Monica Almeida / New York Times / Redux

US Muslims experience rise in Islamophobia

Community leaders report unprecedented rise in hate crimes and bias incidents; cite anti-Islamic rhetoric

Muslims across the United States are experiencing an unprecedented increase in hate crimes and bias incidents, community leaders say, amid a rise in anti-Islamic rhetoric by politicians following deadly attacks by extremists in Paris and California.

Two women verbally assaulted at a restaurant in Texas; arson striking a Somali restaurant in North Dakota; threatening phone calls and letters sent to a mosque in New Jersey; and the beating of a Muslim shopkeeper in New York are just some of the dozens of reported hate crimes and bias incidents that have taken place in recent weeks, according to a tally maintained by USA Today.

Hate crimes and bias incidents are motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s prejudice toward a race, religion, ethnic group, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. While hate crimes also entail traditional criminal offenses, such as murder or arson, bias incidents involve behavior that may not rise to the level of a crime, such as harassment.

Islamophobia is not, however, a unique and growing American phenomenon. German Muslims fear the rise of Patriotische Europäer Gegen eine Islamisierung des Abendlandes (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicization of the West), or PEGIDA, which is active elsewhere as well. In France, Islamophobic fears revived when two gunmen affiliated with Al-Qaeda attacked Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, in January, killing 12 people, and intensified after the recent attacks. Elsewhere in Europe, anti-immigrant sentiments are often code for anti-Muslim.

Leaders in American Muslim communities say the rise in hate crimes and bias incidents began after Nov. 13, when gunmen belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) opened fire in Paris, killing 130 people. The number of reports spiked further after a Muslim couple, who reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIL,  killed 14 people a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, on Dec. 2.

The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim advocacy group, said reports of hate crimes and bias incidents are at an all-time high.

“We quite literally haven’t had time to breathe,” said CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper.

“I don’t have a figure for number of attacks, but it’s unprecedented. And the other thing that’s unprecedented is the anti-Muslim bigotry has moved into the mainstream,” Hooper added. “In previous spikes, like after 9-11, Islamophobia was on the fringes of society.”

Now the sentiment is more mainstream with some politicians and popular pundits making comments about Islam that are so inflammatory many American Muslims feel uneasy, or even concerned about their safety.

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump on Monday drew the ire of civil liberties groups and fellow members of his party after proposing that the U.S. should temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the country.

"Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life," Trump said in a statement.

Lt. Adeel Rana, a Pakistani-American New York Police Department (NYPD) officer and spokesman for the department’s Muslim Officers Society, said he was disappointed that such a prominent American figure, especially one running for president, could say such defamatory things about an entire religious group.

If he had the chance to speak to Trump, Rana said he’d tell the real estate mogul: “Read up on the Constitution, and stop this hatred. No matter who it is, Muslims or any other immigrant community, enough is enough. You are going for a leadership position. Act like a leader and know that America is built on immigration and different people.”

In response to the surge in hate crimes and bias incidents, many Muslim communities have requested increased police patrols around their mosques and in their communities — as was the case when a severed pig’s head was discovered on the doorstep of a Philadelphia mosque on Sunday. Muslims consider the animal unclean and refrain from eating pork.

However, not all American-Muslims feel comfortable with greater police presence.

“There’s a lot of mistrust” between Muslim communities and local police, Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, told Al Jazeera. Sarsour is a longtime campaigner against NYPD profiling of Muslims because of their religion.

Muslims have reason to be fearful of both anti-Muslim attackers and overbearing police forces whose surveillance of mosques creates mistrust, Sarsour said. Since at least 2002, the NYPD has engaged in “suspicionless surveillance of Muslims in New York City and beyond,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“It’s chilling free speech in our community,” Sarsour said of the surveillance. “People don’t trust the people in our own community. We don’t know who is an informant, who isn’t an informant.”

“The way that other communities look at law enforcement and feel safe, we say wow they [the police] look at us and think we’re the suspects and the criminals,” Sarsour said. “What police officers need to do is to treat us like they would treat communities in suburban America. We need to be treated with respect.”

CAIR’s Hooper believes that one way to increase trust in police officers and better protect American-Muslims from hate crimes and bias incidents is by increasing the number of Muslims on police forces.

Rana agrees, citing his group's outreach efforts to the city’s diverse Muslim community.

“Especially the Muslim communities with different nationalities, we’ve been educating them about their rights,” Rana said. Some newcomers might not even realize that harassment over religion is a crime that should be reported to the police, he added.

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