University of Washington Student Varisha Khan. • Courtesy Photo
University of Washington Student Varisha Khan. • Courtesy Photo

One cloudy morning in Seattle’s University District, I was followed by a man who yelled Islamophobic taunts at me as I was on my way to give a guided tour and presentation about, ironically, Islam and social justice to grade school students.

I had almost reached the small mosque when the man began following me and yelled louder and louder. I could hear him getting closer to me as he continued to yell taunts.

After a while, he walked away, but when I entered the mosque, I discovered the aftermath of the man’s rage moments prior to meeting me—he had gone into the mosque and yelled at the kids and adults inside, and after leaving, threw a brick through a window. Luckily, no one was injured, but the kids were in shock and fear for the rest of their visit.

Who am I? I am an American. I am a U.S. citizen. I am a registered voter. I am an American Muslim. I was born in Dallas, Texas, so you can say I’m “Southern by God’s grace.” I went to Woodinville High School, where I was captain of the golf team.

Having been raised Muslim, my parents taught me Prophet Muhammad’s teaching that Muslims, both women and men, should pursue high levels of education and, inspired by this Islamic teaching, I worked hard to get into the University of Washington where I now study journalism and political science.

I’m not alone in my academic ambition.  A 2009 Gallup Poll on American Muslims found that American Muslim women are the second most highly educated religious group of women in the United States. American Muslims believe in the right and freedom of all U.S. citizens to live and worship in their own way, and they deserve to practice their faith in return. American Muslims uphold the Constitution and the laws of the United States.

Who are American Muslims?

Over 10,000 American Muslims serve in our nation’s armed forces, and many have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, including U.S. Army Major James Ahearn and U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan. Thousands of American Muslims are serving as law enforcement officials nationwide, including more than 980 just in the NYPD. There are about 50,000 American Muslim medical doctors across the nation saving lives every day. One in 18 medical doctors across America is an American Muslim, who are saving lives every day. American Muslims are loyal citizens who share the same American values and freedoms that we all cherish, knowing that we are all in this together.

Yet, the treatment received by hundreds of American Muslim children and families reminds us of some of the conditions leading up to the incarceration many years ago of tens of thousands of loyal, law-abiding Americans of Japanese descent.  

Despite data from the FBI, that 94% of violent extremist attacks in the United States between 1980 and 2005 were committed by non-Muslims and Europol statistics showing that between 97% and 100% of violent extremist attacks in the EU in the last decade were committed by non-Muslims, and evidence that profiling is ineffective, candidates and leaders have suggested doing away with common sense and basic Constitutional protections and unlawfully profile American Muslims based on race, ethnicity or religion. Profiling simply does not work.

According to an August 2012 Associated Press investigative report titled, “NYPD: Muslim spying led to no leads, terror cases”: “In more than six years of spying on Muslim neighborhoods, eavesdropping on conversations and cataloguing mosques, the New York Police Department’s secret Demographics Unit never generated a lead.” The USCIS is facing multiple law suits for secretly mandating the delay and denial of citizenship to those with Muslim names or those born in Muslim majority nations. The FBI has paid millions of tax payer dollars to hire thousands of agents provocateur in efforts apparently to coax mentally and otherwise unstable persons in American Muslim communities to commit fake crimes, to create the perception of a “foiled” plot. There is no research-based evidence that any of these tactics have kept our nation safe.

Too often, we have seen waves of religiously loaded news coverage of crimes and commentary when the suspect is Muslim result in nationwide surges of anti-Muslim hate violence and violence targeting women and children who are Muslim or perceived as Muslim.  A study conducted by Media Tenor of primetime news 2007-2013 found that Islam is featured in primetime news more than any other religion, and the coverage is overwhelmingly negative.

Multiple research reports show that it’s the news coverage and commentary following an event, not the event itself, that determines how the public will react and whether members of a minority group will face hate violence.  Research by the University of Hawai‘i, University of Exeter, and National Hispanic Media Coalition indicate that media content can have a direct effect on hate and prejudice against minority groups. Accurate language can inform readers, while loaded language misleads readers and fuels hate and prejudice.  

Never before in our nation’s history have reported anti-Muslim hate crimes been as high in number or in severity as in 2015. Throughout 2015, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) offices nationwide received, on average, at least one daily report of hate crimes targeting an American Muslim or someone perceived to be Muslim. Dozens of mosques were burned, numerous Americans who were Muslim or “looked Muslim” were shot or beaten severely. Some lost their lives. During most of these attacks, the attackers uttered or otherwise repeated the same anti-Muslim slurs repeated daily in mainstream headlines and often by candidates and politicians.

Hate speech also leads to hate crimes. When hate speech and conspiracy theories against an American minority are constantly spread publicly and go unchallenged, they foster an atmosphere that causes hate attacks against innocent citizens.

In early February 2015, an American Muslim mother of two kids in the Spokane area, while picking up her kids from the school bus stop after school, was attacked by a man who called her racial and religious slurs, threatened to beat and rape her, and tried to pull off her headscarf.  Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein, a 15-year-old American Muslim child in Kansas City was killed in December, 2014 by a man who had ranted against Muslims and had anti-Muslim messages on the car that he used to kill the child.  In late March, 2016, a young American Muslim girl wearing a headscarf walking on the sidewalk in the Lynnwood area was attacked by a man who yelled anti-Muslim slurs and left her with a bleeding cheek, bruised ribs and damage to her head.

When candidates or commentators talk about Islam or Muslims, they should think about the effects of their words on the everyday lives of millions of American Muslim children growing up across our nation.  Anti-Muslim hate speech is not only dangerous in the hate crimes that it incites against these children and their parents, it is also dangerous because it sends a dangerous message to these children. It can shatter their hopes for a better future, of a life fulfilled. The American Dream.   

While no federal agency collects data on harassment and discrimination experienced by children based on their religion, according to community-based surveys, 80% of American Muslim youth have reported being targets of taunts and harassment, oftentimes in front of teachers and school administrators.

In times like now, fair-minded people as well as leaders across our nation have a duty to publicly and vocally affirm American values of religious freedom, and publicly and vocally tell stories of the lives and contributions of American Muslims they know. This can be done in simple ways including writng letters to editors, submitting Op-Eds, and making speeches at public events.

We must do this so that when millions of young American Muslims from Seattle, Washington to Savannah, Georgia turn on the TV or their smart phones and read the news, the messages they hear from business and political leaders are that American Muslim children have the right to grow up with the same hopes and dreams as any other young American. By doing this, fair-minded leaders will help improve the current atmosphere by reminding millions of our fellow Americans that, while some may try to divide us, we are and always will be Americans, united as one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.  

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