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Identity Under Attack: Rethinking the Muslim-American Experience

When the Glock fired into the back of Alauddin Akonjee’s head, he was walking home from afternoon prayer to his wife and six children.

“It was essentially execution style,” said Omer Bajwa, Director of Muslim Life at Yale University, in an interview with The Politic.

As an imam at Al-Furqan Jame Mosque, Akonjee gave a powerful sermon the day before encouraging listeners to use Islam as a tool of peace to combat discrimination and to fight misconceptions about his religion. According to a New York Times article about this death, Akonjee was deeply respected in both his Queens community and his hometown of Habiganj, Bangladesh, where he had built a life as a peacekeeper and religious leader.

He was left lying in his own blood on the sidewalk.

The murder happened in Ozone Park, a neighborhood of immigrants. Although the area is largely Italian-American, a short walk along 101st or Liberty Avenues reveals the seamless integration of South Asian, West Indian, and Latin American families. Restaurants like El Viejo Yayo, the New Thriving Restaurant of Guyana, and nearby Jhal NYC lie interspersed among decades-old pizza joints. Ozone Park is a small and quiet neighborhood, save for the sounds of jet engines from the nearby John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Al-Furqan Jame is one of 250 mosques in New York City, a third of which are in Queens. Neighborhoods like Ozone Park,Queens Village, and Jamaica share some of the highest concentrations of Muslims in the borough.

New York’s outer boroughs have recently fallen victim to vicious attacks against Muslims. In Queens Village, Mohamed Rasheed Khan was ambushed by three teens after leaving his mosque. Atique Ashraf was struck to the ground from behind outside of his mosque in Parkchester. In Jamaica, Queens, Michael Voyard assaulted people during afternoon prayer, targeting those dressed in traditional Islamic clothing.

Monishee Matin, New York University class of 2020 and a resident of Briarwood, Queens, described the fear now present within Muslim communities.

I had friends who went to that mosque,” she said, describing the surreal experience of hearing about the attack. “I live three blocks from a mosque. If it could happen a couple neighborhoods away, what’s stopping these people from attacking my mosque?”

The frequency of these attacks in diverse communities has concerned both residents and scholars. A map plotting anti-Muslim hate crimes across the U.S. shows that the majority of recent outlashes occurred in large, coastal cities known for their immigrant populations.

These findings run contrary to common sociological theory about closeness to difference and acceptance. Zareena Grewal, Professor of American and Religious Studies at Yale, spoke to The Politic about this phenomenon.

“What you have in Queens, and what you have in other places around the country, which is actually not typical for American Muslims, are enclaves,” she explained. “In other words you have ‘Muslim neighborhoods.’ It’s the big cities where you sometimes find these working class enclaves which are often ethnic or ethno-religious.” According to Grewal, these neighborhoods attract people who commit hate crimes because targets are easy to identify.

Non-Muslim people have also been targeted for their physical appearance and skin color. In 2014, a close family friend of Matin’s died after being pushed into the subway tracks in the 69th Street Station in Woodside, Queens, a neighborhood known for its multi-cultural presence.

“They caught the lady who pushed him immediately, and when they asked her why she did it, she said it was because she hated Muslim people because of 9/11,” said Matin, “but the oddest thing about it was that the guy wasn’t even Muslim—he was a Bengali Hindu. He was murdered for simply sharing one single trait of a Islamic terrorist.”

Sophia McGee, director of the Center for Ethnic, Racial, and Religious Understanding (CERRU) at Queens College, spoke about the effect of the attacks on her campus. “They’re just terrifying for our students, obviously, this is their neighborhood.”

McGee founded CERRU with other faculty at Queens College, a school often cited as the most diverse in the country, to try to create a more inclusive campus through dialogue across difference. Along with other community organizations, including those from interfaith backgrounds, CERRU works to condemn and prevent bigoted violence. “It’s a lot of fear. People are afraid of difference,” she said.

During Eid al-Adha in September, Corey Saylor, who directs the Department to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), spoke to the Yale College Democrats and the Muslim Students Alliance about growing Islamophobia in the United States. Saylor heads a legal team that monitors and combats Islamophobic laws in state legislatures.

Although he was not born Muslim, he converted in the 1990s, when Muslims were the victims of genocide in the Bosnian War. At the talk, he noted with melancholy how sympathy for Muslims from that conflict has largely subsided.

“Most Americans are introduced to Islam watching airplanes slam into buildings. Right after 9/11 there was a significant spike in anti-Muslim sentiment; however, none of that was characterized by the violence we see that started in late 2014 and really peaked November or December of last year,” said Saylor.

Throughout the majority of Saylor’s career, institutional Islamophobia has taken stronger root.

“Oklahoma had a ballot measure on election day, and when you went in to vote, what it said was: ‘Should judges in the state of Oklahoma be allowed to consider foreign law or Sharia, which is derived from Quran and the teachings of the prophet Mohammed?,” Saylor commented.  

After a legal battle, this was eventually deemed unconstitutional. According to Saylor, ten states around the country still have laws that were passed with deliberate intention to vilify Islam, and the catalog of Islamophobic statements by elected officials shows no guarantee that these are the last.

Islamophobia can also take on more subtle forms in popular media. A recent report by CAIR showed that Muslims are disproportionately portrayed in television as domestic terrorists.

“There is literally a multi-million dollar industry of content producers, content providers, and content consumers,” noted Bajwa, to “create a culture of dehumanizing Muslims, of loathing Muslims, of fearing Muslims.”

Grewal explained that this uptick in violent attacks is “not a surprise given the American media diet of stories about Muslims.”

In fact, a Georgetown University Bridge Initiative study correlates an increase in violent rhetoric directed toward Muslims to an increase in violence against them. Anti-Muslim violence remains at higher levels than before 9/11; American Muslims are 6 to 9 times more likely to be victims of violence than any other group in the country.

“There’s no nuance in your portrayal of this huge group of people. They all are just Muslim, and somehow that equates to something that’s bad,” McGee critiqued.

“I don’t actually like the term ‘Islamophobia,” Grewal noted. The statement comes as a surprise. After all, even groups like CAIR and the Bridge Initiative use the term in their names and professional titles. But she explained that using “Islamophobia” separated the prejudice from other forms of racism, suggesting that it is a reaction to terrorismpeople assume that terrorism can only be carried out by Muslims. She prefers the term “anti-Muslim racism.”

Grewal expressed her concern that “when we talk about an increase in distrust or animosity towards Muslims, we have to think about it as being part of a larger spectrum where other minorities are also experiencing more racial hostility, too.”

In an interview with The Politic, Matin discussed the June 12, 2016 shooting of the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, a well-known LGBTQ establishment. “If the shooter was, say, Christian, because both Christianity and Islam look down upon homosexuality, would it have been called a terrorist attack?”

Grewal also noted that misrepresentation of bias can actually make it harder to fight hate crimes.

“My brother-in-law was in Indiana and somebody threatened to shoot up the Sunday School where his kids go” she said. “I was on the phone with the FBI dealing with all of this and essentially this man’s voicemail message was vague enough that he wouldn’t be prosecuted.”

The FBI rarely takes preventive measures against these actions. It is unclear whether this speech is protected under the First Amendment. But at the same time, there seems to be an underwhelming response due to the frequency of these threats.

In Grewal’s opinion, “There’s a kind of politics of confusion here, this suggestion that ‘Oh, we don’t know what it is,’ ‘we don’t know what happened,’ when it’s actually quite clear that these things are racially motivated, especially when the perpetrators essentially say something along those lines.”

She suggests that anti-Muslim attacks be viewed within the larger climate of racial hostility, as race and religion are often conflated. Islam is racialized by the media, and the American public is unaware of ethnic diversity within the Muslim community. In response, aggressors connect skin tone to religion to terrorism effortlessly.

The Muslim community of the U.S. mirrors the country itself. It is composed both of immigrants from 30 countries on four continents and of natural-born citizens whose family presence dates back centuries; it is of religious leaders and of soccer coaches; of federal judges and of CEOs; of families of all different ages. The diversity of the Muslim experience makes it difficult to craft a single method of combatting attacks against it. But spectators may unknowingly contribute to the deindividualization of Muslim victims.

McGee summed up her vision for the future well. “Here in Queens we’re so privileged to be such a diverse community, and I feel like that gives us a really special responsibility to be a pilot for what is possible in terms of how we support each other. The idea is to try to pattern a kind of community culture that becomes the norm- ‘this is how the community behaves when things like this happen.’

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