The year has been a year fraught with political turmoil for much of the United States, with major changes on the horizon for many families and communities across the country. What better place to uncover and tell those stories than the epicenter of American policymaking. This year’s Reporting the Nation/Reporting New York students trekked to our nation’s capital to do it. Join us in our Washington, D.C., journeys as we confront the issues facing America’s most vulnerable communities, from sex trafficking to healthcare to the opioid crisis. Read our stories here.
Muslims praying at the No Muslim Ban rally and vigil in Foley Square, New York today. Photo by Stella Levantesi
In New York’s Foley Square, Muslims, Jews, Christians and people not affiliated with any religion, came together tonight to rally for “No Muslim Ban Ever.” But behind their prayers and lamp-lit banners was so much more than just a policy protest.
“There’s that sickness of bigotry of thinking that you can keep somebody out,” said Rabbi Marisa Elena James at the Lower Manhattan protest. “Nobody is immune to being drawn into a hateful ideology.”
It’s three days before the latest Muslim Ban is expected to take effect. The executive order prohibits travel to the US from six Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Chad, North Korea and Venezuela were added to the list, while Sudan was removed.
Muslims living in the US are fighting a double battle, nationally, to secure their life and protect it from islamophobia, and internationally, in their country of origin, which is, in many cases, shaken by violence, conflict and terrorism by extremists of their very own religion.
The pattern the protestors see of prejudice towards Muslims is destruction on many levels.
“It’s counterproductive, because it alienates the only people who, if one really wanted to fight terrorism, you could turn to,” said Priscilla Read of the Westchester Coalition Against Islamophobia.
Today, Somalia was hit by one of the most lethal terrorist attacks of its history when a truck bomb in the country’s capital, Mogadisciu, caused more than 500 casualties.
Fadumo Osman, 21, the President of the College Democrats at NYU, is the daughter of Somali refugees who came to the US with nothing.
“I grew up in a post 9/11 world where I was viewed differently just because I wore a hijab in high school,” said Osman. “Now, my people are getting killed on their own land by those terrorists that a lot of people in this country are accusing them to be.”
For some, the ban is a reflection of the tendency to attach Muslims to the stigma of terrorism.
For others, national security prevails over human rights.
“This isn’t even a ban, it’s so people can be vetted properly, it’s not targeting Muslims,” said Karen Braun, a Trump supporter from New York. “There are two non-Muslim countries involved. This is the objective, to stop terrorists from coming in.”
For the activists of the mobilization however, the presence of two non-Muslim countries in the ban doesn’t invalidate its intrinsic anti-Muslim motive.
“This is a Muslim ban, regardless of other non-Muslim countries involved,” said Osman. “Beyond that, there’s a very deep, rooted issue when it comes to white supremacy, when it comes to what it means to make America great again.”
But today’s mobilization wasn’t only about a national conversation.
In Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims are being inhumanely tortured by the country’s military; villages are ravaged and burnt, children are set on fire, women are raped, gang-raped. The mass persecution has forced an exodus from their homeland to Bangladesh, a predominantly Islamic country.
“It’s ethnic cleansing,” said Begum Hosheara, a Bangladeshi woman who moved to the US 21 years ago. “They’re killing people, piling them up in open pits, covering them with petrol and burning them. They’re cutting people’s limbs, women’s breasts and letting them die.”
Amnesty International has accused Myanmar of crimes against humanity, but critics wonder if international law terminology makes a difference.
“I can’t sleep at night,” Hosheara said. “My nephew is in Bangladesh and sent me a video of a desperate man shouting ‘If they want to kill us, just send us a bomb and kill us all together’.”
Since August 25th, more than 400,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar and are now refugees living in barbaric conditions with nothing, often gravely injured and mourning the atrocious deaths in their families.
“These people are powerless, they have no voice, they are getting killed only because of their ethnicity, only because they’re Muslim,” said Begum. “We need to forget about religion, we need to be human again.”
Protestors said in the US, Trump’s policies have created a vicious cycle.
“The terroristic acts that are committed by Islamic extremists are being instrumentalized,” said Read. “For example, 9/11 fit perfectly into a neo-conservative framework and now we’ve got people absolutely terrified all the time.”
According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, 75 percent of respondents said, Muslims face a lot of discrimination in the US. Only 3 percent said it is easier.
The fear of being vulnerable to verbal or physical assaults is so high, some Muslims said they avoid reporting acts of hate towards them.
“One day I saw two girls push an old Muslim lady into the street, she risked being run over by a car,” said Begum. “‘She can’t wear this dress [the hijab] here’, the girls said. “Before, when anything happened we could call the police and report, but now we’re scared of being found and attacked again.”
But Osman said the twilight-lit crowd reminded people of hope.
“The thing that has kept me going is solidarity, in the form of showing up physically,” she said. “Just seeing you guys out here, reminds me that I shouldn’t give up.”
Nutritionist and personal trainer Zainab Ismail at a Women’s Self Defense Workshop in the West Village. Ismail has attended several self-defense workshops to discuss the profiling and harassment she says she faced several days after the 2016 presidential election. Photo by Razi Syed.
In the wake of the election, hate crimes against numerous religious, racial and gender groups have surged — with Muslim-Americans often facing the biggest brunt of the rise.
“Hate crimes have been steadily increasing as the political rhetoric has turned to divisive speech in the election,” said Afaf Nasher, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group which monitors hate against Muslims.
In the first 10 days following the election, nearly 900 incidents of hate were reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights nonprofit.
In November, the FBI released its annual hate crimes report — the most thorough and widespread compilation of hate crimes nationwide — which noted a 6 percent increase in hate crimes in 2015.
While attacks on Jews made up the largest number of crimes based on religion, attacks on Muslims surged 67 percent, the largest increase over the one-year period.
The report gives context, but provides an incomplete picture as local agencies are not always reporting their hate crimes to the FBI, said Madihha Ahussain, a staff attorney at Oakland-based Muslim Advocates, which assists victims of anti-Muslim acts in understanding their legal rights.
“Law enforcement at the local level are actually not mandated to report — it’s all volunteer reporting,” Ahussain said. “And there’s a number of cities that choose not to report, or they will report zero. It’s hard to believe that as many cities that report zero actually had zero hate crimes.”
New York City may be a multicultural melting pot with residents coming from all corners of the world, but it hasn’t been immune from attacks on Muslims.
One day after the election, New York University had the Muslim prayer room in the engineering building vandalized with the words “Trump.”
Bay Ridge, Brooklyn resident Zainab Ismail believes her appearance as a hijab-wearing Muslim resulted in harassment on the part of NYPD officers in her neighborhood on Nov. 11.
Ismail claims she was parked in her car when she got out to walk to the gym and noticed that two police cars were double-parked two spaces behind her car.
“Then I saw a police officer, talking into his walkie talkie, stare right at me,” Ismail said. Two officers approached Ismail and asked if they could speak with her.
Ismail was informed that someone had called 911 and reported her as a “suspicious person” getting in-and-out of her car. Ismail was incredulous — she had gotten out of her car just once to make sure her vehicle wasn’t blocking a driveway, she told them.
Over the following several minutes, Ismail said she was asked to provide multiple forms of identification, asked for old utility bills to prove she lived where she said she lived and was informed by the officers that they had doubts about parts of her story before they let her go.
After reaching out to Council on American-Islamic Relations-NY, Ismail chose to file a complaint with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which is tasked with investigating complaints about the New York City police.
“I did not record audio or video of my incident, so it’s really going to come down to my word against theirs’,” Ismail said. “However, with a full investigation, it will still leave a statistic.”
Though national data on hate crimes indicates an upward trend in recent months, Nasher believes the statistics represent only a small fraction of what actually occurs.
“When I go to do educational workshops,” she said, “almost always, I’ll will have a line of people who will talk to me after the workshop is done. And one-by-one, I’ll start hearing stories: ‘Do you know what happened to me? Do you know what happened to my kid?’
“And every single time, I’ll ask, ‘Did you report it?” Nasher said. “And the answer is, probably, 80 percent ‘no.’
“It’s really a two-way battle,” Nasher said. “There’s this severe underreporting within the community, which is something we are pushing to change; and then, there’s also the other side of it, and that is, in order to be categorized as a hate crime, it has to meet a certain criteria.”
Because of the high legal bar to clear for a successful prosecution under the federal hate crime law, Ahussain said the most typical successful prosecution generally involves vandalism, for instance, anti-semitic graffiti on a synagogue.
Muslim-Americans will have to be proactive in trying to break stereotypes about their community, Nasher said.
“I think it’s time for Muslim parents to wake up and understand what is going on around them and how it affects an entire generation of young people who were born after 9/11,”she said. “For a long time, African-American parents always had discussions — especially with their young, black, male youth — about walking down the wrong street while being black. I don’t want to make a parallel, because the African-American experience and what shaped it, is very unique.”
Nashar has a message for all children, be careful and be proud.
“Don’t let outside belittle you in a way that’s going to make you less observant in your faith, less true to who you are,” she said.”
About 200 people gathered in east Minneapolis for a rally and march to denounce hate speech and hate crimes against Muslims. They marched to a nearby Republican Party office to denounce the rhetoric of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump. Protesters also denounced government surveillance of the Somali community. Photo by Fibonacci Blue
Harsh words about many groups including LGBT people, the disabled, African Americans, Hispanics and women have been at the forefront of this campaign season. Muslims have been particularly under fire amid the slew of terrorist attacks both abroad and domestically. Republican nominee Donald J. Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the US has helped unite Muslim communities and inspire voters to voice their opinions.
“I’m calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on,” Trump’s campaign said in a release in December 2015. Trump later said his ban would, in fact, be temporary. “It’s a temporary ban. It hasn’t been called for yet. Nobody’s done it,” he said on Fox News Radio in May. Trump’s rhetorical attack on a Muslim family whose son was killed in Iraq while serving in the U.S. military, and his willingness to consider closing down American mosques have added to the turmoil in Muslim communities.
Egyptian-American Yasmeen El-Shakh, a 21-year-old Rutgers University student, believes Trump and his stance on Muslims threaten the fabric of American society. “I feel it is deeply unconstitutional,” she said. “It goes against everything the US stands for which is the idea that your religion shouldn’t be a factor into how you are treated in the US, a country founded on religious freedom.”
El-Shakh is part of a larger Muslim community that has spoken out against Trump and his attacks on the Islamic religion. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has criticized Trump’s rhetoric, highlighting a few points about Muslims, including the proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, on its website. CAIR is also providing forums for Muslim Americans to voice their opinions on the upcoming election and address any specific concerns for their community.
Zogby Analytics, an independent pollster, conducted a survey asking Arab Americans who they plan to vote for on Election Day. The survey found 12 percent of Arab-Americans support Trump, while 67 percent are rooting for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to become the next president. “The poll found that a majority of Arab Americans identify with the Democratic Party, the highest percentage since the 2008 presidential election,” Jim Zogby, founder of Zogby Analytics wrote on his website.
While the Zogby poll found that the majority of Muslims support Clinton, the Trump campaign has done little to attract this increasingly important voter bloc. According to the Hill, a top US political website, Trump’s foreign policy advisor Walid Phares did reach out to popular Muslim Republicans back in May urging them to organize for Trump. However, the outreach from the Trump campaign to gain support from the Muslim community has been anything but successful.
According to the US Census, there are roughly two million Arab Americans living in the US, and the Arab American Institute says 91 percent are planning to vote on Election Day. The Institute says, “Arab Americans live in all 50 states, but two thirds are concentrated in 10 states; one third of the total live in California, New York, and Michigan.” With such a direct attack on more than two million individuals, the Arab American community is speaking out.
American Muslim Political Action Committee (AMPAC) and the Arab American Institute are working to empower the Arab and Muslim vote in the US. Jennifer Salan, communications head at the Arab American Institute, wants to enable Arab Americans to make their voices heard. The Institute created the “Yalla Vote” initiative, meaning “Go Vote” in Arabic, to help Arab-American communities make a difference and voice opinions. The Institute is bi-partisan and has not endorsed a candidate but is generating excitement for the Arab community. “We host registration events at mosques, churches, college campuses and restaurants to engage everyone in the community,” Salan said, adding that “we are all stronger when we are all engaged and active in our communities.”
This year, the Arab American Institute is launching a ‘Yalla Vote’ hotline to respond to any voting questions prior to Election Day. “We at the Arab American Institute are doing our part to ensure that Arab Americans are registered, organized, informed and ready to cast their ballots on November 8th,” said Salan.
Faizan Riaz, a 22-year old student at Georgetown University, believes the “Yalla Vote” initiative is a good way to engage communities. “As a Pakistani Muslim, I find that especially in this election, it’s important to get out and vote and not just sit back and complain about the outcome,” he wrote in email. Riaz believes Trump and his proposed ban on Muslims further divides Americans and marginalizes minorities. “It really comes down to the fact that his rhetoric inspires so much hate and that some people don’t even notice,” he wrote. “It kind of reminds you of how the Japanese were feeling during WWII [World War II] or even the beginning of the rise of Hitler. You don’t know what’ll happen but you just feel this animosity around you sometimes that makes you scared to be where you are.”
While Muslims around the world are weighing in on the upcoming US Presidential Election, there is no question there is a sense of animosity among Muslim communities towards Trump’s campaign. As the election nears, Trump’s campaign will be put to the test to see if marginalizing this minority group will cost him the election.
Flickr Creative Commons 9/11 photo
Fifteen years after the 9/11 attacks, which was led by Islamic terrorists, the city’s Muslim community continues to deal with discrimination and hatred.
“I’ve been “jokingly” called a terrorist,” Tahseen Rabbi, a video producer from Briarwood, Queens said.
With nearly one million Muslims, New York is reportedly among the states with the highest Muslim population. Despite the city’s high Muslim population, Rabbi, a lively and bubbly Bangladeshi woman who describes herself as a “very liberal Muslim”, and many others have failed to escape the shadow of the 9/11 attacks.
“Ever since 9/11, there has been a stigma attached to the religion,” Shadman Ahmed, 21, a senior at Saint John’s University in Fresh Meadows, Queens said. “Muslims are now automatically associated with a lot of negativity.”
The presidential election has only bought more scorn towards the community. Republican candidate Donald Trump has been openly critical of Muslim immigration.
Rafat Ashraf Khalaf, a junior at New York University, whose family immigrated to the United States through Ellis Island in 1912, recently faced discrimination by a cyber-bully online.
“When you analyze this election and the rhetoric that is thrown around, the situation continues to exacerbate,” Khalaf said. “I have personally received a bunch of hateful messages, mostly through the Internet. A guy … messaged me on Facebook and said, “F. OFF and go back to your country. Leave.”
In the days following the attacks, many leaders encouraged Americans not to blame the Muslim community for attacks. But lately the media is filled with threats of deportation. The recurrent attacks in France, the shootings in California and Florida and the rise of the terrorist organization ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) have again made local Muslim targets of American anger.
“A lot of people really don’t know anything about Islam, only what they see on the news,” Khalaf said. “So when the only thing they hear about is a bombing by someone who claims to be Muslim, that is going to only negatively impact their perception of Muslims as a whole.”
These negative labels have confusioned some Muslims like, Afraz Khan, 21, a student at New York University.
“I am at a point now that if I see someone who has a large beard, rather than seeing that as a mark of their faith or seeing it as someone I can trust or someone who is part of my community, I am more in a doubt that proud,” Khan said.
Despite the negativity surrounding his religion, Khan believes better days are ahead.
“I think people are becoming more willing to learn about and understand one another,” Khan said.
Sakim Alam, a Bangladeshi pharmacist at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, Queens, was in fourth grade when the 9/11 attacks occurred. While he feared the repercussion of the attacks on Muslims, today Alam sees it as a good opportunity to educate people.
“Instead of feeling offended, we, Muslims should educate the public on the proper/peaceful teachings of Islam through words and examples,” said Alam. “Yes, there is racism and prejudice everywhere, but all of that will change when we show the world that we are the same as everyone else.”
With 105,000 registered voters, the Muslim community makes up 10 percent of New York City’s 4 million voters. But in this year’s mayoral election, many Muslim Americans are struggling to find a candidate who has sufficiently addressed their concerns.
“We want to feel like we’re part of the city, too,” said Razib Haq, co-owner of Jackson Heights Food Court and Bazaar. “We feel neglected, unlike other Americans.”
Among the community’s concerns is an addition of Muslim holidays to the public school calendar and, more importantly, the New York Police Department’s surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods and mosques.
According to an investigation by the Associated Press last year, the NYPD never found terrorist activity in over six years of controversial spying on the community.
“I’ve heard about the surveillance inside the mosques and the labeling of any mosque as a terrorist organization,” said 22-year-old Hunter College graduate Mohammad Hossain. “It’s very unfair and unjust to just assume something like that. I know there’s a negative stereotype with Muslims around the world. But this is New York City – it’s like the melting pot.”
While 10 percent is not a huge chunk of the city’s total electorate, it makes sense for a mayoral candidate to court the Muslim community, which tends to vote Democrat.
“That’s a huge community so you would want to get those votes,” said Hossain.
Democratic candidate and city comptroller John Liu has persistently attempted to court the Muslim community by frequenting mosques earlier this spring.
Hossain said it’s important for New York City politicians to reach out to the Muslim community.
“As a whole, there are a lot of Muslim people in New York,” he said.
Sofana Rabb,23, a paralegal at immigration law firm Roman & Singh in Jackson Heights, said, “It would be nice for a mayoral candidate to reach out specifically to the Muslim community.”
Rabb, who supports Democratic candidate Christine Quinn on issues like job employment and health benefits said that she would like to see Quinn cater more to the Muslim community so it “can feel a sense of security.”
Other voters however think that the inability of the Muslim community find an acceptable candidate had led to indifference when it comes to politics.
“I can safely say that majority of the Muslims who are eligible to vote, probably don’t because of ignorance or they don’t care,” said Rabb’s brother and Bellrose, Queens resident, Sami Rabb,22. “A lot of Muslims come from immigrant backgrounds and from countries with political unrest.”
Rabb, who was president of the Muslim Student Association at St. John’s University’s last year, said that young Muslim American voters “distance themselves from the world of politics because of unrest and unfavorable conditions in their [parents’ native] country.”
“I’ll go to gatherings and a lot of kids my age will say, ‘I don’t like politics,’ “said Rabb. “The younger generation sees their parents talking about politics so they’re taught to believe that their say won’t have an impact.”
Still, many young Muslim American voters feel that New York politicians need to address Muslims’ Americans concerns about safety and religious freedom.
“We’re a huge community in New York City,” said Sofana Rabb. “We should be able to coexist.”
Smoke whirled up from a corner cart, as fresh halal meat was pressed down against hot grates, melding with the sweet aroma of fruit tobacco coming out the open-air hookah bars lining Steinway Street near Astoria Boulevard in Astoria, Queens. Arabic covered business awnings and windows of the ethnic clothing shops, mosque and eateries. This neighborhood is casually known as Little Egypt. Locals know this is where to find the best Middle Eastern food in town.
But these are the same restaurants, cafes, hookah bars and shops the police sought out clues after the 9/11 attacks and continue to be monitored by the NYPD in search of terrorists, according to residents and an investigative report by the Associated Press. They say plainclothes police officers listen to their conversations in cafes, look over community center message boards, and take photos of these businesses.
In multiple press accounts Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has denied allegations of the alleged spy unit, but Muslim advocacy leaders have had enough and are now taking a stand against racial and religious profiling.
“The proof is there, we don’t need to prove anything,” said Linda Sarsour, director of the Arab Americans Association of New York (AAANY) said . “I think that the NYPD is so counterproductive to what they are trying to do because what they are trying to do supposedly is to keep us safe.”
Police would not return requests for comment on this story.
For Sarsour, the targeting of ethnic neighborhoods is a very real intrusion into the lives of Muslim Americans. She said Muslim residents are too paranoid to come out of their homes on a regular basis and take advantage of the social services the AAANY provides.
“People don’t feel free to talk about things anymore,” Sarsour said about Arab Americans, who she said are generally very politically opinionated but now hold back for fear of being thought a terrorist. “People don’t want to share their views. It is creating strife between groups.”
But Fadi Darwich, 26, from Jersey City, N.J., whose family operates a new Lebanese eatery in Astoria, does not feel intimidated by extra surveillance on the Muslim community.
“I don’t think it will affect the business,” Darwich said, of his customers that about half come from the local Muslim community and those who just come solely for the food. “They are targeting the area because there are Muslims. There should be privacy. But I am with the police if they can find something wrong.”
Jessica Zoppolo, 23, an Astoria resident who frequents this area to dine believes that nationality-specific investigations can be harmful to the neighborhood.
“It’s wrong to assume all the businesses on Steinway Street have some relation to terrorism,” she said. “It’s unfortunate when these investigations cause businesses to shut down… for fear of being blamed for something they are not a part of.”
A rally in Foley Square was the first grassroots action of this movement moving forward.
“There was a lot of fear, a lot of controversy,” Sarsour said. “People knew their pictures were going to be taken, they were doing to be in the media, potentially, NYPD looks at those videos and who they are already following.”
This is a step that Muslim New Yorkers must take in their fight to stop racial and religiously profiling, Sarsour said.
Leaders of this movement are currently looking at its legal options as well as initiating education workshops at college campuses, organizing future community action and getting people to talk about these issues through social media.
“One of the things that was missing in the past was we weren’t really, our entire community wasn’t necessarily involved,” Sarsour said. “We want people on social media to talk about it. In hopes, there will be online and petitions circulating.”
The next step for the coalition is to ask the NYPD to set up an oversight commission—an organization completely independent from the police department that can provide objective insight to what is going on and to prevent further damage.
The coalition against the racial and religious targeting of Muslims also wants to amend the training of police officers and the removal of anti-Islamic materials and “entire curriculums based on hate [conveying] Islam as a religion based on violence,” said Sarsour.