In December 2014, Amal Sinnokrot parked her car across the street from her house, but as she started to cross the road, a car sped up and almost hit her.
“I was able to jump out of the way, but as the car sped away, the man in the car yelled out ‘terrorist,’” Sinnokrot, 26, told Church & State. “I didn’t tell anyone about it for a few days. I only ended up telling my family.”
Sinnokrot is among the growing number of Muslims in America who have personally faced religion-based discrimination. A 2017 Pew Research Center survey revealed that Muslim women like Sinnokrot and Muslims who wear distinctive religious garb are among the most targeted for hate crimes and harassment.
For Sinnokrot, her traumatizing experience didn’t end with that incident. A few days after being almost run over, her car was stolen. She said she doesn’t know whether the two incidents were related, but she thought it was worth mentioning to the police.
“When I called the police to report my missing car, I mentioned that someone tried to run me over earlier that week and called me a terrorist,” she said. “The cop said, ‘Terrorist, what’s that?’ and he acted like he didn’t know what I was saying. I tried to explain it, but gave up when he continued to act like he didn’t understand.”
Half the respondents in Pew’s survey said that being Muslim in America has become more difficult in recent years, with only 3 percent saying it’s become easier. The most common reasons cited for the difficulties include “statements about Muslim extremists in other countries, misconceptions and stereotyping about Islam among the U.S. public, and [President Donald] Trump’s attitudes and policies toward Muslims.”
But while Trump’s rhetoric and three attempts at a Muslim ban have elevated the reports of hate crimes against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim, many American Muslims say they’ve been through a lot of harassment since the horrific terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, regardless of the administration.
“I was too young in the Bush term.… All of my run-ins with racists were during the Obama term when I lived in Maryland. I moved to Indiana in 2016 and haven’t had any issues, which is surprising,” Sinnokrot said. “I moved to the city [Indianapolis], which is more progressive than the rest of the state. I noticed people here are more respectful and will keep to themselves.”
According to South Asian Americans Living Together (SAALT), a nonprofit that advocates for the civil rights of the South Asian community in the United States, between Nov. 9, 2016, and Nov. 7, 2017, more than 300 incidents of violence and xenophobic hate speech aimed at South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern and Arab communities in the U.S. were reported, with the majority of the perpetrators intending harm because they perceived their victims to be Muslim.
Although SAALT’s statistics are recent, they highlight the continued target placed on the backs of Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim – people like Rasha Kathawa, a 27-year-old Iraqi-American aspiring filmmaker.
Although she’s from Iraq, Kathawa isn’t Muslim. She’s Chaldean, a community of indigenous Catholic Iraqis based mostly in the northern part of the country. Many Chaldeans have been fleeing Iraq due to terrorist groups like ISIS targeting them, only to find white supremacists in the United States coming after them as well because of their ethnicity and perceived religion.
“Growing up in the United States in a post-9/11 world is the biggest reality check I ever got as a child. I was 10 when it happened, and I never felt so different from my peers,” Kathawa told Church & State. “I was already an outcast because everyone knew that I was not born in the U.S., and they never let me forget it, but after 9/11 it became worse. I was called a ‘terrorist’ almost every other day, and I was subjected to taunts about my family and whether my father was one of the people who hijacked the planes that crashed into the Twin Towers. It was horrible, and I hated it.”
This, Kathawa said, made her ashamed of her ethnicity as she navigated her identity in America.
“When I was younger, I used to hate telling people that I was Middle Eastern. I rejected that part of me so much, and it mentally and psycho- logically messed me up,” she said. “Being white-passing was a gift, in my opinion. I didn’t want to look like the ‘other,’ which is the category the people around me would have put me in if I wasn’t so pale. Now, I am ashamed at those thoughts, and I can’t believe I hated myself so much that I was willing to reject who I truly was just for acceptance from a bunch of people who don’t even matter.
“Another thing I used to do was proudly proclaim that I was not Muslim when people made racist comments towards me,” Kathawa continued. “I used that as a way to defend myself, but I never realized how truly messed up that was as well because I was basically saying that if I had been Muslim then those attacks would have been valid, which is not the case.”
The struggles faced by people like Sinnokrot and Kathawa aren’t new. Throughout American history, the cycle of religious discrimination and racism has repeated itself in different forms and against different religious minorities. Culturally, many ethnic and religious groups had to fight harder to prove they’re worthy of equal treatment as American residents.
Before and during World War II, the U.S. restricted immigration and denied entry to many Jewish refugees fleeing the horrors of the Holocaust, while anti-Semitism remained common in American culture.
The American government was also criticized for not intervening in the war sooner, despite news of the Holocaust’s atrocities. Not only did polls show that the American public viewed Jewish people negatively, white supremacist terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, with its racist interpretation of Christianity, put spewing anti-Semitic rhetoric and committing hate crimes among its top priorities.
The group and others like it, such as William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Shirts, were proto-fascist and proudly did Nazi salutes in public. This, among many other factors, contributed to some Jews feeling unsafe, unwelcome and out of place. Unfortunately, this problem is still with us. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) recently released a report listing 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents across the United States in 2017. This was a 57 percent increase over 2016. The ADL said it was the largest single-year jump since it began tabulating religion-related incidents in 1979.
Another group that was being discriminated against in the U.S. at the same time they were being persecuted in Nazi Germany and other Nazi-occupied countries was Jehovah’s Witnesses.
During the early years of war, Jehovah’s Witness children were often expelled from public schools for not partaking in forced patriotic rituals such as standing for the Pledge of Allegiance and saluting the flag. The Witnesses were not unpatriotic but argued that their only allegiance was to God, and hence instructed their children not to take part. The Witnesses challenged mandatory flag salutes in public schools in 1940, but lost in the U.S. Supreme Court. Just three years later, however, they went back to court and this time won in 1943’s West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.
Anti-Catholicism has also reared its head at different points in American history. Many questioned whether Catholics’ first loyalty was to their country or their church and its leader, the Pope, and there was resistance against Catholics immigrating to the U.S. or even holding public office. Historians have described how anti-Catholicism helped sink New York Gov. Al Smith’s presidential campaign in 1928, and it nearly torpedoed John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign as well. Kennedy skillfully deflected the issue in a masterful speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on Sept. 12, 1960, during which he endorsed “an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”
History repeated itself in a slightly different way during President Barack Obama’s two terms in office; Obama’s patriotism was questioned because his father was a Muslim from Kenya, even though Obama himself is a Christian.
But the fact that Obama was continually asked throughout his presidency to reassure Americans that he was indeed Christian goes back to Kathawa’s reflection on anti-Muslim animus: Even if Obama had been Muslim, would it have been OK to question his ability to serve as president based on his religion?
As the past repeats itself, the present continues to pose challenges to religious-minority communities. The skepticism, harassment and hostile rhetoric indicate that religious tolerance in the United States has a long way to go.
When Trump narrowly won the presidency in 2016, Kathawa, then two months into her senior year at the University of Michigan, recalls that she, along with most of her liberal friends, “was in total shock.” She said she would go to class “with this weird feeling” that she once again felt out of place, and that the white supremacist rhetoric that haunted her childhood would spike anew.
“I felt like I did not belong there, that this was not a place for me anymore,” Kathawa said. “It felt like everything had changed, but that nothing had changed. I don’t know how to explain it. It was just a dark and dreary week … after the election. After the election, there were a bunch of attacks on minority students on our campus…. I [didn’t] doubt that something like that would happen, even on a progressive campus like ours.”
She’s not alone. Sundus Taher, a 22-year-old Iranian and Pakistani American, observed that Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric has empowered white supremacists, who assume that if a person is Middle Eastern or South Asian he or she must also be Muslim.
“I personally believe that it’s a huge problem when we treat hate crimes and racism as something that [began] only when Trump got elected. Trump is just the symptom of a much larger issue that runs to the very core of America – white supremacy,” Taher told Church & State. “The difference now though is that racists are empowered because they’re even more sure that the [man in the] highest position in the nation backs them up.”
Taher began wearing a headscarf in the Obama era, which she said resulted in “nasty looks” and being called a “terrorist” multiple times in public. She no longer wears the headscarf, yet under the Trump administration she’s suffered even more rigorous discrimination when traveling.
“It’s gotten pretty ugly under the new administration that I get discriminated at the airport even more now, [even though] I don’t wear a headscarf anymore,” Taher said. “Every time I land in the country they ask to go through my phone, ask me ridiculous questions about my family, ethnicity and faith. All of this began a couple days after the Muslim ban although I was born in the U.S. and don’t have any traces of Iran – a banned country – on my U.S. passport.”
Experiences like these continue to illustrate how Trump’s executive orders restricting immigration from several Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, are tantamount to the Muslim ban he promised on the campaign trail, which violates religious freedom by singling out Muslims like Taher for discrimination based solely on religion. That’s why Americans United has been fighting the unconstitutional Muslim ban in court and will be asking the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear arguments against the ban this month, to strike down the ban for good.
“The Supreme Court has the power to end a disgraceful chapter in American history, during which President Trump has ignored the Constitution and our fundamental values of religious freedom and fairness,” Richard Katskee, AU’s legal director, said in a Jan. 19 statement when the high court agreed to hear the case. “We urge the Supreme Court to protect our values and our Constitution by ending Trump’s Muslim ban and preserving America’s commitment to religious freedom.”
With many Muslims and perceived Muslims stepping forward to share their stories of harassment and their struggle to be accepted as “American” in an era of anti-Muslim sentiment, these experiences have empowered them to tell others dealing with harassment to embrace themselves, regardless of what the president, hate groups and others say.
“As someone who aspires to be a professional filmmaker, I want the stories I eventually tell to reflect the world I live in,” Kathawa said. “I want people to watch my films and be able to see what my experiences were like. There is never a time where I separate who I truly am from my ethnicity anymore. I have learned to embrace it, and I think that will help me in the long run.”