Wednesday, December 16th, 2015...2:42 pm

Editorial: A rising tide of bigotry

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Asma Jama, a 38-year-old Minneapolis resident, was dining with cousins and young nieces in a Coon Rapids Applebee’s on Oct. 30. After being in the restaurant for less than a half hour, a woman at a nearby table butted into Jama’s conversation and objected to her speaking a foreign language, Swahili. The drunk and belligerent woman suggested that Jama, who is African and Muslim, speak English; then she swung a beer mug into Jama’s face, which opened a gash that required 17 stitches to close.

Jama now suffers from a persistent headache, and a new concern about her safety when going out in public.

Her attacker, Jodie Burchard-Risch, a 43-year-old dental assistant from Ramsey, known to police for incidents of assault, theft and excessive drinking, has been charged with the criminal assault.

The attack on Jama also left local Muslims wondering who would be next, amid a growing social climate of anti-Muslim bigotry. The hateful mood, in the Twin Cities and across the nation, has only grown more poisonous since the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.

“We don’t feel safe,” Ahmad Abu Atieh, director of the Islamic Cultural Community Center in Minneapolis, told the Star Tribune last month. “I worry that someone will attack me. Every day.”

And the hatemongering presidential campaign of Donald Trump, who would like to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, has poured more fuel on the fire.

As Trump’s demagogic appeals transfix the masses, aggravate crowds of rabid supporters and provide daily press fodder, a front-page story in Tuesday’s edition of the New York Times was titled “Young Muslim Americans Are Feeling the Strain of Suspicion.

The story began with a look at the life of a Bronx teenager in a Muslim family: “Hebh Jamal does not remember the Sept. 11 attacks. She was 1. Growing up in the Bronx, she was unaware of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and was mostly insulated from the surge in suspicion that engulfed Muslims in the United States, the programs of police surveillance and the rise in bias attacks.”

However, recent events, especially the previously mentioned terrorist atrocities in Paris and San Bernardino, have forced the teenager to contend with “growing anti-Muslim sentiment, adjusting her routines to avoid attacks and worrying about how she appears to the rest of society. And she has repeatedly felt compelled to justify her faith and to distance herself from terrorists who murder in the name of her religion.”

Jamal recently told the Times: “I have to sit down and study more and think more, and the idea of thinking more is really tough, because as a 15-year-old, you don’t want to think more. I feel like the past two months have probably been the hardest of my life.”

The Times article went on to survey similar adjustments that young Muslims have been making, in the face of growing intolerance toward members of their faith. Apparently the problems are severe for Muslim women who wear headscarves and are readily identifiable as Muslims. In the current noxious mood sweeping the country, bigots, usually men, have been emboldened to verbally harass Muslim women in public.

The Washington-based nonprofit Council on American-Islamic Relations has documented dozens of Islamophobic incidents nationwide since last month, including many against women wearing headscarves, according to the Los Angeles Times, which reported: “In Cincinnati, a driver tried to run down a young Muslim woman. In New York City, a customer called a female pharmacist wearing a headscarf a terrorist and told her to ‘get out of his country.’ In San Diego, a man shoved a pregnant Muslim mother’s stroller into her belly and a San Diego State student reported a man tugged at her headscarf while yelling at her in a parking lot.”

And victims of harassment don’t even have to be Muslim these days; a swarthy complexion is enough to excite the latent hate, even in the liberal precincts of the Twin Cities.

Deepinder Mayell, a lawyer and director of the Advocates for Human Rights’ Refugee and Immigrant Program, elicited much comment after writing a commentary article for the Star Tribune last week. The piece was titled “My run-in with hate speech at a Minnesota Vikings game.

Mayell recently attended his first Vikings game and first NFL game. He wrote:What I didn’t expect was for a man to push aside other people and point his finger in my face, demanding to know if I was a refugee. He needed to make sure I wasn’t a refugee, he said. There was anger in his face and vehemence in his accusation.

“I was stunned. He didn’t know anything about me. We were complete strangers. But somewhere in his mind, all he saw was a terrorist, based on nothing more than the color of my skin. He was white, and I wasn’t. He didn’t see anything else.

“He didn’t know that I have lived in Minnesota for the past four years, that I was born and raised in New York and that the words ‘Never Forget’ may mean more to me than to him. He didn’t know that when I went home and my children jumped on top of me and asked ‘How was the game?’ that I’d be holding back tears as I told them about racism instead of touchdowns.”

Mayell continued: “It was also abundantly clear that he didn’t know about refugees, dignity or freedom. He didn’t know that if he were speaking to a refugee, he’d be speaking to someone who feared persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group. He didn’t know that many refugees are victims of some of the worst human-rights abuses occurring on the planet, ranging from being sold into sexual slavery to being killed in mass executions. He didn’t know that being a refugee is a badge of resilience and honor, not danger.”

Most unfortunately, the Vikings fans in the stands witnessed this sordid incident and did nothing.

“In that moment, I was terrified,” Mayell wrote. “But what scared me the most was the silence surrounding me. As I looked around, I didn’t know who was an ally or an enemy. In those hushed whispers, I felt like I was alone, unsafe and surrounded.”

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” And our neighbors.

As Jews, we should be well aware of the plight of “the other,” and how a society can quickly descend from civility to barbarism. Jews in Minnesota once faced blatant discrimination in housing, employment and acceptance in civic life. That’s no longer the case; but our society has found new scapegoats: the Muslims.

To its credit the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC) condemned Trump’s benighted proposal to bar all Muslims from entering the U.S.

During Hanuka, Steve Hunegs, the group’s executive director, issued a statement and noted that “we are reminded that religious freedom is both a Jewish and American value, which can only truly flourish when this right is safeguarded for all people.”

Hunegs added that banning people from entering the country “based solely on their religion is deeply offensive to us as Jews, unquestionably unconstitutional, and has absolutely no place in American politics…. Scapegoating and singling out all Muslims for odious discrimination is not a solution worthy of the American people or our traditions. It is also precisely the kind of absurd overreaction that our enemies are counting on to incite additional rounds of lethal terrorism against Americans and our allies.”

On this last point, it should be obvious that Trump and his fellow bigots (Jeb Bush proposed that only Syrian Christian refugees, not Muslims, be allowed into the country) are playing right in the hands of ISIS. The savages in Syria and Iraq do not want Muslims fleeing the “caliphate” — they want to keep them enslaved and repressed.

These are perilous times in America. At a minimum, we must not keep quiet when we encounter ugly expressions of bigotry in public. First they came for the Muslims… you will be next.

— Mordecai Specktor /

(American Jewish World, 12.18.15)

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