inside.
“We’re going to chop your head off. We’re going to burn your mosque,” Enchassi said in an interview, ticking off some of the threats he has received. “We got specific threats of beheading Muslims in the state. Beheading children.”
Enchassi has lived in Oklahoma since the 1980s, and has lived through the Oklahoma City bombing, for which Muslim terrorists were originally blamed. He lived through 9/11 and Oklahoma’s attempt to ban Sharia Law in 2010.
He says he has never seen anti-Muslim sentiment worse. “This is a first for us in this state,” he said.
Enchassi, who is also chairman of the Department of Islamic Studies at the University of Oklahoma City said that death threats directed at him personally have become so common, “I just go on my Facebook page and tell them to stand in line.”
But for the members of his community, he said, the threats are no joke. The adults try to shield children from too much knowledge of what is being said about people like them, but it’s difficult. On days when the threats are particularly bad, he said, children at the Islamic Council’s school are kept inside at recess out of fear of attacks.
It’s the effect on children that troubles Linda Sarsour, too.
“How do you tell a 12 year old kid – born in Brooklyn – why this is happening?” she asks angrily. “You can’t explain this. Kids are saying they’re afraid to tell people they’re Muslim because they might hurt them. Kids shouldn’t be thinking about that.”
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