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The Latest Wave of Islamophobia: Hate Crimes Against Non-Muslims

The USA Today reports a Delaware man threatened his neighbors who he believed to be Muslims.

The man – Gerard Medvec (63 years old) – alluded to firebombing their house – or “taking the fight to them” – and said he “seriously thought about throwing some Molotov cocktails” at his neighbors’ house, according to court documents.

Medvec had binoculars set on a windowsill when police arrived to his home. He also had two semi-automatic rifles in his house, one of which had taped magazines, and a handgun he wore in his waistband.

The problem – Medvec’s neighbors are not Muslim. He simply drew an opinion of them based on their skin color, as Delaware City Police Chief David Baylor told the USA Today.

To understand the wave of Islamophobic attacks on non-Muslims, see my analysis on the  racialization of Islam – “The Racialization of Islam in the United States: Islamophobia, Hate Crimes, and ‘Flying while Brown.’” Here are a few highlights from the paper, which was published by Religions, a peer-reviewed journal.

  • What is thought-provoking about the prevalence of anti-Muslim hate crimes is that they have not been limited to Muslims. Readers do not need to look far in our time to find people being targeted for “looking Muslim.” The case of Cameron Mohammed is notable for being one of the most explicit examples of how the racialization of Islam leads to Islamophobic hate crimes (Goeman 2013). Mohammed, a Florida resident, was shot repeatedly with a pellet gun outside of a Walmart in 2013 (Orlando and Sullivan 2013). The assailant explicitly asked Mohammed if he was in fact a Muslim or from the Middle East; when he answered negatively, the attack did not stop (Goeman 2013). The assailant’s remarks to the police after the incident reveal his real motive. When deputies told the assailant that his victim was not Muslim, he told them he did not care, that “they’re all the same.” In this case, “they” (or “Muslim-looking people”) are painted as a monolith. Mohammed’s physical appearance, in particular his skin tone, was connected with a social identity (Muslim or Arab). The discrimination that he experienced reinforced a racial identity that was linked to Islam.
  • Non-Muslims, too, have been impacted by racial profiling and the racialization of Islam. In May 2016, Guido Menzio, a decorated Ivy League economist from Italy, was removed from an American Airlines flight because his seatmate expressed concerns after seeing him writing math equations in a notebook before the plane’s take-off. Menzio, who was described by a passenger as having “dark, curly hair, olive skin and an exotic foreign accent,” was taken off the plane for questioning (Danner 2016). Authorities told him he had been suspected of terrorism. Menzio’s case is an instance of racial profiling of airline passengers whose skin color, actions, or speech make airline passengers and flight attendants think they are Muslim. His experience highlights the way that internalized racial bias against Islam and Muslims can lead to the perception that U.S. Muslims pose a security treat.
  • In light of Menzio, Chu (2015) argues that it is hypocritical to say that Islamophobia is a simple consequence of “rational disagreement” with the tenets of Islam rather than xenophobic distrust of people who look different from “normal” Americans. Chu’s point becomes clearer when we see how much of Islamophobia falls on Sikhs. Sikh communities across the United States have been victims of hate crimes perpetrated by Americans. Reports of incidents in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and concerns that hate crimes would rise prompted the founding of the Sikh Coalition, now the largest Sikh advocacy and civil rights organization in the country (Basu 2016). In the first month after 9/11, the Coalition documented more than 300 cases of violence and discrimination against Sikhs in the United States (Basu 2016). Fifteen years after 9/11, many Sikhs say they feel no safer in the country, primarily because of the continued confusion between Sikhs and Islam (Basu 2016). Ultimately, linking such features of “Muslim-ness” means that people who are not Muslim are also subjected to violence as a result of the racialization of Islam.
  • Those who attack Sikhs do not appear to care much about such fine distinctions as Sikhism and Islam being two different religions. In September 2001, Balibar Singh Sodhi was shot and killed outside of his Mesa, Arizona, gas station by Frank Roque, a U.S. citizen who told law enforcement he wanted to “kill a Muslim” in retaliation for the attacks on 9/11 (Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund 2011). According to one prominent Sikh advocacy group, Sodhi was selected by Roque because he had a beard and wore a turban in accordance with his Sikh faith (Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund 2011). Although the Sikh turban signifies commitment to upholding freedom, justice and dignity for all people, “the physical appearance of a Sikh is often ignorantly conflated with images of foreign [Muslim] terrorists, some of whom also wear turbans and many of whom have received copious publicity in our mainstream media in the post-9/11 environment” (The Sikh Coalition 2012). In Roque’s case, he confused Sodhi’s long beard and turban as a representation of Islam. He then effectively used Sodhi’s “race” to categorize and ultimately harm him in the worst way imaginable—murder.

 

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