Arabs and Muslims carve a place in the US

Islamophobia may have grown, but progress is being made as activists question ‘media stereotypes’.

Demonstrating against Islamophobia
Islamophobia has increased  in the US and Europe but some Muslim activists believe they will eventually be accepted, just like the Irish and other immigrant groups who had to struggle for their place in American society [GALLO/GETTY]

“USA! USA!” chanted the mob of hundreds as it tried to march towards Bridgeview’s Mosque Foundation just southwest of Chicago. It was September 12, 2001, one day after the attacks that brought down the World Trade Center towers 800 miles to the east in New York City. Had it not been for the police, Muslims in Bridgeview feared the attempted protest against their place of worship would have led to violence, and their mosque that was founded in 1954 and serves more than 50,000 Muslims would’ve been either damaged or destroyed.

Hate crimes against Muslims, Arabs and others happened across the US in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks. In Arizona, a Sikh man was gunned down and killed at the gas station that he owned. Businesses belonging to American Muslims were attacked, and religious institutions were vandalised. In cities like Chicago, home to one of the nation’s largest Arab and Muslim populations, the attacks and harassment were widespread.

Hatem Abudayyeh, then youth program director of the Arab American Action Network (AAAN) drove as fast as he could to the organisation’s offices on the southwest side. “I wanted to be prepared for attacks on the community,” he told Al Jazeera.

Abudayyeh said that Arab mothers were too scared to send their children to school for days after the attacks. Muslim women asked their imams if they could remove their headscarves out of fear for attack, many were too afraid to leave their homes with their families.

“[The Arab and Muslim communities] had experience with Oklahoma City when immediately the pundits claimed it must’ve been an Arab or a Muslim responsible,” Abudayyeh said to Al Jazera referring to the 1995 bombing carried out by a white man that killed 168 people. “Immediately the radio talk shows were talking about going after the Arab community and countries in the Arab world.”

Negative feelings

For Amina Sharif, communication director of the Chicago branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the mainstream interest in Islam and Muslims began after September 11, but the negative feelings were always there.

As a child growing up in southern Illinois state, Sharif recalled hearing about attacks on a neighbour’s car during the first Gulf War because he was an Arab. Sharif said that fellow students also encouraged her to convert to Christianity because Islam was a “satanic religion”.

On September 11, 2001, Sharif was preparing to deliver a speech to her class on the subject of Islamophobia. After news of the attacks reached Illinois, classes were cancelled and instead she huddled around the TV alongside classmates watching the horrific events of that day unfold.

For Sharif much of the blame lies with the media and popular culture in the US, which she says is often “orientalist and slanted” in its depiction of Muslims and Islam.

“When [my classmates] did think about it during a debate or classroom discussion, there were these negative assumptions made that Islam is oppressive towards women, that Islam is a violent religion. These aren’t new ideas, they have existed for decades if not centuries in the US and in the West. I think they’re rooted in our academia and our pop culture.”

Sharif said immediately following the attacks the information market became flooded with everything about Islam.

“The knowledge vacuum started to be filled with some positive information, and [the emergence of] Muslim spokespersons. But many profiteers and opportunists [also emerged]. People claimed to be experts on Islam so they could sell books and make money going on speaking tours and appearing on TV news programs,” Sharif said.

“A lot of those ‘experts’ on Islam had an agenda, besides making money they also [wanted] to marginalise Muslims, particularly American Muslims for political reasons or religious gain”.

At the same time many went off to learn about Arabs and Muslims, the government began rounding them up.

On a cold autumn’s day, one year after the attacks, Abudayyeh and other activists stood outside on a street corner in downtown Chicago offering free legal support to non-permanent resident male nationals of 25 foreign countries who were required to get fingerprinted, photographed and interviewed by US Immigration. All but one country on the list, North Korea, was either Arab or Muslim.

Biased regulations

The Department of Homeland Security initiated the programmme, National Security Entry/Exit Registration System (NEERS), in September 2002.

In the programme’s first six months, the US government deported or began the deportation process for more than 13,000 out of 83,000 men who complied with the registration. The Washington Post newspaper said the deportation was the “largest number of visitors from Middle Eastern and other Muslim countries in US history”.

While NEERS was suspended in April of this year, groups that campaigned against it fear it could easily be restarted in the future. Colorlines, a publication that focuses on issues concerning race and identity in the US, called the NEERS programme, “one of the most explicitly racist, underreported initiatives in post-9/11 America”.

Seven years after NEERS began, on September 24, 2010, Abudayyeh had just left his ill mother at the hospital and was resting at his parents’ home when he received a phone call from his wife at 7am. The FBI had come bearing a search warrant for Abudayyeh’s home in northwest Chicago. Abudayyeh was subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury, and provide information regarding the provision of “material support” for “terrorist organisations”. Twenty-two other activists, many Arab or Muslim, were also subpoenaed.

In the past decade Abudayyeh’s case is hardly unique. Humanitarian activists Sami al-Arian, Mohamed Salah, Abdelhaleem Ashqar, and five founders of the Holy Land Foundation, have all either served jail sentences or are still in jail after for supporting groups in occupied Palestine deemed “terrorist organisations” by the US government.

Abudayyeh, now executive director of AAAN, told Al Jazeera that he believes he and other activists are being scapegoated by the US government for their anti-war and Palestine activism in an attempt to silence them.

“They’re shutting down [activism and community organising] directly by targeting the people who are doing it. And then they’re shutting it down indirectly by creating a chilling effect on freedom of speech, and intimidating other people from standing up and mobilising and speaking out.”

Abudayyeh, born in the US to Palestinian immigrants, calls himself secular and doesn’t identify as Muslim. However, he says, some Chicago media have tried to associate him with Islamic fundamentalism.

“South Asians, Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, I don’t think the right-wing knows the difference. There is this huge net being cast, and essentially anyone who is Arab or Muslim could be caught under that net.”

Last month, the Associated Press reported that the CIA is collaborating with the New York Police Department to spy on Muslim communities in New York. Abudayyeh says this is proof of the government’s “continuing to criminalise our communities without probable cause or due process.”

Abudayyeh says this criminalisation extends beyond the Arabs and Muslims and into other predominantly immigrant communities. He points to a wall built by the US government over recent years that runs along the border with Mexico.

“The militarisation of the border has everything to do with September 11 and the fact that the right-wing legislators are trying to intimidate and terrify the country into securing our borders because the big bad terrorists are coming. And that has greatly affected the movement for civil rights and human rights and for dignity for immigrants who are working hard trying to make a living in this country.”

Meanwhile, many Muslims fear that while the severity and number of attacks may have decreased since the period right after September 11, Islamophobia is still on the rise.

Negative opinions

In 2005, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll and found that 41 per cent of Americans had a favourable view of Islam. Five years later, in 2010, Pew found that number had dropped to 30 per cent. A Gallup poll echoed these numbers and found that 43 per cent of Americans in 2010 admitted to having at least “a little” prejudice towards Muslim, at least two times higher than the number for Christians, Jews and other religious groups.

That prejudice manifested itself in November, 2009 by a woman in Tinley Park, a village southwest of Chicago that was chosen by Businessweek magazine that same month as the best place in the US to raise children.

Two days after an American army psychiatrist gunned down 13 of his comrades on a US military base in Fort Hood, Texas, Amal Abusumayah, then 28 and a mother of four, was at a grocery store in Tinley Park when she was startled by another shopper.

“I could hear her saying [the Fort Hood attacker] was a Muslim and American while talking to her husband loudly so that I could hear,” Abusumayah told Al Jazeera. “I didn’t pay her any attention. But then later I was checking out I had my back turned and she tried to rip off my scarf.”

The attacker was later arrested and given two years probation.

“I was lucky to only have my headscarf pulled off. It could’ve been a knife or a gun. There are a lot of crazy people out there,” Abusumayah said. “I look over my shoulder now, more than before. I used to go out and feel safe. I don’t go out at times when I used to before like at night.”

Activists point the finger at the media for wrongfully implicating all Muslims for the acts of individuals.

Popular TV journalist Christiane Amanpour hosted a show in late 2010 on ABC, a national TV channel in the US, bringing a number of guests to discuss the topic, “Should Americans Fear Islam?” Not only could advocates for Muslim rights not imagine a similar question being posed about other minority groups in the US, but one of the guests, Anjem Choudary, is a radical imam in London known for advocating sharia law in the UK, and who has practically no support from Muslims in the US.

As the largest non-governmental organisation in the US advocating for rights for the country’s more than two million Muslims, CAIR is trying to challenge these misleading programs. And it’s because of their effective work that Sharif says, CAIR’s Chicago office regularly receives hate mail, mostly from anonymous senders.

“I am not offended by it,” Sharif said. “I actually take it as a compliment that they see our success as a threat to them.”

Muslims are starting to have a voice in the US, Sharif said pointing out the two Muslims congresspersons, the nation’s first, both elected after September 11, 2001.

“We are definitely making gains and that makes some people nervous. And I don’t mind. I look at our nation’s history and see how every single minority group has had to struggle and that makes me optimistic for the future.”

Follow Matthew Cassel on Twitter: @justimage

Source: Al Jazeera