President Obama’s speech at the end of the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) helped me recognize a distressing feeling inside me. Fear.
In his acknowledgment of the brutal massacre of three young Muslim American students in their home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the President also validated this growing fear, weighing heavily in my chest when I wake up every morning.
It is never easy to admit that you are afraid. Yet, the news of the massacre forced me to face a growing reality. Being Muslim is reason enough to incite hate. Everything about the North Carolina killings shocked me. The context. The gruesome way the students were killed. The alleged motivation. Although police are not designating these murders as a hate crime, to me, this man was motivated by hate. The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) is launching an inquiry to determine whether any federal hate crime laws were violated.
I am not someone who scares easily. I have worked in war zones all over the world, from Iraq to Libya. I’ve had bombs planted at my workplace and death threats made against me. I work in conflict resolution. I live with conflict and discomfort all the time. These incidents have not fazed me. But this past week, I was scared.
As a woman whose headscarf may be viewed as a bull’s-eye target by hatemongers, I realized I am vulnerable. I questioned whether to go to my job in the morning or work from home. I didn’t always feel this way.
Throughout most of my life, I had never questioned if I belonged. I often pause when people ask me where I am from. I am American. I am Arab. I am Palestinian. I am Muslim. I am a woman. I may have paused about my various identities. But I never questioned the place I call home.
Growing up in Spartanburg, South Carolina I took my multiple identities for granted. I never felt hostility. I never felt excluded or targeted. I always felt at home and that I belonged. Safe.
Things changed after the 9/11 attacks when the security guard at the building where I worked advised me to immediately return home because the media were reporting that Muslims might have been behind the attack. “You may be a target,” he said.
Since then, I have channeled my insecurities into taking positive steps. I was one of the first volunteers to show up at a hotel near the Pentagon to donate groceries for people making food for the first responders. I travel overseas to work with humanitarian and conflict resolution efforts. Today, I work for a federal institute dedicated to conflict mitigation.
My strategy has worked. That is, until the Chapel Hill massacre. For the first time in nearly 15 years, I feel afraid again. I feel targeted. This massacre didn’t happen in some remote war zone in Sudan, or Afghanistan, where I have traveled. It happened here at home, and that scares me.
All indications point to an even greater climate of hostility towards American Muslims. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, in 2013, of the 1,223 victims of anti-religious hate crimes, 13.7 percent were anti-Muslim. That’s an increase from 11.6 the year before.
And these numbers may be rapidly rising. Just last Friday morning an Islamic center in Houston burned down. Investigators confirmed an accelerant, like gasoline, was at the site of the fire and have since then charged Darryl Ferguson with arson. Meanwhile, people on social media are abuzz reporting anecdotal evidence of harassment by fellow Americans since the massacre.
For example, last week a man was physically and verbally attacked while buying ice cream with his children in a grocery store. Two Caucasian men were reportedly harassing him, while yelling derogatory remarks linking him to ISIS and demanding he go back home.
Omair Siddiqi reported on FaceBook that on the way back from a vigil, he got into a car accident with an angry driver. The driver got out of his car and asked him if he was Muslim and yelled at him to go back to his country saying, “North Carolina is just the beginning.”
These incidents are symptomatic of ever declining public opinions towards Muslims. A recent Pew poll indicates that 53% of Americans are concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism in the United States. Another poll indicates that Americans feel least warmly towards Muslims when compared to other religious groups—with a thermometer rating of 40 out of 100 being the warmest.
The reasons for such negative views towards members of our faith are many. But what concerns me is not how we arrived at this point. I care more about how we can find our way out of this climate of hate and fear.
I will continue to channel my vulnerabilities into positive action. As an American Muslim with roots in multiple identities, I can promise to do my part. I will continue to reach out to my co-workers, neighbors, friends, and maximize the use of social media to have my voice heard. I will proactively reach out to organizations dedicated to protecting freedoms and civil liberties.
Yet, I cannot do this alone. The Muslim community cannot do this alone. I believe Muslims are the new kids on the block of the civil rights movement. The time is now for the Muslim American community to learn from and work in alliance with our predecessors of hyphenated Americans – be it African, Irish, Italian, Japanese, etc. But the burden cannot fall on those recent victims’ community alone. We Americans, all of us, can no longer be divided by a social fabric that is centered on faith, sexuality, and race, spinning like an endless merry-go-round with new targeted communities on-boarding and off-boarding.
We all deserve the right to feel safe in our home. America is the only home we have.
The views expressed here are the author’s own.