University of Washington student Nasro Hassan suffered severe bruising and a concussion after a man smashed a glass bottle into her face. The attack happened on November 15 around 5:00 p.m. in a heavily populated outdoor space on UW’s Seattle campus as Hassan was passing through.
Hassan is Somali American and wears a hijab. While her assailant’s motives haven’t been determined, Hassan’s visibility as a Muslim suggests the incident could have been a hate crime. UW students were not notified about the incident through the campus security alert system. UW police told Muslim Student Association (MSA) members the reason for this was that the case did not fit terms of aggravated assault by knife, gun, or serrated object in order for students to be sent a “Timely Warning” under the terms of the Department of Education’s Clery Act, a consumer protection law passed in 1990 that requires all colleges and universities who receive federal funding to share information about crime on campus and inform the public of crime in or around campus. This discrepancy raised concern amongst Muslim students, but has also spearheaded collaboration between administration and students to design a better system to deal with bias related crime.
The incident happened days after election results announced that Donald Trump would succeed President Barack Obama. Within 10 days of election day, 900 hate crimes were reported nationwide, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Social media posts flurried with accounts of hate acts and racial slurs, women shared stories of having their hijabs pulled and being yelled at during their regular morning commutes. Media outlets also reported an increase in crimes against Muslims.
Referring to the UW incident, UW Muslim Students Association (MSA) co-president Mina Sultana said: “I think it sort of made everyone realize that these hate crimes aren’t just happening in other states, in other campuses, they are happening on our own campus.”
The Council for American-Islamic Relations’ (CAIR) Washington chapter reported 2015 as a record year for anti-Muslim attacks. The organization received one-to-two reports per day while FBI records indicated a 67% increase in anti-Muslim attacks that year since 2001. The trend continued into 2016, with over 25 anti-Muslim motivated crimes in Washington state reported to CAIR WA. CAIR considers any incident where attackers expressed sentiments against Muslims as “anti-Muslim” regardless of the victim’s religious affinity.
“We’ve been getting calls from parents asking whether it’s safe to have their children going to school after a breaking news story,” said Arsalan Bukhari, executive director of CAIR-WA. “We always remind them that their job is to tell their children that they have the right to be fully American and fully practicing Muslims and follow their dreams.”
None of this is new. The hostility and hate that has been thrown at Muslim Americans, and other vulnerable groups over the past election cycle is a continuation of xenophobic ideologies that have persisted in the United States, particularly since 9/11. But Sultana worries that Trump’s election runs the risk of normalizing exclusionary, racist ideology and rhetoric.
“[Before the election] I think as a society … we understood that vocally saying something racist [or] Islamophobia or doing something that might be considered hate action is not okay,” Sultana said. “But I think since the election, since we are seeing the man who has the highest power in our country sort of repeating these things, it almost makes it okay… for that type of speech to happen publicly.”
Muslim students at the University of Washington are anxious following the possible hate crime. Sultana said that the MSA is working with UW administrators to help create a more effective and safe campus for students. “Honestly we are all here to get a degree and to have this anxiety all the time is not okay,” she said.
Affecting any community perceived to be Muslim
Bukhari mentioned that even those who are simply perceived to be Muslim can be negatively affected by anti-Muslim hostility. Among CAIR-WA’s collected reports from 2016 is a crime where a man came in to an Indian American family’s home, yelled racial slurs, and threatened the family with a knife.
Jaswinder Singh, chairman of the Gurudwara Sikh Center Seattle in Bothell, a place of worship for those practicing Sikhism, said he hasn’t experienced anything since the election.
“Luckily we live in an area where … the community is a little more diverse,” Singh said. “So far, I haven’t run into anything.”
Singh said he is well-aware that Sikhs are at risk of becoming crime targets due to people mistakenly identifying them as Muslims due to their appearance and the visibility of the traditional turban worn by men.
“People are in general … [are] a little bit nervous but just because Mr. Trump is kind of a very unusual candidate for the office,” Singh said. “But I guess we are all in it together, hoping for the best.”
Om Dwivedi, a leader in the Hindu community in the greater Seattle area, said he hasn’t noticed aggression towards the Hindu community recently. However, a latent sense of worry does exist.
“People … are worried about this country, they are worried about the world politics,” Dwivedi said. “They are worried about everything right now because everything is in the dark right now.”
The Hindu Temple and Cultural Center in Bothell (HTCC), one of the first and largest Hindu temples in the area, has no barrier separating it from the street. This is purposeful; the temple is meant to be an open and welcoming space for the public. But the HTCC has had incidents of vandalism and graffiti in the past.
In early 2015, temple members found graffiti on the temple walls, and the words “Muslims get out” were written on the wall of a nearby junior high school. Shortly thereafter, temples in Kent suffered a similar fate; windows were shattered, and the word “FEAR” was spray-painted beside a swastika.
The HTCC in Bothell has security cameras set up, and Singh said that the Gurudwara installed an upgraded security system before the election to keep an eye out for suspicious activity
“Time will tell,” Singh said of what the future holds.
Dwivedi sees a silver lining even in the uncertainty of our current political climate. He sees it as the public’s responsibility to think critically about right and wrong in as unbiased a way as possible. “Something is happening and it is the responsibility of the people of this country to stand up, speak up. If we don’t speak up, something will go wrong,” he said.
Muslim and non-Muslim communities are making every effort to remain empowered and work toward political protection for vulnerable groups.
“We are seeing from Seattle to Spokane to the Tri-cities … that American Muslims are part of society and are contributing every day,” Bukhari said. “And [they are] ready to use their intellect and their engagement in society to educate others about American Muslims.”
Locally and nationally, CAIR is working to create a plan that responds to potential executive orders and other legislation that would undermine civil rights for Muslim Americans.
Policy-based action are on front lines of the UW MSA as well, especially with the lack of a timely warning following the November incident. The MSA is working on “putting in the framework so if someone faces that kind of discrimination they can find the right resources,” Sultana said.
Next time a case like Hassan’s happens, Sultana hopes that the school will have a better way of notifying students and an effective policy with steps to address bias-motivated incidents. CAIR-WA is also working with the MSA and UW on these efforts.
These actions have been spearheaded by the Muslim community, but both Bukhari and Sultana emphasize how important it is for allies to step in.
“The goal is to not only humanize Muslims, but also make it the norm that we are just your average students, your average coworkers,” Sultana said. That image needs to replace the false, hostile staple impression of Muslims that has been used by politicians and media alike.
Changing the narrative about Muslims and minorities means publicly and vocally condemning biased acts and hateful speech. Bukhari said that being public and vocal means speech must be put to action, whether that be through a video, a letter to the editor, or in everyday conversation.
Sultana also explained that the MSA has teamed up with other student organizations. “We’ve tried to collaborate a lot more with … other minority groups [on campus] that have been facing similar issues and just be there for each other in solidarity and I think together we have a stronger, louder voice on campus,” Sultana said.
Mobilizing allies across cultural and religious boundaries has proven to be essential after the election.
In the meantime, the situation after the election has been both harrowing and a sort of “reality check,” according to Sultana. The threat of hate crimes and anxiety highlights the urgency for continued social justice, interfaith, and racial equity efforts. For example, Bukhari cited an increase in volunteer applications addressed to CAIR and acts of goodwill from churches. As worried as people are, they are energized and are galvanizing to make tangible change.