By ARSALAN SULEMAN
Excerpted from- WISE Up- Knowledge ends Extremism 2017
The politicization and demonization of Islam in America, particularly during and after the 2016 election cycle, has had a devastating impact on American Muslim communities. While the effects of biased media narratives and deteriorating government-community relationships may seem abstract, the recent surge in hate crimes targeting American Muslims makes concrete the real-life impact of hate crimes that individuals and communities have felt across the country.
Openly anti-Muslim rhetoric and policy proposals during the 2016 election campaign gave license to hatred and bigotry, resulting in a significant spike in hate crimes against Muslims. FBI hate crimes data (which are incomplete due to underreporting from police departments and victims) reveal that anti-Muslim bias crimes spiked by 67 percent in 2015 (the most recent year for which data are available). A Pew analysis of those data indicates that physical assaults against American Muslims in 2015 almost matched such reports in 2001, when attacks against Muslims spiked following the 9/11 attacks. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported a sharp jump in post-election hate crimes, as well as an increase in hate groups in 2016, finding a tripling of anti-Muslim hate groups.
Lives have been lost amid this crime wave. Three men were attacked, two of them fatally, when they intervened to stop a hate crime targeting a young Muslim woman and her friend in Portland, Oregon. Two Indian Americans in Kansas were shot, one fatally, for being perceived as Middle Eastern. A Sikh man in Washington was similarly shot. Over the past year, dozens of American mosques have been vandalized, with four arsons reported in the first quarter of 2017.This crime wave has also led to allegations of double standards in media coverage and in prosecutions of hate crimes and terrorist acts. Attacks by right-wing extremists, like Dylann Roof’s massacre in South Carolina, are less likely to be labeled terrorism in the media, even though they often meet standard definitions of terrorism. Convictions for terrorism and hate crimes require additional elements of proof regarding the perpetrator’s motivations, so prosecutors may be averse to charging those additional crimes if they assess their ability to prove those elements weak. But communities often look to such labels and charges as indicative of broader social understanding of their vulnerability. Many attacks against American Muslims have not been labeled as terrorism or hate crimes by the media or charged as such by prosecutors, exacerbating those communities’ sense of marginalization and victimhood.
In addition to the rise in hate crimes, anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies threaten to undermine our national security. Policies like the executive orders promulgating a Muslim travel ban—both of which were enjoined by federal courts on the basis that they were discriminatory and that plaintiffs were likely to succeed on their constitutional challenges—are rooted in the false notion that Islam and America are incompatible and in conflict. The very terrorists with whom we are at war share that dangerously flawed worldview. As domestic Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate crimes increase, groups like Daesh claim that their narrative has been confirmed, boosting their ability to recruit and spread their ideology. And when groups like Daesh commit their despicable crimes, Islamophobes point to such atrocities as reason to fear and discriminate against Muslims. And so, the cycle of hatred and misunderstanding continues, and the number of victims continues to rise.
The anti-Muslim ideology, rhetoric, and policies ultimately question what it means to be an American, and it is this contest over identity that American Muslims must—and will—win. America was not founded on the basis of creed or race or ethnicity. We are a nation founded on the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, with certain inalienable rights. Religious freedom is one of those rights—the very first right enumerated in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Early debates on the Constitution make plain that the founders contemplated a citizenry and government that could include adherents of diverse faiths, including Muslims, who, unbeknownst to many at the time, were present in large numbers via the slave trade. Targeting Muslims for unequal treatment betrays American law and values, and makes America less safe for everyone.
As American Muslims continue to cope with this challenge, many have turned the crisis into an opportunity to stand in solidarity with other vulnerable communities and reinforce our shared commitment to an America that is one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Virtual silence from the White House over the rise in hate crimes has been overshadowed by the voices and actions of civil society. The unprecedented protests against the Muslim ban in airports and cities across the country demonstrate the extent to which Americans from all backgrounds are prepared to mobilize to defend that vision of a unified America.
Interfaith coalitions have come out loudly in defense of religious freedom for all. Jews and Muslims have rallied together in opposition to the rising bigotry, forming alliances like the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council to fight hate crimes and bigotry. People of all faiths are vowing to register as Muslims if a registry is created. American Muslims raised over $100,000 to repair vandalized Jewish cemeteries, and separately also to rebuild black churches that were burned down over a year ago. These acts of solidarity reflect the very best of American values and represent one of the most powerful means of combating bigotry.
Ultimately, we need all elements of society—public officials, media, civil society, and ordinary Americans—to combat this epidemic of hate crimes and reject any Islamophobic rhetoric or policies. The overwhelming response to confront and reject the Muslim ban is a positive sign, but that energy will also be needed to challenge similar possible efforts in the future. At the same time, we need policy experts and community leaders to correct these mistaken views and policies, and to ensure that federal law enforcement officials vigorously investigate and prosecute hate crimes. When politicians perceive all Muslims as security threats rather than as contributing members of society, they divide and destabilize communitiesinstead of increasing our collective safety. To break the cycle of anti-Muslim rhetoric fueling hate crimes and affirming terrorist narratives, politicians should craft policies that encourage social cohesion and minimize polarization.
This rise in hate crimes and bigotry is a test of America’s commitment to the rule of law and our founding values. To prevail, Americans must unite around our core values of equality, religious freedom, and pluralism—and American Muslims must rise to the occasion and play a leading role in that effort.