Could the deaths of three young Muslim college students in North Carolina be a turning point for Muslim Americans?
During more than 30 years after we became a recognizable part of the American scene, Arabs and Muslims have suffered insults, physical attacks, abuse, harassment and discrimination—all in relative silence. At times those incidents were violent; more often abuse was deceptively subtle. But it was always harmful and frightening. Our homes and places of worship have been attacked, our ambitions thwarted, our children intimidated, our fathers humiliated. Many American immigrants of Arab and Muslim origin have been stabbed, insulted and beaten, with assaults directed at those “mistaken for Muslim”, e.g. Sikh Americans . The August 2012 murders of six Sikhs at their place of worship in a Wisconsin town was the worst but not the only attack Sikhs sustained as a result of anti-Muslim hatred.
Islamophobia seems to be inexorable. Countless US citizens returned to their native counties because of the hostility they and their children sustained here. Others have been swept up on minor immigration charges either to be recruited as FBI informants, or detained and deported. Vacationing Muslim parents from overseas have been denied entry to the US to visit their children here.
In too many of these cases, the racism and hatred experienced by Arab and Muslim Americans went unreported. Despite being highly educated our members have, ironically, been reluctant to register these injustices. Whether from fear, from self-deprecation, or from ignorance about legal protections available in the US, immigrant victims of assaults, physical and verbal, often downplay or hide those frightening experiences.
As a journalist I witnessed at close hand widespread abuse heaped on community members at times of heightened political tensions, e.g. the 1990 Iraq invasion of Kuwait when Iraq held American workers hostage, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, following the 9/11 attacks, and the Boston bombings. Only recently reports emerged that some American movie goers, after seeing “American Sniper”, lashed out against people they perceived to be Muslim.
For too long victims of attacks and their families shied from taking legal action. Just as young Black men are advised to keep their eyes down and yield to police intimidation, Muslims recoiled from confrontation. “We don’t want to make trouble”, they said.
Slowly–too slowly– that attitude has changed, partly with the realization that this hostility is inescapable but also with the emergence of our own legal services. Foremost among these is CAIR (Council of Islamic American Relations www.CAIR.net), which since its founding in 1994 has employed its nationwide network to assemble a data base documenting attacks on Muslims in particular. (Sometimes in its attempt to gain points with the government and prove its patriotism CAIR has too readily supported government surveillance of Muslims and prematurely reacted to media judgments and hastily commended the FBI when it apprehended ‘suspects’.)
Besides lobbying against the inclusion of Islam-haters in public seminars and police training programs, CAIR led the way in advocating legal action against mistreatment. In the past 20 years we have seen the growth of Muslim civil rights agencies: Karamah Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights (www.karamah.org ) was among the earliest, followed by Muslim Advocates (www.muslimadvocates.org ), Muslim Legal Fund, the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms (www.civilfreedoms.org ). Whereas in 1990, one could hardly find a Muslim American drawn to civil rights work, today we see hundreds, mainly young people, joining the profession and working with frontline organizations like the Center for Constitutional Rights and ACLU. So while victimization of Muslims and Arabs was generally not visible to the public, years of sustained personal injury led to positive changes in how to confront this. Perhaps we also stopped denying that in these injustices we have much in common with Black and Latino Americans. So that we might find common solutions and join in solidarity with the wider society. Surely the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter is a genuine illustration of that bond.
If we needed a high profile, unarguable illustration of the Muslim American experience, we surely found it in North Carolina last week. The savage killings of these three young Americans is a shock. While some argue about the motive of the murders of Susor Mohammad Abu-Salha, her new husband Deah Shaddy Barakat, and her younger sister Razan, Muslims and other minorities understand the undeniable nature of that attack.
The packed out funerals of these promising young people and the widely televised statements by families and friends shone a light never brighter on the real American face of Muslim Americans. The tragedy and the testimonials have exposed our vulnerability, our love for one another and our Americaness like nothing I have witnessed.
Barbara Nimri Aziz is a New York based anthropologist and journalist. Find her work at www.RadioTahrir.org. She was a longtime producer at Pacifica-WBAI Radio in NY.