“Everything from beatings of women and men… arson attacks, graffiti, death threats …” Arsalan Bukhari, Executive Director of the Washington state Council on American-Islamic Relations (or CAIR) lists recent hate crimes against Muslims in the Northwest states.
He’s doing so in a low-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit conference room that doubles as a kitchen. But I can’t tell you much more about the Seattle CAIR office because its location is secret — a necessity when your organization receives as many as 10 threats a year.
Earlier this month, residents of Bothell woke to a swastika and the words “GET OUT” scrawled in red on the chalk white walls of a local Hindu temple. A nearby school was vandalized with “MUSLIMS GET OUT” alongside another red spray-painted swastika.
In December a cabbie was beaten by his passenger in the Magnolia neighborhood. The man called the driver a “terrorist” and told him “you should go back to your own country” before he punched him repeatedly in the face.
Hate crimes against Muslims nationally remain five times higher than before the Sept. 11 attacks. In Washington, hate crimes in general have increased in the past three years. The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs reported almost 300 incidents in 2013 — the most recent year available.
These statistics have some Muslims in our state (estimated to number near 100,000) eager to communicate the devastating impact of hate crimes — crimes defined by the FBI as motivated by “bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation” — on their communities.
— Rob Munoz (@RobKIRO7) February 16, 2015
Zahra Abidi is program director for the Zainab Organization, an Islamic center and mosque in Lynnwood that received an emailed bomb threat in September 2012.
“When I first saw the email I was angry,” Abidi says. “But the fear hit me there on the street.”
The threat mentioned bombs going off and Mohammad cartoons. The perpetrator was identified and made to enter a “therapeutic alternative to prosecution,” but Abidi says the police response felt casual, especially when compared to police action in similar scenarios.
“They didn’t even come and check our mosque,” says Abidi, “And I said, ‘yeah, if this was a synagogue or a church would you do this? Or if this was a Muslim threatening [to bomb something]?’ ”
Abidi says the threat may have seemed insignificant to some, but the experience has deeply affected her and Zainab. Many members stayed away from the center long after the threat had cleared, and Abidi says she still feels like a target when she’s walking to her car after work.
Members of one particularly hard-hit group, Sikhs, are often targeted when they’re mistaken for Muslims because of the turbans worn by some followers. Bukhari notes the growing South Asian community in our region and says he sometimes receives phone calls from people referencing a “Muslim community” who, it turns out, are referring to Sikhs.
“Hate crimes and discrimination comes from a lack of understanding and information about who these populations are, as well as a desire to target and other-ize people,” says Washington state Sen. Pramila Jayapal, who was founder of Hate Free Zone (now OneAmerica), an organization formed after 9/11 to address backlash against immigrant communities.
Jayapal says the xenophobia, prejudice and racism that lead to hate crimes “doesn’t get solved quickly,” but she believes education is key. Abidi and Bukhari agree, and CAIR is working on a program that will offer training and class visits that educate teachers and students about Islam.
In the meantime, Bukhari hopes to communicate to media-makers, law enforcement, politicians and citizens the consequences of even nonviolent, hate crimes.
“It’s not just a building where a few hundred dollars’ worth of damage might have been caused… It’s lives, livelihoods, self-esteem and a sense of security that is affected by these things,” says Bukhari, who urges law enforcement to treat the recent Bothell graffiti as a hate crime. “It’s not a crime just against one person, one building, it’s a crime against a… community.”