U.S. Muslim Groups Pledge to Not Sit Idly by as Hate Crimes Spike in America

Organizations look for a way forward for a community still reeling from a winning campaign that largely revolved around anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Enas Almadhwahi, an organizer for the Arab American Association of New York, poses for a photo in the Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, November 11, 2016.
Enas Almadhwahi, an organizer for the Arab American Association of New York, poses for a photo in the Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, November 11, 2016.Credit: Julie Jacobson, AP
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

A day after Donald Trump appointed a prominent alt-right figure accused of making anti-Semitic and Islamophobic statements as his chief strategist and senior counsel, two major Jewish and Muslim organizations announced they had formed an alliance aimed at fighting the kind of bigotry that the president-elect and his supporters have been championing for over a year.

The new initiative, combining The American Jewish Committee and the Islamic Society of North America into a group named The Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, aims to “develop a coordinated strategy to address anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-Semitism in the U.S.” Its members include prominent names in both the Jewish and Muslim communities, such as former Senator Joseph Lieberman and New York City Imam Shamsi Ali.

While the new initiative has been in the works since before Trump won, it is the first major organizing effort to come out of the Muslim-American community since the election results were announced. It marks, perhaps, a new way forward for those still reeling from a winning campaign that largely revolved around anti-Muslim rhetoric. The only way to effectively resist Donald Trump, some Muslim community leaders say, is to form coalitions with other minority groups, many of whom were also attacked in one way or another by the president-elect's supporters.

Demonstrators hold signs in support of Muslims residents in downtown Hamtramck, Michigan on November 14, 2016.Credit: Brittany Greeson, Reuters

Trump's win and the violent rhetoric of the last 18 months of his campaign have already unleashed an avalanche of hate crimes, even before he has officially entered the White House. The Southern Poverty Law Center noted that at least 250 hate crimes were reported in the days since Trump won the election, roughly the equivalent of a “normal” 5 to 6 six month period. Much of these acts were perpetrated against American Muslims.

In one instance at San Diego University, a Muslim woman wearing a hijab was reportedly attacked by two men who made comments about Trump and Muslims as they robbed her of her purse; in New Mexico, a Muslim woman said a Trump supporter tried to tear off her headscarf; and in Ann Arbor, police are looking for a man who reportedly threatened to set a University of Michigan student on fire if she didn’t remove her hijab. Recent FBI statistics show that hate crimes against Muslims are at their highest level since the days following September 11, 2001.

There have been hopes that Trump might renounce some of the inflammatory language that characterized his campaign. The campaign promise for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” was briefly removed from his website before returning, its absence explained by a website glitch. But the appointment of Stephen Bannon, an infamous champion of anti-Muslim propaganda, as Trump’s chief strategist has been interpreted as a strong indication that Trump does not intend to back down from his anti-Muslim rhetoric.

"This is not the America I want to live in"

Trump’s victory had sent shockwaves throughout the American Muslim community, but in the past few days, the initial shock has gradually begun to be replaced with a sense of defiance. “I think there was a lot of grief after the shock, and after the grief there was anxiety and frustration. We went through a range a emotions as people were processing. But now things are settling down,” says Omer Bajwa, the Director of Muslim Life at Yale University.

Bajwa has spent much of the past year on “coalition-building, looking for alliances and standing in solidarity” with other marginalized groups. “It’s mobilized and inspired a lot of young people to become politically active, to say 'this is not the America I want to live in, and we’re not going to stand for the normalization of this kind of hate speech,'” he says.

Islamphobia is not new to American Muslims, who have dealt with various waves of hatred since before 9/11 caused a huge spike in hate crimes against the community. Far from insulating themselves in fear, Muslim community leaders say they view the recent rise of racism as a call to action. “Our community has matured politically,” says Bajwa, “we’ve had 15 years to learn these lessons. You can’t just circle the wagon and pretend the problems are going away. I am an American, this is my country, and I don’t want my country to go down this path. So I have to ask myself the question: What am I doing to reclaim civility and sanity and responsible governance? And I think many parts of our community are rising to the challenge.”

Demonstrators hold signs during a protest against President-elect Donald Trump and in support of Muslims residents in downtown Hamtramck, Michigan on November 14, 2016. Credit: Brittany Greeson, Reuters

“There’s a realization that this is our country and that the promise of this country is at risk, and that we have an obligation as citizens to fight for the best of what this country can be,” says Hussein Rashid, a professor of religion at Columbia University. “What history has taught us is that when a demagogue gets up and says he is going after a group of people, we have to assume he is going to go after that group of people. There is no wait and see. This cannot be treated as a joke, or an election tactic.”

In the next four years, he says, Muslim Americans are going to have to increase their involvement in federal and local politics if they want to be able to fight against racist and discriminatory policies, creating coalitions with other marginalized communities. “We are part of communities, and we are not the only ones being bullied, so we need to stand up for others who are being bullied as well. While it’s true that American Muslims have been subject of increasing threats and attacks in this country, so have women of any type, blacks have been more publicly told they don’t belong here, Latinos. This is not just about American Muslims, but about the very fabric of this country.”

The days after the election, American Muslims say, have been marked by an extraordinary outpour of support from other groups and individuals vowing to stand by the community in its time of need. “Here in New York, we have a reputation of being rude people,” says Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, founder of the website MuslimGirl and author of the recently published memoir "A Muslim Girl: Coming of Age."

“Over the past few days, people have been going the extra mile to be more friendly. Immediately after the election, I have been flooded with messages from people asking, 'How are you? Are you ok? Are you safe?' People recognize that this is a very difficult moment for minorities. On social media, people are offering to accompany Muslim women when they feel unsafe.”

"The day after was very difficult, but I had the opportunity to meet with interfaith leaders, rabbis and ministers who were just as at a loss as I was about what happened in our country,” says Debbie Almontaser, Board President of the Muslim Community Network, an NGO founded in 2003 in response to the urgent needs of the Muslim community in New York City in the aftermath of 9/11. “It was beautiful, but what was even more beautiful was them realizing how this is much more difficult for American Muslims and saying ‘we’ve got your back.’”

However, the violence that followed Trump’s election persists. Muslims of all ages, and particularly young Muslim women, are attacked in the streets and on social media. “People are already using this as if it’s open season on people of color, as if there’s going to be no accountability for their actions. Young Muslim women have been especially targeted," says Al-Khatahtbeh. "Almost exactly one year ago, when Trump made the comments about banning all Muslim immigration, MuslimGirl had to publish a Crisis Safety Manual for Muslim women. It was the first time since our inception that we had to do that, just so women know how to survive the media frenzy. Now we have to not only recirculate that, but Muslim women are going to be targeted even more.”

Al-Khatahtbeh grew up during the height of post-9/11 Islamophobia and suffered from bullying that ultimately drove her to “distance myself from my religion and hide the fact that I am Muslim” for a time. Trump’s election, she says, will “no doubt result in a huge escalation of bullying against children.” She adds: “Personally, I still can’t wrap my head around what the next four years are going to look like. I think it’s a very scary picture.”

The only solution, she says, is for Muslims to be “very vocal, very strong, very unapologetic,” and cooperate with other marginalized communities to resist racist policies.

“It means a lot that people care, that they understand what this means for people like us,” she says, “But I really hope this moment compels people to take action. It’s not enough to know this is a bad moment. It is necessary for us to push back and hold down the line.”

“It is what it is. Trump won fair and square,” says Almontaser. “Now it is time for us as a country to unite and make sure the needs of our communities, of every ethnic, racial, and sexual orientation are met.”

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