After the massacre in Paris last week, Lena Badr Abdelhamid’s husband sat her down and warned her that the top suspect in the attack happened to share a name with the couple, down to the spelling: Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged mastermind of the attack.
Abdelhamid said she instantly recognized the likelihood that fellow Americans would target her just because she shared a name with a suspected terrorist.
“I wonder often how long will we have to pay for crimes that we haven’t committed. I immediately began to dread the hate crimes that were sure to follow,” said Abdelhamid, 25, who works for a Washington-based refugee agency.
The anti-Muslim rhetoric that followed the Paris attacks has had a chilling effect on Muslims in the United States, according to interviews this week with Muslims across the country. Some women say they face a wrenching dilemma over whether to remove their headscarves. Students avoid walking across campus alone. And commuters in big cities say they’ve begun standing back on subway platforms for fear that a revenge-seeker will push them into the path of an oncoming train.
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For older Muslims who made it through the aftermath of 9/11, the current climate is a depressing return to the days of hateful voicemails, vandalized mosques and slurs shouted at the grocery store. Members of a younger generation who don’t remember that era are getting a jarring introduction to a world where presidential candidates espouse naked bigotry, and social media platforms are plastered with calls for the extermination of an entire faith.
Aysha Khan, 20, said she’s been dismayed over the years to see anti-Muslim attacks move from isolated incidents to the mainstream, fueled by anger over the rise of extremist groups such as al Qaida and the Islamic State. This week, she called her parents to tell them about a job interview that would require her to travel from Baltimore to Washington. Her father warned against taking the subway and offered to drive her. She refused.
You have to become like the palm tree. When the wind comes, you have to bow down a little bit until the wind goes away.
Badi Ali, imam
“Ordinarily, I would feel like they were being paranoid, but they are actually not,” she said.
Khan let out a deep sigh when she was asked how she was coping with the fear and suspicion surrounding Muslims now.
“You know, we don’t cope with it, really,” she said. “We just sit in fear. It doesn’t disrupt my daily life, but after incidents like this, there is always an undercurrent of fear, that what if I walk out of my house right now and something happens.”
Muslim advocacy groups and hate-crime trackers say that those fears aren’t necessarily unfounded.
The FBI’s latest roundup of hate-crime statistics, released Monday, shows that only anti-Muslim incidents are on the rise; incidents involving other minorities declined in 2014. The number of anti-Muslim incidents grew from 135 in 2013 to 154 in 2014, according to the FBI’s figures, which advocacy groups consider conservative because many more incidents go unreported. That number is expected to increase this year, with the steady pace of attacks by the Islamic State and other extremists stoking anti-Muslim sentiment.
In the week since the deadly Paris rampage, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, has compiled extensive lists of apparent retaliatory attacks on Muslims or foreigners and other minorities who are mistaken for Muslim. Early in the week, a CAIR alert included “terror threats to Florida mosques, vandalism at a Nebraska mosque, shots fired at a Florida Muslim family’s home, hate graffiti targeting a Connecticut Muslim student, an arson attack on a Canadian mosque, a tweet threatening Michigan Muslims, and innumerable hate messages sent online and by phone.”
The group added to the list as more reports flooded in: “shots fired at a Connecticut mosque, the police shooting of an Oklahoma man after he threatened to kill Muslims, an assault on a North Carolina Uber driver after he was asked whether he is Muslim, an assault on a Canadian Muslim mother, threats to Quebec Muslims, and the removal of ‘Middle Eastern’ passengers from a flight because the crew felt ‘uncomfortable.’” There have been more updates since.
Muslims say they’ve been grateful to non-Muslims who’ve offered their support in interfaith services and in phone calls and emails of solidarity. The story of Jack Swanson, a Texas boy who donated the piggy-bank money he was saving for an iPad to a vandalized Pflugerville, Texas, mosque, went viral. Arsalan Iftikhar, a prominent Muslim magazine editor and human rights lawyer, mailed Swanson an iPad with a note of thanks signed, “Love, The American Muslim Community.”
But the feel-good stories are easily forgotten when politicians float ideas for a Christians-only refugee policy or a national registry of Muslims for easier surveillance. Badi Ali, imam of a mosque in Greensboro, N.C., that’s faced federal investigations for years, said he tells nervous congregants that the best approach for now is to keep a low profile.
“You have to become like the palm tree. When the wind comes, you have to bow down a little bit until the wind goes away,” Ali said.
Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, Calif., said he feels like he’s “on the front line for Muslims in Fresno.” This week alone, he had a two-hour meeting with a school superintendent “to make sure our kids are safe” and spent more than an hour on the phone with a Muslim-basher in hopes of preventing the caller’s anger from escalating into a physical attack.
Nekumanesh said he’s also staying alert for signs of extremism among local Muslims – a practice of his center long before the Paris attacks. He pointed to a series of panels the center organized called “ISIS vs. Islam,” involving teachers, community leaders, law enforcement officials, a rabbi and a pastor.
Here we go again, guilty until proven innocent. We might as well have every Muslim sign an affidavit stating that they are not a terrorist.
Uzma Hussain, Muslim
“We haven’t waited for an ISIS to be formed and then go out and talk about extremism,” he said. “Our default position here is combating extremism in our community.”
His job becomes harder, however, with the anti-Muslim discourse flooding U.S. media. Rather than tune it out, Nekumanesh said, he follows the example of a favorite comic-book character, the Hulk, by “staying angry.” So he listens to rabid anti-Muslim screeds on talk radio on his drive to work and watches Fox News at night.
“My secret is that I continually stay mad. Now it’s just my default,” he said with a laugh. “It’s not the worst thing in the world to be angry if you channel it into something positive.”
Such rage is also directed toward the militants who distort mainstream Islamic teachings to justify heinous acts, Muslims said. It’s especially galling that the Islamic State claims to be acting in defense of Islam when in fact Muslims are the main victims of its attacks.
Sidra Mahmood, 25, who studies at the Qalam Institute, an Islamic seminary, said she was furious that the actions of “these lunatics” in Paris had disrupted her life all the way in Arlington, Texas. Hoping to look less obviously Muslim, she changed her headscarf this week from the traditional hijab to a turban-style wrap that’s popular even among non-Muslims.
“My very first post on Facebook was about how we as American Muslims are working so hard to assimilate and break the stereotypes in the American society and then these people come and mess it up for us,” she said.
By now, established American Muslim groups have been through the post-attack wringer enough times to have developed a playbook: immediately issue a statement of condemnation, sponsor an interfaith vigil or panel and hold a news conference or go on TV to reinforce the teaching that Islam is a peaceful, tolerant religion.
But that approach just doesn’t cut it anymore for many young Muslims, who argue that condemning extremist attacks as Muslims only reinforces the idea that there’s some commonality between the perpetrators and ordinary believers. They favor condemning the attacks as Americans, as human beings, and not going out of the way to “apologize” for behavior that’s just as foreign to them as a violent white supremacist is to the majority of white Americans.
“I saw an immediate trend of Muslims condemning the terrorist attacks,” said Uzma Hussain, 23, who was born in Fiji to the descendants of Indian slaves brought over by British colonists and now lives in Maryland. “Here we go again, guilty until proven innocent. We might as well have every Muslim sign an affidavit stating that they are not a terrorist.”
As with other Muslims interviewed, the companion to that feeling of resentment is a deep-seated fear. Hussain has changed her routines. She hasn’t been to the gym since the attacks; her hijab just makes her too conspicuous. She said she’s “received a few looks at work.” She pours out her feelings in journal entries.
“I hate that my behavior has to be shaped by these events,” Hussain said. “I wish I could think that people have the best of intentions, but even thinking like that is too risky.”