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Amid anti-Muslim backlash in US, a call for compassion

Following the attacks in Paris, anti-Islamic sentiment has surged in the US. But some are pushing a message of compassion and courage.

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    A member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Connecticut walks past the Baitul Aman mosque in South Meriden, Conn., where police and the FBI had been investigating reports of multiple gunshots fired at the mosque during the weekend. It was empty at the time of the incident and there were no injuries. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy group in the country, reports a spike in anti-Muslim acts in the US, since the attacks in Paris.
    Dave Zajac/Record-Journal via AP
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When Zeinab Khalil first heard about Friday night’s terrorist attacks in Paris, she received an anxious phone call from her mother.

“I was in New York City and my mom called me telling me to stay indoors, that it may not be safe to be outside right now,” writes Ms. Khalil, a graduate student of global affairs and public policy at Yale University, in an e-mail.

But it wasn’t terrorists her mother feared.

“I wear a hijab and she worries that this visible marker makes me more vulnerable to discrimination or attacks, which has certainly happened in the past,” Khalil continues.

Khalil’s story is emblematic of how many Muslim Americans have come to respond in the wake of high-profile terrorist attacks, when hostility tends to rise and hate crimes to spike against Muslim communities across the United States. And even as local leaders work to form pockets of tolerance and compassion throughout the nation, radical political rhetoric combined with the amplifying power of social media have only exacerbated the public’s fears about Islam and those who practice it, advocacy leaders say.

“The everyday Muslim, they’re thinking, ‘Here we go again,’ ” says Edgar Hopida of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), based in Plainfield, Ind. “It’s like a fire drill. It’s time to hide under the table again.”

The concern is hardly misplaced. Following the Paris massacres Friday night, two mosques in Florida’s Tampa Bay area received threatening phone messages, one of which involved talk of a firebombing. At the University of Connecticut Saturday, someone scrawled the phrase, “killed Paris,” on the door of a Muslim student’s dorm room. And in an Austin, Texas suburb, leaders of a local Islamic center on Monday found a Quran torn up and covered in feces at the door of the mosque.

Such incidents are not exclusive to the Paris tragedy, says Mr. Hopida. “It’s a cyclical kind of thing. There’ll be a period of calm, and as soon as something happens [the violence] gets ratcheted up again,” he says.

'I want to wear a T-shirt that says, Not in my name'

For some Muslim Americans, such responses have resulted in a near-constant struggle to dissociate themselves and their faith from the acts of extremists.

“I go to the grocery store after these attacks and I want people to know that this is not something that’s part of my faith at all,” says Celene Lizzio, a Muslim scholar and educator and member of the chaplaincy team at Tufts University in Somerville, Mass. “I want to wear a T-shirt that says, ‘Not in my name.’ ”

For others, such as Khalil, there’s a fear of backlash, either for themselves or their loved ones. Her sister, Aya, for instance, worries about how her two young children would perceive discrimination or acts of violence against their mother.

“This is one of my biggest fears: being physically attacked in front of my children because I wear the hijab and then having to explain to my children why that happened,” she wrote in a separate e-mail. “How do you explain to a 3-year-old that people hate you because of how other people acted?”

As much as it serves as a tool for spreading empathy and compassion, social media, too, has become a platform for intolerance.

“I feel very disappointed when I see … anti-Islamic comments online,” says Irfan Rhydan, an architectural designer from San Jose, Calif., who for years served as a board member at the South Bay Islamic Association. “It’s very disappointing that people are thinking like that, and not trying to understand [us]. They just spew hate.”

Such an environment takes a toll on individual Muslims as well as their communities, Khalil writes. “We are always then placed on the defensive, trying to protect ourselves, defend ourselves, and get through the day, instead of focusing on our work and what we love, instead of building our homes and communities.”

It doesn’t help that the current political climate is one that fosters divisions, advocates say.

The Paris killings – and reports that one attacker may have had a Syrian passport – have led to a largely partisan debate about the US government’s plans to resettle as many as 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. But even before that, critics say, presidential candidates and others had already made headlines with remarks that painted Muslims and Islam in broad, negative strokes.

“Muslim identity has been so politicized,” says Catherine Orsborn, campaign director for Shoulder to Shoulder, a national initiative that promotes interfaith dialogue to end anti-Muslim sentiment. “That politicization has created this climate where people resist learning about Islam and Muslims.”

That, experts warn, is exactly what terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, which took credit for the Paris attacks, seek to encourage.

"Terrorism as a strategy rests on the use of symbolic violence, particularly violence that provokes," said Randall Law, associate professor of history at Birmingham-Southern College, and the author of "Terrorism: A History,” to the Monitor’s Husna Haq. "And one of the most effective ways to do this is by using provocative violence that destroys the middle ground, that destroys the possibility of compromise, condominium, and negotiated settlement – the very backbone of life in a modern, multiethnic, multifaith liberal democracy."

He added, "This has become the essence of modern terrorism. And it has become a staple of radical Islamist and jihadist violence."

Data shows that the strategy is, in many ways, effective. Since 9/11, white extremists have perpetrated more than twice as many acts of domestic acts of terrorism than jihadists, according to data released in June by the Washington-based think tank New America.

Yet while the total number of religion-based hate crimes dipped by about a third between 2002 and 2014, the percentage of anti-Islamic offenses rose by about 5 percent during the same period, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In response, community and interfaith leaders are pushing a message of compassion and courage – a message they’ve directed as much to the general public and the country’s most visible politicians as to the Muslim community.

“Freedom and equality – those are shared values” among all Americans, regardless of religion or politics, Ms. Orsborn of Shoulder to Shoulder says. “If we react to fear instead of those values, we’re submitting to what those who perpetrate violence want.”

“If we don’t respond by upholding those values, we’re allowing them to win,” she adds.

Signs of support

In some ways, that message is being heard. In October, a series of anti-Muslim demonstrations set to be held nationwide fizzled, and instead inspired interfaith rallies to support the mosques being protested, the Monitor’s Harry Bruinius reported.

In Oklahoma City, “people have become more public about their acceptance of Muslims,” says Adam Soltani, executive director of the region’s Council on American-Islamic Relations. In the wake of big tragedies, locals call, bring flowers, and even give hugs, he says.

After the Paris attacks, he adds, “there was an outpouring of love and concern” in the form of e-mails and messages from residents, other faith communities, and even the local police department.

The same is true for ISNA in Indiana, where Hopida says e-mails showing support came in following the attacks.

Other support came in more concrete forms. On Wednesday, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy welcomed into the state a mother, father, and their 5-year-old from Syria after officials in Indiana objected to resettling the family there, NBC News reports.  

“There’s been progress in certain areas,” Mr. Soltani says.

The challenge, he and others say, is in keeping that progress going by getting the broader public to focus on the values Muslims share with other groups, instead of those that set them apart.

At Tufts, for instance, Ms. Lizzio, the chaplain, organizes events that teaches students to broaden their perspectives. “We want to help [students] recognize the human connection before any connection to identity or politics,” she says.

To some degree, the burden rests on the Muslim community to make the effort to be heard.

“We have to make ourselves available [for dialogue],” says Nicol Ghazi, outreach coordinator at the Noor Islamic Cultural Center just outside of Columbus, Ohio. “Not everyone will take to it, but if we touch two or three people at a time, there can be a ripple effect.”

But more importantly, others say, it’s about encouraging all Americans to overcome ignorance and fear and make thoughtful decisions about the nation’s future.

“The threat is real, but we as a community should stop going by fear,” Hopida says. “We cannot let fear dictate our policies or how we treat others.”

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