American Muslims used as political pawns in vicious US election campaign
Washington // Sahar Khamis, who wears a hijab, recalled how she was recently verbally abused by a man on the street in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland.
“For the first time living here for nine years I faced an Islamophobic incident when I was approached by a man who saw me reach into my bag and shouted to my face: ‘Are you getting out a gun?’”
The insult came in the year of an election in which American Muslims have been thrown centre stage in a bitter campaign.
Muslims have figured prominently in the rhetoric of both candidates and over the past year incidents of hate crimes against them have spiked.
Donald Trump has employed what critics call a fear-based strategy, raising the spectre of terrorism in support of policies that he promises to implement as president. These include banning Muslims from entering the country and registering them based on religion.
His Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, while striking a more conciliatory and inclusive tone, has also linked American Muslims publicly to terrorism, saying that the community is the nation’s best asset in stopping future attacks.
Some observers argue that by giving disaffected Americans – many suffering from the country’s widening economic divide – a target to blame for their difficulties, Muslims have become a useful wedge issue in Mr Trump’s campaign.
For many Muslims in the country, this has placed them on the receiving end of the worst wave of Islamophobia in recent history.
“We have witnessed three main waves of Islamophobia: the first after the Iran hostage crisis; the second after the 9/11 attacks; and the third [after] San Bernardino, Orlando, and Paris,” said Ms Khamis, an expert on Arab and Muslim media at the University of Maryland who also serves on the Human Rights Commission in Montgomery County, a local body. “The third wave of Islamophobia has been, by far, the most vicious and most aggressive one, and it has been much more amplified than other waves.”
Since the beginning of 2015, the increase in hate incidents has alarmed academics and law enforcement officials, who have documented hundreds of attacks including arson, vandalism and graffiti at mosques, in addition to assaults, shootings and threats of violence against those perceived as Muslim.
Though the FBI’s most current data will not be available until the end of the year, researchers at California State University have found that there were 260 hate crimes against American Muslims in 20 states surveyed in 2015 — a sharp increase of 78 per cent from the previous year. Attacks on those seen as Arab also spiked, from 21 in 2014 to 67 in 2015.
The wider implications of the current state of Islamophobia appear to be far-reaching.
“Muslims in the US are now asking, what’s going to happen to my immigration status?” Ms Khamis said. “They’re worried that if someone like Trump gets to the White House, what kind of effect could that have on their civil rights and human rights.”
Although the US has seen some attacks by Muslims this past year, Mr Trump has portrayed these as proof that radical Islam is the central threat to national security.
Following last November’s attacks in Paris that killed more than 130 people, the Republican candidate said he was in favour of surveilling mosques in the US and supported having a database that would identify Muslims. He also claimed that Muslim Americans had known beforehand that the perpetrators of last December’s attack in the Californian city of San Bernardino were making bombs, and boasted that he had predicted the attack on an Orlando nightclub in June.
“We are in a dark period ... It is no longer about terrorism or 9/11 or foreign policy,” said Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, speaking to a panel at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “We have become unwittingly entangled into some nasty forces that are going through American politics and society.”
Though Islam has been present in the US since its founding — the first American Muslims were slaves from West Africa brought during the transatlantic slave trade — current political discourse has the religion largely viewed with suspicion: as a foreign entity with an inherent anti-western political component.
“Certainly since 9/11 ... Muslims have become the ‘other’ for the American identity,” said Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. “The fact that you have minorities feeling more hate in our rhetoric is problematic. It’s not just about the numbers, it’s about intensity.”
After the 9/11 attacks, things changed dramatically for American Muslims, who found themselves thrust into the spotlight, faced with mounting hostility. According to the FBI, hate crimes against Muslims surged from 28 in 2000 to 481 incidents in 2001, then dropped to 100-150 per year until 2014.
“The challenge for Muslims is now much bigger [than it was after 9/11], because this is not about defending activities that are happening ‘over there’,” Mr Nasr said, meaning the activities of Muslims overseas. “It’s really about defending their place in American society or European society going forward.”
Two weeks ago, during the second presidential debate, both Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton mentioned Muslim Americans and Islam only in the frame of national security. Mr Trump levelled the unsubstantiated claim that Muslim neighbours of the couple who carried out the San Bernardino attack “saw the bombs all over the apartment” and didn’t inform authorities.
Mrs Clinton reminded viewers and the audience that night that the US was “founded on religious freedom and liberty”, yet she also raised the ire of Muslims when she said their community has to be “our eyes and ears”.
According to a Muslim Public Affairs Council policy report, Muslim communities have helped US security officials prevent nearly two out of every five Al Qaeda plots threatening the country since 9/11.
“This idea that Muslims speakers have to speak [out against terrorism], I find that offensive,” Mr Nasr said. “This is essentially collective guilt. All Muslims are guilty unless proven innocent. And the burden is on them to prove themselves innocent.”
But despite this, some are hopeful that a Clinton win will foster a more inclusive vision for all Americans – both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
“I hope this will be a temporary phase,” said Ms Khamis. “Once the election is over and we hopefully have our first woman president, we will see a toning down in this hostile atmosphere, which is not normal nor is it representative of US culture or the way or life.”
US election coverage from The National’s foreign correspondents
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Updated: October 31, 2016 04:00 AM