‘Alarming’ spike in anti-Arab sentiment concerns community

Amy Hunter, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – Shortly before the December holidays, an olive-skinned construction worker showed up to his job to find two holes drilled into his toolbox with wires sticking out — a prank by his co-workers, whose intention was to make the toolbox look like a bomb.

Taped onto the toolbox was a photoshopped picture of Osama bin Laden, with the construction worker’s face superimposed onto the image.

The man’s supervisor called him into his office, “What’s going on here?” he asked. “Are you a terrorist? A jihadist?”

Skyrocketing reports of discrimination and hate crimes against Arab-Americans in recent months have alarmed many in the community. An advisory issued in late December warned Muslims and other Arab-Americans to familiarize themselves with the emergency exits at their places of worship and to communicate with law enforcement , if possible requesting police protection during evening prayers.

Many say they know what’s behind the surge.

“I strongly believe that it has to do with the political rhetoric,” says Ayoub Abed, legal director at the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, which issued the advisory. “It has a lot to do with what we’ve seen in the past month, the upcoming elections, what the candidates are saying.”

Abed is not alone. Many in the Arab-American community reiterated his sentiments.

“This is no longer post 9-11 backlash. We’re far beyond that. I really believe this is a second wave of Islamaphobia,” says Ayoub.

In December, the number of discrimination reports to the ADC tripled compared to the same month in 2010, and were nearly 80 percent above the average for the month of December for the past decade. The case of the construction worker was one of them, and Ayoub said his office is overwhelmed.

December is typically a slow period for the ADC, Ayoub says. People are distracted and busy with holiday preparations, and a lot of folks take time off from work. This December, however, was different. Early in the month, Lowe’s Home Improvment pulled its advertising from the TLC show “All-American Muslim,” in a highly publicized move, saying the program was a threat to American values.

In addition, a showdown heading toward the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus, the first primary of the 2012 election year, upped GOP candidate debate and scrutiny — some of which was geared toward Muslims, Ayoub says.

Ayoub’s organization, the ADC, is a national organization based in D.C. to which victims of discrimination can report incidents and get pro bono legal counsel, if need be. They take all discrimination cases, not limited to Arab-Americans, and have chapters across the country. Its busiest office is in Dearborn, Mich., where the highest concentration of Arab-Americans live, Ayoub says.

Ideally, cases taken to the ADC end in negotiations and resolution between the employer and employee, with the victim retaining his job. In some instances, however, they proceed to court, Ayoub says.

The ADC also takes reports of hate crimes, which he says also have increased.

Haris Tarin, director of the D.C. office of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, says the surge is real and is being felt nationwide.

“There is definitely something that’s happened. People are hearing the rhetoric, and that’s problematic,” he says. “There are more houses of worship being vandalized and more people looking to find out how to secure places of worship.”

Tarin says he believes with the election in full swing, the climate will only intensify in coming months.

As an example, Tarin cites an event in South Carolina recently when Newt Gingrich was asked if he would support a Muslim candidate for office.

Gingrich responded to much applause, saying, “I think it would depend entirely on whether they would commit in public to give up Shariah law.”

“A person who belonged to any kind of belief in Shariah, any kind of effort to impose that on the rest of us, would be a mortal threat,” he said.

The Public Religion Research Institute in D.C. tracks public opinion toward a variety of religions, and statistics show there has been a marked increase in the number of Americans who feel that the Muslim faith runs counter to American values, and that Shariah law poses a threat to the American way of life.

In one survey, says Robert Jones, chief executive officer of the institute, three in 10 Americans said they believed American Muslims want to establish Shariah law in America.

In fact, between February and August of 2011, that belief grew from 23 percent of Americans to 30 percent, Jones says.

“It’s still low,” Jones says of the percentage. “But it is striking that it’s moved that much in that period of time. We often see this kind of movement on issues when there are low levels of knowledge and people don’t have firm conceptions in their mind. That’s when they tend to be swayed by political leadership.”

Jones says the majority of Americans admit to having little or no knowledge of Islam. In fact, 70 percent of the population says they’ve never interacted with a person of Muslim faith, and nearly 85 percent say they either know a little about the religion or nothing at all, according to the institute.

“What they do know, they’re getting it from the media,” Jones says. “What we find is that depending on what television source they’re getting their information from, they’re getting a very different picture of Islam.

“For example, there’s a correlation between people who say they most trust Fox News to give them accurate information on politics. Those viewers tend to have much more negative views about Islam then those who watch public television,” he says.

In a vacuum of concrete information and experience, Jones says, the message from political leadership can have a significant effect.

Tarin, with the affairs council, says Shariah is a set of principles that govern the way Muslims live their lives, such as kindness to parents and goodness toward neighbors. Within it, there is a component of penal code, which he says is historical and similar to canon law or Judaic law. In America today, this aspect of Shariah is “irrelevant,” Tarin says.

For most Muslims, Tarin says Shariah offers instruction on how to live a good life and be a good citizen.

“There has been a whole industry that has kind of fabricated a threat that is called Shariah law. That Shariah law is a threat to our constitutional system, that Shariah law is somehow going to undermine our constitution,” he says.

Tarin’s office will soon start hosting forums across the country to speak out about the trend. They want to encourage the Muslim community to be more civically engaged and to bring attention to the divisiveness in the current political climate.

Ayoub says the surge in anti-Arab sentiment is unsettling to the Arab-American community as a whole. It lowers morale and causes worry in individuals and families.

He hopes those who experience discrimination will stand up to it and contact the ADC, or any civil rights group, to report incidents. He advises employers to invest in diversity training for staff, and encourages employees to know their rights and familiarize themselves with company human resource guidelines.

“For us, preferably, the ideal way to resolve this would be through negotiation and a mutual understanding,” Ayoub says. “But I anticipate 2012 to be a very busy year.”

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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