By Katie Zdunek
Rafey Wahlah, a Pakistani international student at Western Kentucky University, said he and his roommates found a note on the door of their apartment calling them a racial slur and telling them to go home.
This was days after the presidential election.
Anti-Muslim hate crimes have increased 67 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to data from the FBI Hate Crime Statistics.
In a 2015 hate crime analysis comprised of 20 states, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism said that anti-Muslim attacks made up 4.51 percent of all hate crimes.
Roughly 3.3 million Muslims live in the United States, and make up an estimated 0.9 percent of the population, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
The 2015 data marks the highest increase in hate crimes against Muslims since 9/11, with 257 incidents reported, compared to 481 in 2001.
Madihha Ahussain, staff attorney for Muslim Advocates, said that the national advocacy group has noticed a change in the national attitude towards Muslims.
“What makes right now different is that we have seen a normalization of anti-Muslim behavior and rhetoric,” Ahussain said. “And part of that is because of the fact that we have individuals in office that are perpetuating bigotry and are making it permissible and okay to have these views and not only have these views but act on them as well.”
In her role as staff attorney, Ahussain said she sometimes provides support for hate crime victims and their families as they go through the legal process.
The group tracks and monitors hate crime incidents on their website’s hate map.
Muslim Advocates’ legal team also assists communities facing resistance in their surrounding communities, like opposition to the building of a mosque.
Ahussain said she works with coalition partners as well. The Coalition to End Hate writes “advocacy letters on hate crimes and bigotry related issues like hate speech by officials” or public policies her group is concerned about, including the “Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States” Executive Order 13769. Commonly known as the Muslim Ban, the executive order suspended immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Sudan, Syria, and Iran.
Though a Seattle judge issued a stay temporarily halting the first executive order, President Trump’s administration proposed a revised ban. The revision excludes Iraq from the banned countries list but still calls to cut refugee immigration by over 50 percent, according to the New York Times.
In mid-March, the new travel ban was blocked by federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland. The first of the two Trump administration’s appeal cases takes place next week in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The ban, Ahussain said, is influenced by a hate bias, regardless of what the Trump administration may say to deny it.
“We feel very strongly that President Trump cannot completely eradicate and ignore all of the things that were said leading up to the beginning of the administration, which is that he intended to institute a full and complete ban of Muslims in this country,” Ahussain said.
Despite the cases of hate violence, harassment, and threats that she sees, Ahussain said there’s a positive in all of the negative.
“There’s a lot of good people out there,” she said. “There’s a lot of people out there that are trying to make sure that no individual is singled out and that when they see something bad happening, they want to try and help. They want to try and make sure that those people feel protected and that they have a community around them.”
Southern Poverty Law Center
While Muslim Advocates monitors national hate crime incidents against Muslims, the Southern Poverty Law Center tracks hate groups as part of its mission to “advocate on behalf of society’s most marginalized members.”
The rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes doesn’t surprise Lecia Brooks, the organization’s outreach director, who said the increase is consistent with her organization’s findings.
“Our hate data shows that there’s an increase of three times as many anti-Muslim hate groups in 2016 than there were in 2015,” Brooks said.
The data collected by SPLC is updated on a map annually in February.
The map shows the highest concentrations of hate groups are in the southeast and northeast parts of the country.
Beyond tracking modern hate groups and civil rights litigation, SPLC works to address Islamophobia through Teaching Tolerance, a program that provides free curriculum to teachers across the country, Brooks said.
K-12 educational resources and material are available on SPLC’s website, along with professional development tools for educators.
“What we’re trying to do is support a more rigorous form of multicultural education and really helping teachers, who are primarily white women, teach a more diverse student population,” Brooks said. “We also know that they don’t get a lot of time in teacher education programs to develop any true cultural competency. We’re trying to offset that.”
Omar Ghani, the executive director of the Lexington component of The Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the decision to reactivate the chapter this year was motivated by the desire to provide a community platform.
CAIR Kentucky is working to make a presence, Ghani said. The group has worked with local mosques, primarily Masjid Bilal and The Islamic Center of Lexington.
They have distributed letters on immigration law policy to both mosques, and will continue to cover issues affecting the Muslim community, Ghani said.
CAIR Kentucky held a civil rights workshop on April 1 with Street Law, a group in University of Kentucky’s law school, to educate community members on their rights.
Ghani said workshops like these are an important component of the Lexington chapter’s work, as they provide crucial information to people who may be misinformed or at a disadvantage because they may lack knowledge American-born people have through experience living here or easier access to resources.
“Given some changes in the political climate, people are a little more nervous,” Ghani said. “They’re a little more worried about what’s going to happen to them and their relationship with the government.”
Workshops are only one aspect of education that Ghani said his group will be focusing on. Interfaith dialogue, activities, and events bringing Muslim community members and members of other religious groups together will hopefully help bridge the gap and help foster a community-focused atmosphere, he said.
Despite a bomb threat to Masjid Bilal via mail on March 4, according to a Facebook post from CAIR Kentucky, Ghani said the Lexington community is generally accepting and welcoming.
“I think people are still happy to be in America,” he said. “But in addition, I think people are thinking that we can’t just sit back and let things unfold. That we have to participate and we have to take part in the processes so that we can show people that their perceptions aren’t true.”
A look into the Bowling Green community
Based off appearance, Imam Sedin Agic said he would probably not be recognized as a Muslim in public. Features like short hair and a shaven face lend inconspicuousness.
Agic, who is originally from Bosnia, said he has been the worship leader of the Islamic Center of Bowling Green since 2007, the same year he moved to the United States.
Despite an awareness of the increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes, especially after the elections, Agic said Bowling Green is a really peaceful community.
He said neither he nor his congregation, made up of roughly 25 different nationalities, has experienced prejudice based on faith beliefs.
Muslim women would probably face more prejudice because of their hijab draw attention to them, though he said he has not been told of any incidents. Men with darker complexions could be susceptible too, Agic added.
The significant increase in Islamophobic incidents surprises him.
“I can’t imagine right now, the percentage must be much bigger since 2015,” Agic said. “That’s two years.”
One of the problems is that people that have misconceptions about Muslims and Islam, don’t want to ask their neighbors, Agic said. He said he believes people rely on the news instead of going to a mosque and talking to an Imam or having interfaith dialogues to gain a better understanding of the religion.
A broad variety of college classes make trips to the mosque to learn about how Islam relates to their fields, Agic said. Whether that be information doctors and nurses should know for treating Muslim patients during Ramadan when they are fasting, or cultural expectations that military classes should learn to facilitate peaceful relations with villages.
Learning the differences in social customs is useful to people of all backgrounds. Agic said the Islamic Center of BG has a good relationship with Western Kentucky University and the community.
Ghazwan Nahedh, 35, said Bowling Green is “quiet and peaceful compared to other cities. The threat is less.”
Nadedh is a co-owner of the Jasmine International Market on Woodmont Avenue. The red brick building is filled with groceries, household and personal items, and the lively chatter of people on a chilly Saturday in the beginning of May.
Like Agic, Nahedh said he believes Americans rely too much on a few news sources, and those sources don’t always know what is going on.
He said that while there are occasionally hateful people, they exist everywhere and don’t make up a significant component of the community.
“People here are smart, and a majority of Bowling Green has supported Muslims,” Nadedh said, recalling the Unity March downtown in early February following President Trump’s immigration ban.
Travel was more difficult after the first immigration ban, Nadedh said. With Iraq’s inclusion in the executive order, visiting family meant further scrutiny in the airport. He said interrogation involved lots of waiting, with an uncertainty of how long he’d be sitting there. Questions included reasons for departure and return.
“Of course, we understand they’re doing their job,” Nadedh said, “but it wasn’t like this before.”
A look into Bowling Green student life
Western Kentucky University freshman, Sofia Kamali, studies at a table on the second floor of Helm Library on campus. The 19-year old with long brown ombré hair smiles as she talks about her experiences traveling.
She’s lived in London, Dubai, Sacramento, and San Fransisco, where she said her family still resides. San Fransisco is open and you couldn’t feel racism there, Kamali said. London, despite its diversity, felt different, she added.
“I felt like it would be very laid back but you do feel racism there, you do feel that sense of racism among the different religions,” she said.
She recalled seeing two girls wearing hijab, walking down the street, and two old women staring at them uncomfortably.
Kamali is Afghan American and describes herself as a moderate Muslim, like her parents. She said her family doesn’t go to mosque often, and that she’s never been.
“You could say practicing in the sense that I know there is a divine power,” Kamali said while taking a break from studying for finals.
She said her experiences in Kentucky have been positive, that living on campus has had a “bubble effect” in keeping any possibility of anti-Muslim hate or racism at bay.
“So we’ll see with the next three years and the upcoming administration,” Kamali said.
In his time in Bowling Green, Rafey Wahlah said he’s noticed an increase in Islamophobia over the past year and a half. He adds however, that incidents like the hate note left on his apartment door are rare for him.
Wahlah can recall one other time when he’s experienced anti-Muslim hate in the community. He said while walking downtown on a Thursday a few years ago, a car of drunk people yelled at them, “go home terrorists.”
He doesn’t take these experiences too personally.
“I really didn’t get that affected, or feel bad, I was like, ‘OK, this was meant to happen.’ At the end of the day, people are going to react,” Wahlah said.
On the same night that he and his roommates found the note, a white female neighbor got a note because she was a known Hillary supporter on Facebook, he said.
“It’s not just me who was being discriminated against. It’s just people being weird,” Wahlah said. “They’re hate crimes to an extent then they’re just not even crimes. They’re just people voicing their opinions in ways they can do in front of everyone.”
Muslim and non-Muslim communities feel similarly, he said. Both can be anxious and prone to making assumptions about the other.
“It’s just the people who are Muslims get scared as well because they see all the news, they see things like this happening everywhere,” Wahlah said. “And then the people that are here, like from here, they have to react in a way as well. So it’s just that confusion between the communities at the end of the day which makes these conflicts come about.”