Washington, DC – Thirteen years after the September 11 attacks, Arabs and Muslim Americans in the US still face continuing bias and prejudice, Arab Americans and civil rights activists say.
“It has gotten worse for us,” said Nadia Tonova, the executive director of the National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC) in Dearborn, Michigan. “We are a community that is constantly under suspicion. It’s really at a point where it’s out of control.”
The NNAAC is rolling out a $4.5m grassroots mobilisation campaign called “Take on Hate” in New York City on July 15, designed to give Arab Americans and Muslims tools for combating bias and prejudice. The campaign, funded by the Open Society Foundation and the Proteus Fund, will focus on achieving public policy changes, educating the US public about Muslims and giving community activists a platform to battle discrimination.
The campaign aims to challenge acts of discrimination such as an incident that occurred on June 16, during a panel discussion held by the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.
During a discussion about the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, a Muslim law student named Saba Ahmed said: “We portray Islam and all Muslims as bad, but there’s 1.8 billion followers of Islam. We have eight million plus Muslim Americans in this country and I don’t see them represented here.”
The worse things get in the Middle East, the worse things get for Arab Americans here in the US.
One of the panellists, Brigitte Gabriel, responded that moderate Muslims in the US were “irrelevant” in the fight against radicalism. “It is time we take political correctness and throw it in the garbage where it belongs and start calling a spade a spade,” retorted Gabriel – drawing a standing ovation from the crowd of about 150 people.
In a recent cable television exchange with Gabriel, Linda Sarsour – the national advocacy director for the NNAAC – challenged Gabriel for linking all Muslims to terrorism. “I want you to understand that if you want to combat terrorism, you need to work within the Muslim community. You need to make sure that we are part of that and the, quote, ‘moderate’ Muslims that you’re talking about, which are almost every Muslim living here in this country, need to be part of this discussion.”
Muslim American activists worry that rhetoric such as Gabriel’s can fuel violent attacks and hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims. There are some 3.6 million Americans of Arab descent, many of whom are Christian, and an estimated six million American Muslims of varying nationalities, according to the Arab American Institute.
“The worse things get in the Middle East, the worse things get for Arab Americans here in the US. Every time there is something serious in the Middle East, things spike,” Samer Khalaf, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), told Al Jazeera. “People get attacked and beaten for doing nothing but appearing Muslim.”
Anti-Muslim hate crimes
There were 155 anti-Muslim hate crimes committed against Arabs and Muslims in the US during 2012, according to the most recent FBI statistics. The deadliest of these was the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin, in which a white supremacist, who incorrectly believed he was attacking Muslims, murdered six Sikhs and was shot by police before killing himself.
Since the September 11 attacks, 30 new anti-Islamic hate groups have formed in the US, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which was founded in 1971 to combat racism against blacks in the American south. “We’ve seen some horrible crimes committed against people who are perceived to be Arabs,” Richard Cohen, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told Al Jazeera.
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In March, about 40 worshippers attended sunrise prayers at the Prayer Center of Orland Park, a suburban town south of Chicago, when a bullet was fired through the mosque dome. No one was injured in the incident. The Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called on the FBI to investigate the incident as a hate crime, but no suspects have yet been identified.
Starting in January 2015, the FBI’s hate crimes unit will specifically track hate crimes against Arabs, a category the law enforcement agency had not previously recognised, said FBI spokesman Stephen Fischer. The FBI will also track hate crimes motivated by anti-Sikh and anti-Hindu sentiment.
At a June conference in Washington hosted by the ADC, participants said Arab Americans recognise they are in a continuing post-September 11 battle for civil rights. It’s not just hate crimes: Arabs and Muslims in the US say they face rampant discrimination in every area of life. “We are the blacks of the 21st century,” said Azizah Y al-Hibri, the founder of Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights and a retired professor at the University of Richmond’s Williams School of Law.
A 2012 survey by the Arab American Institute found that 55 percent of Arab American Muslims have experienced discrimination and 71 percent fear future discrimination.
Arab Americans routinely encounter extra hassles while travelling, and Haytham Faraj, a Chicago-based defence attorney, claims prosecutors often exaggerate charges against Arab Americans by alleging serious crimes related to suspected spying or terrorism.
A ‘fear stronger than ever’
Since 2010, the ADC says it has seen a surge in employment discrimination complaints. Last month, the group filed a discrimination lawsuit against an auto dealership in Lexington, Kentucky, on behalf of Easa Shadeh, a US citizen who was called a “camel jockey”, and told by co-workers that Arabs are the “new niggers”.
Denyse Sabagh, head of the immigration practice group at law firm Duane Morris, said Arabs and Muslims encounter more bureaucratic delays and obstacles in the US immigration system than other minorities. “I represent people from all over the world and the ones that seem to have the problems are Arabs and Muslims,” she said.
Arabs and Muslims have long been portrayed as villains and enemies in American popular culture – cartoons, movies, television shows. The September 11 attacks accelerated the trend and injected it into the US political dynamic, said Jack Shaheen, producer of the 2006 documentary Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.
“There is a fear stronger than ever before of Muslims – not just Muslims, but American Muslims,” Shaheen told Al Jazeera. “It has spilled over to the political arena and gotten worse.”