Posted by Guest on April 19, 2017 in Blog

By Sam Leathely

Representatives from the Southern Poverty Law Center, South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), Media Matters for America, the Arab American Institute and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding came together for a briefing on the Hill to discuss anti-Muslim bigotry following President Trump’s election. 

Terri A. Johnson, founder of the Center for New Community, introduced the briefing’s panelists, who included Meira Neggaz, Executive Director of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, Heidi Beirich, leader of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, Lakshmi Sridaran, Director of National Policy and Advocacy for South Asian Americans Leading Together, Rebecca Lenn, Director of Outreach at Media Matters for America, and Nadia Aziz, a National Policy Council member representing the Arab American Institute. 

Meira Neggaz laid the foundation for the briefing with three key points. First, that American Muslims should not be reduced to "victims" of Islamophobia or only related to through the lens of national security; second, that political leadership among American Muslims is imperative; and third, that the rhetoric of the new administration has severely impacted American Muslim communities. In support of her first point, Neggaz noted that American Muslims are ethnically diverse and extremely successful. Neggaz also pointed out that when hate incidents against American Muslims systematically spike following hateful rhetoric by domestic leaders (and not after terrorist attacks), it becomes clear that the peace and security of American Muslim communities are being tangibly threatened by hateful rhetoric.

Heidi Beirich echoed Neggaz’s observation that hate incidents had reached an unprecedented level, and focused her own comments on the issue of hate crime reporting. Beirich noted that different methods of collecting data may have a significant impact on the way hate crimes are viewed in the U.S. The FBI releases statistics that place hate crimes at approximately 5,000 to 6,000 incidents annually; however, DOJ statistics collected through three wide-ranging surveys found that these incidents are actually numbered around 250,000 annually. Overall, she asserted that if hate crimes were reported at the rate they actually occur, such crimes would constitute a much weightier portion of American political discussion. Given that hate crimes frequently result from political rhetoric, as Neggaz noted, it is alarming that they are so egregiously underreported. You can find more information on hate crime reporting and statistics in the SLPC’s Intelligence Center Report.  

Lakshmi Sridaran provided an even more specific look at the impact of political rhetoric on anti-Muslim sentiment, and reminded the audience that anti-Muslim hate crimes also endanger non-Muslims who are perceived to be Muslim. She noted that SAALT found that hate crimes spiked the week after Donald Trump’s first Muslim Ban announcement. As many will recall, Srinivas Kuchibhotla was killed and Alok Madasani was wounded by a white nationalist on February 22. The high amount of publicity surrounding this incident belies the general lack of awareness of xenophobia among much of the public.

Although incidents of anti-Muslim, anti-Arab and anti-South Asian hate are not thoroughly documented by the government, the federal and local government has systematically surveilled American Muslims and South Asians (often using methods with dubious Fourth Amendment credibility). The most prominent examples of these surveillance programs include the PATRIOT Act, NSEERS program, NYPD ‘counterterrorism’ surveillance and Countering Violent Extremism programs. SAALT has tracked the impact of discriminatory racial and religious profiling in such programs. 

The third panelist, Rebecca Lenn, added that increased fragmentation in the media is critical to understanding the context of hate crimes and inflammatory political rhetoric. Lenn suggested that increasing fragmentation and polarized views among the mainstream media has allowed ‘fake news’ to surface and fill the gap formerly occupied by more traditional media coverage. The convenience and immediacy of social media exacerbates the growth and distribution of fake news, Lenn noted, and enables cyber harassment of American Muslim activists (which parallels the real-life spike in hate incidents). Activists like Linda Sarsour have been targeted by the vicious social media news cycle that results from rapid sharing and digital bandwagon-ing.         

Nadia Aziz brought the panel full circle by returning to Neggaz’s observation that American Muslims are frequently understood only as national security threats, with Aziz suggesting that the ‘terms of engagement’ between the US government and American Muslims are restricted to terms of security and foreign policy. Like Aziz herself, Arab Americans, and American Muslims, are doing important work in their own communities, and have needs and concerns that fall clearly in the realm of domestic politics. As these needs and concerns are neglected, and as Arab Americans and American Muslims are considered only through a national security framework, they will continue to be “invisible to our government.” Following the election, the Arab American Institute has compiled a toolkit that addresses some of these needs and concerns, and provides advocacy guidance on issues that impact Arab Americans. 

A full video of the debriefing and audience discussion is available on our Facebook page


Sam Leathely is a Spring 2017 intern at the Arab American Institute.

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