Bellevue Police Department Chief Steven Mylett interacts with Imam Sheikh Fazal of the Islamic Center of Eastside during the Eastside Muslim Safety Forum in January at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound in Redmond. Andy Nystrom, Redmond Reporter

‘It affects our children, it affects our generation’: Local Muslims grapple with national increase in hate crimes

The past year has been a tense one for Muslims in America, both nationally and locally.

A report released on May 9 by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said the organization had documented a nearly 600 percent increase in hate crimes targeting Muslims between 2014 and 2016.

Incidents of hate crimes reported to CAIR jumped from 24 in 2014 to 180 the following year and 281 in 2016, according to the report.

Locally, Ali Baig and Mizan Rashid, president and trustee, respectively, of the Islamic Center of Redmond, said a stronger anti-Muslim sentiment has been noted.

“Definitely the perception has changed towards the negative side,” Baig said.

This has affected how their mosque operates, from possible changes to the hours, to increasing security and even altering their prayer routine.

During the morning and afternoon prayers, where participants face toward Mecca, some members of the mosque now pray in turn so there are always people watching the opposite way.

Rashid has worked with the mosque for more than 20 years and said he has seen a marked increase in harassment in recent years, especially directed toward Muslims who wear traditional dress.

“It affects our children, it affects our generation,” Rashid said.

This comes at a time when the CAIR report also noted an unusual increase in FBI interviews aimed at Muslims in America on the weekend of Nov. 5 prior to the presidential election. Incidents of harassment or questioning by FBI agents more than doubled between 2014 and 2016, reaching 334 reported incidents last year.

Regarding hate crimes, Arsalan Bukhari, executive director of the Washington state CAIR branch, said while numbers are higher nationwide, 2015 saw the highest number of reported hate crimes in the state.

Bukhari attributes this largely to negative media coverage of Muslims between 2007 and 2013. The cumulative effect of this portrayal in news and entertainment media played heavily into the surge in violence, he said.

“That tells us why we’re seeing record numbers of hate crimes back in 2015,” he said.

Other manifestations of bigotry toward Muslims were shown in instances like the vandalism of the Redmond Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS) mosque sign twice last year, and other less high-profile aggression like taunting, especially against school children.

The annual Civil Rights Report was started as the successor to a report published by CAIR between 1995 and 2009. The organization documents incidents where Muslims reach out to the organization with a complaint.

Employees then investigate and review materials provided and conduct extensive interviews to see if the instance contains enough information to determine if a case was based on religious or ethnic bias.

The report also acknowledges that it is only a snapshot of the experiences of Muslim Americans, many of whom, the report said, have become desensitized to harassment and do not report to either community institutions or law enforcement.

Bukhari said this is reflected locally as well, with around one quarter of all the reports they end up filing coming initially from news reports, which CAIR follows up on.

“That tells us a lot more is happening out there than what we hear about,” he said.

While hate crimes have seen a staggering jump in reported instances, harassment defined as non-violent bias incidents, was the most frequently reported, accounting for 18 percent of the total. This was followed by FBI incidents at 15 percent, complaints about employment issues ranging from denial of work or being passed over for promotions at 13 percent.

Hate crimes followed this at 12 percent of all reported instances, the report said.

Since 2014, it has seemingly become less common in the U.S. to harass Muslims at work, with the number of workplace reports dropping.

However, incidents as a whole have become more racist as the report noted the most prevalent trigger of anti-Muslim bias was based on the victim’s ethnicity, accounting for 35 percent of all cases reported to CAIR.

The reasons for the increases, the report said, likely stem from bigoted political rhetoric in the 2016 political election and into the current climate as well as ingrained negative views of Muslims in America.

The report specifically said President Donald Trump’s speech, including statements like “Islam hates us” and threats to implement a Muslim database and special identification cards contributed to the increase in hate. A list of other politicians around the country who used divisive rhetoric was also provided in the report.

“If tolerance is not there, it reflects in the local societies,” Rashid said.

In one striking instance, following Trump’s election last November, around 30 mosques across the U.S. were sent letters saying the then president-elect would “cleanse America and make it shine” before threatening genocide against Muslims.

“This is a great time for patriotic Americans,” the letter read.

The report also noted biased incidents in other areas of American life, including in schools and colleges.

As a whole, CAIR said they try to focus on implementing regulatory and legislative remedies as well as pushing federal and local agencies to investigate problems when they are reported. The organization also engages in civil litigation at times.

Bukhari said another way people can get involved is by speaking out.

“Everyday people have the ability to talk to their friends and family, write letters to the editor, speak at their church and synagogue,” he said. “And that can go a long way to turning the tide that we’re seeing.”

On the local level, Rashid said the Islamic Center is looking for ways to continue to be involved in the community and share their stories.

Rashid and Baig both said the interfaith community has rallied around Muslims recently and their bonds have become stronger.

“Interfaith dialogue has increased, which we long for anyway,” Baig said.

Other ways the mosque is trying to build bridges is through community involvement, giving examples of outreach they participate in like making sandwiches for homeless shelters, partially funding lunches at area schools and sending farming supplies to impoverished countries abroad.

“We need to reach out to the wider community and also engaging the community,” Rashid said.

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