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Islamophobia and Hate Crimes Against Muslim Americans Endanger Everyone

Updated on February 7, 2022
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Lyndon Henry is a writer, editor, freelance investigative journalist, political analyst, and writing-editing consultant.

Is America returning to another period of racial and ethnic strife, reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan era, the detention of Japanese-Americans, or the national upheavals of the civil rights movement? Beginning with the accommodation of slavery in the U.S. Constitution, through the oppression of the Native American population, the Civil War, and subsequent racial segregation era, plus sporadic outbursts of racist/nativist attacks against a variety of minority segments of the population, racism has persisted as a continuing ugly undercurrent of American society. However, the surge of 21st century racist animosity, encouraged by figures at the highest levels of the country's political and economic infrastructure, has been especially troubling.

Beginning in 2006, widespread racist anxiety over the ascendancy of black political leader Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency apparently provoked a renewed frenzy of unbridled racism and xenophobia to ooze out of the social fabric of the nation. This was subsequently exacerbated by policies of the Donald J. Trump administration and its flirtation with the racist, anti-immigrant Alt-Right.

This new surge of bigotry sweeping the USA has had multiple targets — including blacks, Latinos, Jews, immigrants, and others — but following the "9/11" terrorist atrocities of 11 September 2001, bigotry and racist attacks began to be particularly focused against America's Muslim population. As Robert Steinback detailed in a Summer 2011 analysis in the Intelligence Report published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, "in Muslims, those inclined to bigotry may have found their perfect bogeyman."

U.S. Muslims in the crosshairs

"Nearly a decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a new wave of bigotry and discrimination is affecting the everyday lives of many Muslim Americans" likewise warned an article in the St. Louis Beacon (29 March 2011), citing Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), and several Muslim leaders. Testifying at a hearing chaired by U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, (Democrat of Illinois), Perez noted that "We continue to see a steady stream of violence and discrimination targeting Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian communities."

Perez went on to describe what he called "a headwind of intolerance" that had descended on many U.S. Muslim communities, prompting "fear of violence, of bigotry and hate." Complaints of harassment against Muslims at school and workplaces had been increasing, he reported; in addition, in 2010 alone, the DOJ had opened 14 investigations into complaints of illegal activity or harassment involving organized opposition to the construction of new mosques.

But the surge of hatred against Muslims, their families, and their communities was going far beyond mere harassment and opposition to new mosques. "Recent news reports strongly suggest a spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes" reported Robert Steinback in his above-cited Southern Poverty Law Center analysis, aptly titled "Jihad Against Islam".

"Of course, there has been serious terrorism from homegrown Muslims in this country" noted Steinback. This, plus the lingering anger within much of the American public over the 9/11 attack (apparently instigated by Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan), plus mounting inflammatory rhetoric and actions by several prominent U.S. politicians, was fueling an impulse to blame all Muslims for the actions of a relatively tiny few extremists.

However, also cited by Steinback was a study by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security in early 2011 which found that, of dozens of "suspected plots" by Islamist extremists, described as "foiled before execution", fully 40% were revealed to law enforcement authorities by other Muslims. In a similar vein, Steinback reported, a 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center found widespread concern among American Muslims over the rise of Islamic extremism around the world, with 76% "very or somewhat concerned"; in addition, "a similar proportion opposed suicide bombing in all cases."

Steinback further noted that many law enforcement agencies were rejecting claims by Republican U.S. Representative Peter King of New York that the majority of Muslims fail to cooperate with police.

Collective punishment as a form of terrorism

However, there's another aspect to this issue of blaming the entire Muslim faith (and ethnic communities) for the actions of rogue extremists. In doing this, say some observers, the demagogues and racist agitators are implementing the deceptive practice of collective punishment. As described by Wikipedia,

Collective punishment is the punishment of a group of people as a result of the behavior of one or more other individuals or groups. The punished group may often have no direct association with the other individuals or groups, or direct control over their actions. In times of war and armed conflict, collective punishment has resulted in atrocities, and is a violation of the laws of war and the Geneva Conventions.

This is a vicious policy that was intensified by the activities of the Nazi-dominated German state, through its police, security, and military forces, both before and during World War II. In fact, it was the application of this policy, following the November 1938 assassination of a German official by a young Polish Jew in Paris, that gave the Nazis the pretext for the horrible anti-Jewish pogroms of Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), marking a sinister intensification of the Nazis' persecution of the Jewish population in all of Germany and much of Austria.

The Nazis' indulgence in collective punishment certainly didn't stop there. As the Crimes of War Project website relates,

In World War II, Nazis carried out a form of collective punishment to suppress resistance. Entire villages or towns or districts were held responsible for any resistance activity that took place there.

Thus, for the Nazis, collective punishment (and its implicit threat as a weapon) was itself an important and useful form of terrorism. And it's precisely this same kind of policy — with its own implicit terrorism — that America's Muslim-hating politicians and agitators advocate today.

"During economic downturns, charismatic and not-so-charismatic leaders attempt to exploit the fears of the public in their quests for power and control" writes Warren J. Blumenfeld, an Associate Professor in the department of Curriculum and Instruction at Iowa State University. In a Huffington Post article titled "Islamophobia Has No Place in the United States of America" (26 Jan. 2012), Prof. Blumenfeld explains that "Islamophobia can be defined as prejudice and discrimination toward the religion of Islam and Muslims who follow its teachings and practices."

Like many Americans, Prof. Blumenfeld is seriously troubled by today's vicious attacks on minority ethnic groups. "I find the current political tenor very disconcerting as candidates attack, demonize, stereotype, and scapegoat not only other candidates, but also entire groups of U.S. citizens whom they blame for causing the problems of our country."

Terror in Norway inspired by American Islamophobia

Already the steady drumbeat of racist agitation stoking fear and hatred toward America's Muslim communities has had murderous consequences ... in, of all places, Norway.

In an August 2011 report titled Fear, Inc.: The Roots of Islamophobia Network in America, researchers for the Center for American Progress (CAP) connect the dots in a chilling tale of horrible mass murder inspired by the virulent hate propaganda of the anti-Muslim network in the USA:

On July 22 [2011], a man planted a bomb in an Oslo government building that killed eight people. A few hours after the explosion, he shot and killed 68 people, mostly teenagers, at a Labor Party youth camp on Norway’s Utoya Island.

Initially, the researchers recount, pundits and much of the news media establishment, including "newspapers of record" such as the Washington Post and the venerable New York Times — themselves caught up in the prevalent tidal wave of Islamophobia — rushed in to speculate that the perpetrator of these terrifying events must surely have been a radical Muslim with Al-Qaeda connections and a “jihadist” motivation. Well, oops...

But by the next morning it was clear that the attacker was a 32-year-old, white, blond-haired and blue-eyed Norwegian named Anders Breivik. He was not a Muslim, but rather a self-described Christian conservative.

Breivik not only claimed responsibility for his terror attacks, but also proclaimed that this kind of violent action was “necessary” to "save" Europe from Marxism and “Muslimization”. Figuring prominently in this case is Breivik's 1,500-page "manifesto", a rambling tract recommending methods of attack with the intent to inspire others to similar extremist violence to combat what he called the “ongoing Islamic Colonization of Europe”.

Breivik’s lengthy tract is packed with references and citations to American anti-Muslim pundits, agitators, bloggers, and other provocative propagandists, all quoted as experts on Islam’s alleged “war against the West.” As the Fear, Inc. report explains,

This small group of anti-Muslim organizations and individuals in our nation is obscure to most Americans but wields great influence in shaping the national and international political debate. Their names are heralded within communities that are actively organizing against Islam and targeting Muslims in the United States.

The CAP report further notes that, on the basis of the "sheer number of citations and references to the writings of these individuals" in Breivik’s manifesto, "it is clear that he read and relied on the hateful, anti-Muslim ideology of a number of men and women ... who work together to create and promote misinformation about Muslims."

By far two of Breivik’s most heavily cited anti-Muslim sources are Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, described as co-founders of an organization called Stop Islamization of America. According to CAP, the Anti-Defamation League has fingered this as a group whose actions and rhetoric promote

a conspiratorial anti-Muslim agenda under the guise of fighting radical Islam. The group seeks to rouse public fears by consistently vilifying the Islamic faith and asserting the existence of an Islamic conspiracy to destroy “American values.”

"While these bloggers and pundits were not responsible for Breivik’s deadly attacks," observes the Fear, Inc. report, "their writings on Islam and multiculturalism appear to have helped create a world view, held by this lone Norwegian gunman, that sees Islam as at war with the West and the West needing to be defended." The report also cites former CIA officer and terrorism consultant Marc Sageman's warning that, just as religious extremism “is the infrastructure from which Al Qaeda emerged,” the writings of these anti-Muslim misinformation experts are “the infrastructure from which Breivik emerged.” Sageman adds that their rhetoric “is not cost-free.”

Utoya Island massacre (left), Anders Breivik (right). Brevik's terrorism was inspired by U.S. Islamophobes.
Utoya Island massacre (left), Anders Breivik (right). Brevik's terrorism was inspired by U.S. Islamophobes. | Source

Domestic terrorist acts against American Muslims

While the Norway massacres represent the most deadly terrorist atrocity to date that can be linked directly to inspiration from American anti-Muslim Islamophobic propaganda, it doesn't take much imagination to foresee a similar Muslim-hating American terrorist inside the USA, similarly inspired to produce a similar tragedy. This can be inferred from the trend of steadily more vicious hate crimes perpetrated against American Muslims (or individuals apparently mistaken for Muslims because of appearance, such as complexion or dress).

The list below provides just a small sampling of a few of the more egregious hate crimes and vicious acts of harassment against Muslims in the USA in recent years.

• September 2004, Berkeley, California — Eight female Muslim students at the University of California were attacked by three white males who "sprayed water on them, pelted them with water bottles, screamed derogatory statements, and mocked the traditional hijabs worn by some Muslim women" (reported by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights). One of the women was called an "East Oakland n----r", and two of them recounted that they experience frequent verbal racial taunts.

• July 2007, Lake Tahoe, California — Two men on a Lake Tahoe beach severely kicked and beat 38-year-old Vishal Wadhwa, causing him to suffer fractures of several facial bones and an orbital fracture in one eye. The men attacked Wadhwa after he approached them when they taunted him, his fiancée, and her cousin as "terrorists", as "relatives of Osama Bin Laden," and with other slurs. The men apparently mistakenly believed the three victims "were Iraqi or Iranian or Middle Eastern", although, in fact, Wadhwa and his family are all Indian-American. (Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights report)

• September 2007, Locust Valley, New York — Zohreh Assemi, an Iranian-American Muslim owner of a nail salon, was robbed, beaten, and called a "terrorist" in what authorities called a "bias crime" (reported in Wikipedia).

Assemi was kicked, sliced with a boxcutter, and had her hand smashed with a hammer. The perpetrators, who forcibly removed $2,000 from the salon and scrawled anti-Muslim slurs on the mirrors, also told Assemi to "get out of town" and that her kind were not "welcomed" in the area.

Assemi's friends and family said the attack followed two weeks of phone calls during which Assemi was called a "terrorist" and told to "get out of town".

• May 2010, Jacksonville, Florida — A bomb was exploded at an Islamic center.

• August 2010, New York City — A taxi driver was stabbed, with his neck and face slashed, after a passenger asked and found out he was Muslim.

• August 2010, Murfreesboro, Tennessee — Four days after the New York City stabbing of the Muslim taxi driver, unknown attackers set fire to construction equipment located at the future site of an Islamic center.

• January 2011, Dearborn, Michigan — Police arrested and jailed on a terrorism charge a 63-year-old Army veteran from California, "for allegedly attempting to blow up the Islamic Center of America, the largest mosque in Detroit." According to police, the man "had a long history of being angry with the United States government" and was "already known" to law enforcement officials elsewhere. Apparently he drove from California to Dearborn because of its large Muslim population. (Wikipedia report)

• March 2011, Gainesville, Florida — An extremist-right anti-Muslim Christian pastor held a public burning of a Koran; this inflamed religious Muslims in Afghanistan, provoking deadly riots that left at least 20 people dead.

• March 2011, Elk Grove, California — Two elderly Sikh men wearing turbans were shot to death on the street in what police speculate was a hate crime "committed by assailants who mistook their victims for Muslims." This follows a pattern — shortly after 9/11, at least one Sikh was murdered by a man who thought his victim was Muslim, and many others came under attack. (Jihad Against Islam report)


Resist bigotry, defend its victims

In assessing the background of these incidents and their implicit trend, some final thoughts come to mind:

• As noted in this analysis, to target an entire demographic group — America's Muslim population (identified religiously or culturally) — for the terror acts or other crimes of a few, is collective punishment; and collective punishment is a mechanism of terrorism itself. Therefore, ironically, the array of politicians, demagogues, and agitators stirring up hatred directed against the Muslim community are themselves fomenting terrorism.

• In their crusade of anti-Muslim hate, the network of Islamophobic bigots has proliferated over the Internet. This includes not just their own, individual websites and blogs, but infiltration of general-purpose content providers, E-zines, content aggregators, and article banks ... all in an effort to widen the spread of their campaign of hate and potential terrorism.

• As the Norway terrorist massacre case demonstrates, not just Muslims (or any targeted group) will necessarily be the sole victims of a terrorist act inspired by bigotry and hate, but rather, all of us are vulnerable.

• Undoubtedly, Muslims are merely the targets in the first line of fire from America's newly aroused legion of bigots and xenophobes — because they're clearly the most vulnerable (many recent immigrants, non-Judeo-Christian religion, dark complexion, and of course the cultural taint of Islamic extremism). But a number of other demographic segments are on the hit list of the bigots as well — undocumented immigrants, mostly Latinos, are certainly in the next line of fire, and this same tide of bigotry is lapping up against America's Latino population as a whole. And an ugly resurgence of racist hate against black Americans and Jews is under way.

But other groups are vulnerable too, as evidenced by the recent spate of attacks against people of Asian or Jewish descent. Who's next — will the inferno of bigotry again roar forth against America's Italian communities? Americans of East European descent? Irish? These demographic groups were all targets in past episodes of racist animosity and violence.

Rational, level-headed Americans with a strong sense of decency and justice have a duty to stand up against bigotry, to speak out, and to defend those who are the immediate victims in its target sights.


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