The 2016 Election Is Making Islamophobia The Worst It Has Ever Been

by Jack Jenkins –

It’s been an especially harrowing year to be Muslim in America

muslim in america

Attacks against American Muslims are at peak levels this year, a phenomenon experts say is directly related to the widespread use of Islamophobic rhetoric by politicians during the 2016 campaign season — especially Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Since the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, France that triggered an unprecedented spike in Islamophobia in the United States, ThinkProgress has kept a running tally of anti-Muslim incidents across the country. We intentionally kept our threshold for an “incident” high, tracking only the most egregious cases — violent attacks, threats, assaults, protests, firings, airport profiling cases, and instances of vandalism perpetrated against American Muslims and their houses of worship.

Earlier this week, our tally exceeded 100 for the first time.

The grim milestone was reached by collecting dozens of deeply unsettling stories about Islamophobia. A mosque in Coachella, California was set aflame by an arsonist who was later sentenced to six years in prison on hate crime charges. Two 17-year-old boys were brutally beaten outside Brooklyn, New York, with the assailant reportedly knocking one of the boys unconscious while calling him a “terrorist” and declaring that Muslims are “the cause of all problems in the world.” And in one especially harrowing instance, an armed robber in Grand Rapids, Michigan reportedly insinuated that a store clerk of Indian descent was affiliated with ISIS before forcing the victim into a back room, putting the barrel of his gun into his mouth, and pulling the trigger. The shopkeeper — who is not Muslim, but part of the Sikh community — only survived the incident by turning his head at the last second, allowing the bullet to exit through his cheek.

“[This year Islamophobia] has sustained a higher level than, for lack of a better term, the ‘average.’”

Yet our list hardly captures the full gamut of Islamophobia in 2016. According to Corey Saylor, the director of the Department to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia at the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), 2016 has been an especially harrowing year to be Muslim in America.

“There has been an ongoing spike essentially since the murder of two american journalists in Syria since 2014, but it really maxed out in November and December of 2015,” Saylor said. “We haven’t seen that same level since then, but it has sustained a higher level than, for lack of a better term, the ‘average.’”

Saylor noted the reason for the spike is multifaceted, and some of it can be attributed to rogue individuals reacting violently to terrorist attacks such as the mass shootings in San Bernardino, California and Orlando, Florida — both of which were perpetrated by people who claimed affiliation with the militant group ISIS.

But Saylor insisted that there is another reason for the sudden rise in anti-Muslim incidents: the normalization of Islamophobia by American politicians throughout this election cycle. People who attack American Muslims, he said, feel increasingly justified by things such as Donald Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, or his assertion that all of Islam “hates” America.

“[This year has seen] a level of acceptability of anti-Muslim statements in public discourse that you don’t normally expect public officials to get away with,” Saylor said. “Several elections cycles have used Islamophobic rhetoric, but what Donald Trump systematized it at the presidential campaign level.”

Credit: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

Engy Abdelkader of Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative has been tracking this connection between increasingly inflammatory political rhetoric and the rise of Islamophobia. Her organization published an extensive report on the subject earlier this year, noting that since the first candidate announced his bid for the White House in March 2015, there have been approximately 180 reported incidents of anti-Muslim violence, including 12 murders and 34 physical assaults — and that doesn’t include incidents that have occurred since May.

“While the violence [against Muslims] appeared to level off in the beginning of 2016, it still remained 3 to 5 times higher than pre-election levels,” Abdelkader told ThinkProgress in an email. “Significantly, these attacks were also accompanied by anti-Muslim political rhetoric and policy posturing by GOP presidential candidates, including now Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.”

“Such volatile rhetoric is bound to have an adverse impact,” she added, referencing Trump’s Muslim ban. “And, our research suggests that it, in fact, has.”

Credit: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

Saylor noted that Islamophobic rhetoric often balloons during election seasons, but the unusual scope of this year’s uptick is well documented. The Huffington Post, for example, also has an expansive list of Islamophobic incidents that includes anti-Muslim rhetoric, discriminatory policy proposals, and everyday moments of anti-Muslim hatred. As of this writing, their tally sits at 233.

“I think the rhetoric gives implicit permission [for these attacks],” Saylor said. “I think it creates an atmosphere where people feel empowered to go out and take the law into their own hands.”

“When I talk to Muslims, I often point out that this is one of the communities on the front lines of protecting the Constitution.”

Abdelkader pointed out that this culture shift has also altered the work lives of many Muslims, some of whom now say they are encountering new levels of discrimination at the workplace. In early August, for instance, a Muslim woman in Fairfax, Virginia claimed she was fired from her job at a dental care center because she refused to remove her hijab at work. Her boss reportedly told her that he wanted to keep a “neutral environment” in the office devoid of religion, telling her that her headscarf might offend patients. When she pushed back, she says, she was fired.

“There’s been an increase of religious employment discrimination claims filed by Muslims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the government agency responsible for handling these types of cases,” Abdelkader said. “While Muslims make up about 1 percent to 2 percent of the entire U.S. population, their claims constitute about 40 percent of discrimination claims.”

Credit: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

Cases of anti-Islam discrimination at airports are also skyrocketing, with several Muslims being pulled off of planes over the past few months for unclear or unfounded reasons. Some American Muslims are now suing to defend themselves, something Saylor says puts the U.S. Islamic community at the center of the fight over constitutional rights.

“In polling, GOP primary voters are overwhelmingly accepting of Trump’s Muslim ban — that’s a distinct threat to the Bill of Rights,” he said. “When I talk to Muslims, I often point out that this is one of the communities on the front lines of protecting the Constitution.”

Indeed, many Muslim Americans appear to be embracing the role of Constitutional defenders. Khizr Khan, a Muslim man and father of slain U.S. soldier, famously rebuked Trump’s comments on Islam as unconstitutional at the Democratic National Convention in July, holding a copy of U.S. Constitution aloft while asking if Trump had “even read” it. His wife, Ghazala Khan, also admonished Trump for failing to comprehend Islam, saying he is “ignorant” of the religion.

But even with these inspiring moments, Saylor said the Muslim community is still struggling to cope with the onslaught of hate, with many reporting a “shell-shock feeling” that they do not expect to recede until after the 2016 election comes to a close.

“There is a sort of reluctant acceptance that this is just how it’s going to be at least until November,” he said.

Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress