In the immediate hours after attacks in Paris, which killed at least 129 people, the French government responded by closing its borders. The French interior minister advocated for the dissolution of some mosques and the deportation of Islamic preachers of “hatred.” It set an example for the world and, on November 16, twenty-five governors in the United States responded by taking a stand against allowing Syrian refugees to be settled in their states.
About 1,800 Syrian refugees have been allowed to settle in the U.S. That is a really small amount, when one considers how hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled. But, perhaps, it is fortunate for the small number that they are not being rounded up, indefinitely detained, and abused, as Muslim immigrants were in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks.
To be clear: the Islamic State, which claimed the attacks in Paris, is responsible for more Muslim deaths than western deaths. It has killed tens of thousands of Muslims for being “infidels” in the past couple of years. Nevertheless, anti-Muslim hysteria will likely soar to new levels in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris.
Police in Oklahoma shot a man after he called 911 and promised to shoot anyone who looked like a Muslim because of what happened in France. An Ethiopian Uber driver in North Carolina was punched in the head by a passenger, who thought the driver was Muslim. The passenger threatened to kill the driver and refused to believe he was not Muslim.
In Ontario in Canada, a mosque was set on fire in what authorities treated as an act of arson. In Toronto, a Muslim woman was robbed and attacked while picking her children up from school. Attackers called the woman a “terrorist” and told her to “go back” to her own country. And, in Calgary, someone broke into a mosque while worshipers were in the middle of a candlelight vigil for Paris and stole donation boxes and a computer.
In Glasgow and West Scotland, the Bishopbriggs Cultural Center, which is used as a mosque by the Muslim community, was set on fire.
On November 17, security removed three men and a woman of “Middle Eastern descent” on a Spirit Airlines flight after a passenger reported “suspicious activity.” One of the people removed had been watching a news report on their phone, which the passenger thought was a video from the Islamic State. The people removed were questioned and then allowed to return to the flight, which was headed to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.
Two men were removed from a flight to Boston on November 16 after crew expressed concerns. One of the men was in an exit seat and “couldn’t speak English.” A K-9 unit was brought on board to sniff the airplane.
The Islamic Society of St. Petersburg and the Islamic Society of Pinellas County received phone calls from a man who made terroristic threats. The man, who said his name was Martin Schnitzler, claimed to have a “militia” that would come down and “firebomb” and shoo whoever was there in the head. “I don’t care if they’re (expletive) 2 years old or 100,” he added.
Threats from Schnitzler were not initially considered by the FBI to be credible. However, on November 17, he was arrested, admitted he made the phone calls, and was charged with “using a telephone to make violent threats.” [Note: If an American Muslim made such calls to a religious institution, they would be swiftly arrested and face terrorism-related offenses.]
At a mosque in Pflugerville, Texas, vandals left a ripped apart Quran that was covered in feces in front of the entrance. In Omaha, Nebraska, a mosque was vandalized and spray-painted with a “rought outline of the Eiffel Tower inside a circle on an outside wall.”
The Islamic Center of Omaha condemned Islamophobia: “When individuals feel threatened, when groups receive negative labels, and when an entire population is demonized, free and open exchange of ideas become impossible and democratic rights of people are violated.”
Despite the fact that governors have no real control over whether refugees are settled in their states or not, several governors fanned the flames of anti-Muslim hysteria by taking a stand against compassion toward Syrian refugees.
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley stated, “I will not place Alabamians at even the slightest, possible risk of an attack on our people.” Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker maintained, “There may be those who will try to take advantage of the generosity of our country and the ability to move freely within our borders through this federal resettlement program, and we must ensure we are doing all we can to safeguard the security of Americans.”
Members of Congress like Florida Representative Vern Buchanan parodied themselves and argued, “It is clear that radical Islam is waging war against America and Western civilization. We cannot allow terrorists to seep through a porous refugee screening process to kill Americans.”
Since the September 11th attacks, 750,000 refugees have been accepted into the United States and zero have been arrested for domestic terrorism.
Yet, one of the leading Republican presidential candidates, Donald Trump, seized upon the comments by France’s interior minister and said he would “strongly consider” shutting down mosques. Leader of the right-wing U.K. Independence Party, Nigel Farage, suggested British Muslims have “split” loyalties. Farage said there was a great risk terrorists would pose as migrants.
Even Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, widely considered a front-runner, suggested that “Muslim allies” of the U.S. have to stop waffling and “make up their minds” about where they stand in the battle against terrorism, as if their religion somehow bears responsibility for their lack of support for certain actions the U.S. would like to pursue against ISIS.
There was a protest on November 15 outside a mosque in Portland. In Paris, a vigil was “stormed” by far-right protesters, who chased them off and shouted “go away fascists.”
US Muslims ‘living in a virtual internment camp since 9/11’
Sadly, the Paris attacks were probably not responsible for turning many Americans against Muslims but instead rekindled the embers of Islamophobic sentiment already pervasive in the United States.
After a shooting in Garland, Texas, at a Prophet Muhammad drawing contest, on May 4, which was organized by the anti-Muslim incendiary, Pamela Geller, a wave of bigoted attacks and protest spread.
In Phoenix, Arizona, a white supremacist named Jon Ritzheimer planned a “Draw Muhammad” contest after the shooting and mobilized a biker gang for a rally outside the city’s mosque. (Ritzheimer now threatens to hold an armed protest outside refugee resettlement agencies in Phoenix.)
Weeks before the Paris attacks, Asma Jama, a young Kenyan immigrant, was speaking Swahili while eating at an Applebee’s when Jodie Burchard-Risch, a forty-three year-old white woman smashed her beer mug into her face. She suffered significant injuries and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) chapter in Minnesota called it a hate crime.
Also, days prior to the Paris attacks, prosecutors decided to only sentence a man who considers himself to be a “Christian warrior” to probation for firebombing an Oregon mosque.
Ibrahim Hooper, national spokesperson for CAIR, reacted, “We believe firmly if the faith and ethnicity of the perpetrator were different and the circumstances were the same, the outcome of the case would’ve been different.”
Before the shooting in Garland, Texas, anti-Muslim sentiment was growing. Muslim communities believe it played a role in Craig Stephen Hicks’ decision to gun down Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha in Chapel Hill on February 10.
On May 28, the FBI acknowledged the threat from right-wing extremists in a bulletin titled, “Militia Extremists Expand Target Sets to Include Muslims.”
The threat stemmed from two key misperceptions: that Islam “represents a foreign threat, equivalent to those which emanate from illegal immigration or international terrorism,” and the “President of the United States not only sympathizes with Islamic extremists but directs U.S. government policy to align with their goals.”
Sources reported surveillance by militia extremists of “diverse locations including Alaska, Arizona, Indiana, Montana, New York, North and South Carolina, and Texas.” They were focused on targeting Islamic facilities, including mosques or community centers, as well as individual Muslims in communities.
Anti-Muslim racism reinforces U.S. war policies abroad, and there is every indication that President Barack Obama’s administration will be granted greater authority to pursue military operations and bomb countries where the Islamic State is operating.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein declared, “It has become clear that limited air strikes and support for Iraqi forces and the Syrian opposition are not sufficient to protect our country and our allies. This is a war that affects us all, and it’s time we take real action to confront these monsters who target innocent civilians.”
Of course, the U.S. military bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz in October. The U.S. backed Saudi-led coalition has bombed nearly 100 hospitals in Yemen, according to the Red Cross. It has endangered the lives of numerous innocent civilians.
The security state in America, especially after the 9/11 attacks, has conditioned citizens to regard Muslims as a suspect population. For example, as a result of the Associated Press’ Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting, it is well-known blanket surveillance of Muslim communities in the New York area by the New York Police Department occurred.
Malik Mujahid, leader of the Muslim Peace Coalition, has said, “The Muslim community in the United States has been living in a virtual internment camp since 9/11. Since then, more than 700,000 Muslims have been interviewed by the FBI. That means nearly 50 percent of all Muslim households have been touched by this ‘investigation.’ Practically, all mosques have been ‘checked for nuclear bombs’ or other fear-provoking reasons. That’s the level of trust we enjoy in the community.”
Islamophobia, war, and terrorism, as Mujahid points out, are all inter-connected. Empathy and compassion, not fear and hysteria, has to be shown toward Muslims. It is one of the easiest ways to begin to truly diminish the power of the Islamic State and build a world that can sustain peace.