Fear factor

  • Police keep watch over passengers at Los Angeles International Airport after the US State Department issued a worldwide travel alert warning US citizens of the heightened risks of travelling due to “increased terrorist threats” in California | AFP
  • A man examines graffiti reading ‘Outside’ (sic) at the prayer hall of the Muslim association of Elne, near Perpignan in France. The walls of the prayer hall of the Muslim Association of Elne were tagged and gateway suffered a fire attempt, according to head of the association Abdelkader Zellal | AFP

After attacks in Paris, New York Muslims cope with a backlash

The safety tips, concise and chilling, have been passed from friend to Muslim friend on social media, by imams to their congregations, by Islamic groups to their members, by parents to their children heading off to school:

When in the subway, stand away from the platform edge, preferably with your back against a wall. Walk in groups after dark. Stay alert at all times.

In the days since the Paris terrorist attacks, Muslims in New York and elsewhere have guarded against a violent backlash, changing their routines and trying to manage their fear.

Still, the violence has come.

In the past week and a half, several Muslims in New York, mostly women wearing head scarves, have reported being victims of verbal abuse and physical assault. Even some non-Muslims—including at least one Latino mistaken for a Muslim—have been subjected to Islamophobic taunts or worse, community leaders said.

In an episode the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported this week, two Muslim women in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn said that a man claiming to be a postal worker assaulted them, elbowing one and spitting in her face, and telling them he was going to burn down their “temple”. The police arrested a man on Tuesday in connection with the episode and charged him with aggravated harassment and menacing as a hate crime.

“We’ve never seen so much backlash against the Muslim community” since the September 11 attacks, said Sadyia Khalique, director of operations for the New York office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “I’m frightened.”

City officials say the Bedford-Stuyvesant episode was the only anti-Muslim hate crime case they have handled since the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13 that killed 129 people and injured hundreds more. Other victims said they had chosen to stay silent because they wanted to put the episodes behind them or believed involving the police would be futile.

While Muslims in the United States say they have come to expect an anti-Islamic reaction to any major terrorist attack on Western soil carried out in the name of Islam, the vitriolic response to the Paris attacks has found an accelerant in Congress and the American presidential campaign.

Islamophobia spurred by the Paris attacks has been bolstered by Republican candidates’ provocative statements about Muslim refugees from Syria, and by the vote in the House of Representatives to halt the resettlement of those refugees in the United States, Muslim leaders assert.

Recent remarks by Donald J. Trump, the Republican front-runner, have been particularly incendiary, including his suggestion that he would put in place a database to track Muslims.

These developments, Muslim leaders say, have in effect sanctioned and encouraged anti-Islamic sentiment in the broader population. In a statement on Tuesday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations called the phenomenon “the mainstreaming of Islamophobia”.

“It’s gotten to a point now that the tone and tenor is worse than post-9/11,” said Khalid Latif, an imam who is the executive director of the Islamic Center at New York University.

He said a political environment that allowed Trump to take such a hostile position toward Muslims using a national security rationale was “beyond alarming.”

“We think about extremism solely in terms of it being 5,000 miles away,” he added. “But there’s a real extremist voice coming out of the Republican Party that goes unchecked.”

With each passing day, Muslims say, they are growing more fearful for their lives.

Muslim groups have reported a sharp increase in bias incidents around the country, including Muslims harassed and attacked on the street, at work and by phone and in online messages. Numerous mosques and Islamic centres have reported vandalism and threats.

And the community is bracing for more—including in New York City, one of the most pluralistic and inclusive municipalities in the nation.

“Even in New York,” said Ferida Osman, 21, a Hunter College senior and a Muslim, who recalled being spat on by a stranger as she waited for a train at Pennsylvania Station last week. “Definitely in New York. Especially in New York!”

The pressure and scrutiny on Muslims in New York since the Paris attacks “feels like 9/11 happened all over again,” she said.

“It feels like everybody’s staring like you’re on stage and you’re scared to do anything wrong,” she continued.

Osman, who was born and raised in the United States and wears a hijab, said she was attacked last Tuesday as she was en route from Hunter to her home in Huntington, on Long Island. She was talking on her phone when suddenly she felt a spray of saliva hit her. She said she heard someone yelling, “Go back home, you terrorist,” laced with a vulgarity.

Her attacker quickly melted into the crowd, and she was left stunned and bewildered. It had already been a rough day: She had been singled out three times by the police for bag checks while traveling on the subway system.

“I didn’t feel like a person anymore,” she said. “It’s like the hardest feeling in the world. You feel like you have no allies; you feel like you are alone. It’s a horrible feeling of isolation.” She did not report the episode because, she said, she did not want to relive the trauma and risk the possibility that it might be ignored.

Among other attacks in New York City, Sameya Omarkheil, 22, an Afghan-American student at St. Paul’s School of Nursing in Queens, said a man intentionally tripped her early last week as she was rushing to take an exam. The man then threw his cigarette butt near where she had fallen, ground it out with his shoe and said, “Go back to your country,” recalled Omarkheil, who was born and raised in New York and also wears a hijab.

“I was so scared on the inside, I couldn’t say anything back,” she said.

Omarkheil reported the episode to campus security but did not go to the police because she was in the middle of midterms and had no time. Once her exams were done, she said, she thought it was too late. At their Friday afternoon sermons last week, the first since the Paris attacks, some imams in New York addressed the attacks and their effects.

“It must be condemned not only with your tongue but even with your heart,” one imam, Siraj Wahhaj, head of Masjid at-Taqwa in Bedford-Stuyvesant, ordered his congregation. “You have to say: ‘Man, this is not anything to do with Islam! There is no justification—period!’ ”

Then he warned of a backlash. “Muslims all around the world will pay a price for what happened in France.” He added: “We had nothing to do with it. We hate it. But still we will pay the price.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations has distributed a pamphlet with guidelines on how to protect a mosque. (“If protection against thrown fire bombs is a consideration, thick wire screens do offer some protection,” and “It is also recommended that at least one, possibly two, strong sliding bolts that can be closed from the inside be installed at the main entrances for use during services if an usher spots a possible armed intruder approaching the building.”)

On social media, Muslims have traded advice about personal security, including a link to a Muslim fitness site offering “Five Must-Know Self-Defense Tips for Muslim Women”. (“While you are dressing yourself in the morning, pause and think, ‘Are these clothes comfortable enough to allow me to suddenly run if I need to?’ ”)

“My heart breaks at stuff like that,” said Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York.

Sarsour said she was particularly worried about how growing Islamophobia had affected young American Muslims, making them feel more vulnerable, unwelcome and “alienated” in their own country. “This is going to be a long struggle,” she said. “Nothing’s changing anytime soon.”

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