“Honey, don’t get me wrong, but maybe it’s better if you remove these Arabic words from above your door for a while,” my 70-year-old neighbor softly advised me as she was leaving my house. I must have given her a puzzled look because she explained, “Crazy things are happening in the world, and people who don’t know you might get the wrong idea about you.” I grimaced and responded, “I’ll take my “besmele” down when you take your mezuzah down.” She gave me a dry smile and continued trying to convince me that it would be safer for me if kept my religious beliefs under wraps in today’s political climate.
She had been referring to the framed Arabic letters that sat above my doorway. “In the name of God, the All-Merciful, Universally Compassion, Ever Lovingly Tender.” Muslims typically begin every action by reciting this phrase and many Turkish Muslims place it in the entrance of their homes, considering it a symbol of divine protection.
My well-meaning neighbor, who was familiar with religious persecution, having lost her grandparents and most of her extended family to the Holocaust, doled out this advice the day after terrorists killed 17 members of the editorial staff at “Charlie Hebdo” magazine. At the time I dismissed the warning as sincere but unnecessary. Today, a few weeks after the execution style killings of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I am less inclined to wave away my elderly neighbor’s concern.
Although Muslims see the triple murder in North Carolina as a blatant hate crime, investigators and police refuse to label it as such just yet, saying it may have been the result of a parking dispute. Gun control, Islamophobia– pick the frame you think fits best, but not a dispute over parking. To cast these homicides as an isolated incident motivated by something as innocuous as a disagreement over parking does not capture the shifting nature of violence against Muslim Americans in the post-9/11 world. It willfully ignores it.
Muslim Americans have been living in a “new normal” for close to 15 years now, and stacks of crime data support this theory. Lori Peek, associate professor of sociology at Colorado State University and the author of “Behind the Backlash: Muslim Americans after 9/11” has analyzed several years’ worth of hate crime date, both pre-9/11 and post- 9/11. Her research reveals information that puts hard numbers to the burgeoning anxiety and alienation Muslim Americans have been feeling for the last decade. Peek has uncovered a number of striking patterns: hate crimes against Muslims in this country are more geographically dispersed than ever before; hate crimes remain at five to seven times the pre-9/11 rate and have never returned to pre-9/11 levels; and cities with smaller Muslim populations are the places where Muslims are most likely to be targeted.
Dozens of news stories have surfaced in recent weeks to support Peek’s research. A few days after the murders in North Carolina, a homeless man, who had been heard making disparaging remarks about Muslims, set the Quba Islamic Institute in Houston on fire. The same week a 15-year-old Muslim was murdered in a gruesome hit-and-run car crash in Kansas City, Missouri by a man who had been harassing the Muslim community with anti-Islamic taunts. Someone vandalized the Islamic School of Rhode Island on February 14th, scrawling on its doors, “Now this is a hate crime.” The person had also written the words “pigs” along with a string of expletives referring to the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and Allah. And these are only the hate crimes which received national media coverage; dozens more go unnoticed.
It is not without reason that many Muslim Americans, who once dismissed Islamophobia a limited problem contained within small, homogenous towns, are now anxiously looking over their shoulders and doubting if they are safe in their own homes and neighborhoods. According to H. Talat Halman, an associate professor of religion at Central Michigan University, “This moment is possibly a turning point in relations between Muslim Americans and other American citizens. I hope that this murder may help turn the course of Islamophobia in America. The tragedy is too human to overlook and the victims [too] noble, beautiful, and innocent people. May they be martyrs for the end of Islamophobia.”
Arzu Kaya-Uranli has been working as a broadcaster in New York, USA since 1998. She writes weekly editorial articles for Huffington Post and Today’s Zaman on human rights, education, gender equality, environmental issues and Turkey. Kaya-Uranli, also is an award winning Turkish Literature & Language teacher and she has been teaching Turkish for more than 20 years at institutions and universities. Her Twitter address is @akuranli.