YLI Reflections: Combating Islamophobia with Rupa Palanki

My high school his­to­ry teacher, quot­ing Mark Twain, often said, “His­to­ry doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” For cen­turies in the Unit­ed States, minor­i­ty groups, rang­ing from East­ern Euro­pean immi­grants to Japan­ese Amer­i­cans, have faced dis­crim­i­na­tion from more estab­lished pop­u­la­tions due to a sense of “oth­er­ness” that they are invari­ably per­ceived to dis­sem­i­nate. This has result­ed in dark chap­ters of his­to­ry in a nation that prides itself as “the home of the free and the brave.” The recent rise in hatred against Mus­lims is just anoth­er iter­a­tion of the same sto­ry.

With the 9/11 attacks hap­pen­ing only three years after I was born, life, as I know it, has includ­ed a con­stant under­cur­rent of back­lash in the Unit­ed States against Mus­lims. At present, the cur­rent admin­is­tra­tion con­tin­ues to relent­less­ly engage in anti-Mus­lim rhetoric and news head­lines con­tin­ue to blame Islam for select acts of vio­lence per­pet­u­at­ing false, neg­a­tive per­cep­tions of the Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty. At school and in my city, I have per­son­al­ly wit­nessed how lack of a nuanced under­stand­ing breeds big­otry and dis­crim­i­na­tion. Many peo­ple in my home­town in Alaba­ma have nev­er left the state or inter­act­ed with Mus­lims before, and their bias towards Mus­lims stems from stereo­types that have been per­pe­trat­ed over gen­er­a­tions. And often at col­lege, I am the first South Asian Amer­i­can that my peers have con­versed with for an extend­ed peri­od of time, lead­ing them to ask ques­tions about my cul­ture, reli­gion, and lan­guage or mis­tak­en­ly iden­ti­fy­ing me as Mus­lim instead of Hin­du.

Because of this per­son­al expo­sure to islam­o­pho­bia, I devel­oped a desire to bet­ter under­stand the phe­nom­e­non and to equip myself to com­bat it with­in my com­mu­ni­ty. This, in part, was what moti­vat­ed me to apply for SAALT’s Young Lead­ers’ Insti­tute last sum­mer. Dur­ing the train­ing in Wash­ing­ton D.C., I devel­oped the orga­ni­za­tion­al and lead­er­ship tools nec­es­sary to car­ry out effec­tive change. Speak­ers like Noor Mir and Deepa Iyer shared fas­ci­nat­ing insights on dif­fer­ent aspects of islam­o­pho­bia that rein­forced the impor­tance of under­stand­ing it in the con­text of insti­tu­tion­al­ized racism like anti-black­ness and colo­nial­ism, as well as pro­vid­ed mean­ing­ful insights on the resilience and sol­i­dar­i­ty nec­es­sary to work in the social jus­tice field. I appre­ci­at­ed the oppor­tu­ni­ty to meet activists and stu­dent lead­ers from oth­er col­leges and the oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­cuss the speci­fici­ty of our expe­ri­ences as South Asian Amer­i­cans. I had nev­er real­ly had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to explore my iden­ti­ty as a South Asian Amer­i­can so exten­sive­ly before.

This pro­pelled me to begin to shape my own project that I car­ried out over the course of the aca­d­e­m­ic year to work against bias­es with­in my col­lege com­mu­ni­ty. This spring, I worked in con­junc­tion with oth­er South Asia Soci­ety mem­bers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia to plan a Sym­po­sium for Aware­ness of South Asian Issues (SASAI), a week-long inter­col­le­giate con­fer­ence to cre­ate aware­ness for social jus­tice issues and to encour­age activism in its many facets. The week’s events includ­ed a keynote address from 2014 Miss Amer­i­ca Nina Davu­luri, a fundrais­er for a non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion fight­ing mal­nu­tri­tion in South Asia, and a series of dis­cus­sions cov­er­ing social issues like islam­o­pho­bia. With a mix of both fun cul­tur­al pro­gram­ming and deep polit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tions, SASAI encour­aged par­tic­i­pa­tion not only from a diverse range of South Asians but through­out the minor­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty at Penn. By the end of the week, we found it inspir­ing to see that our efforts to make our cam­pus a more inclu­sive space for all were reward­ed.

Pho­tos from the aware­ness sym­po­sium Rupa helped orga­nize in the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia.

As the incred­i­bly pas­sion­ate, intel­li­gent, and social­ly con­scious indi­vid­u­als that made up my Young Lead­ers’ Insti­tute cohort car­ry out their projects over the course of this year, I hope to see vis­i­ble change with­in the com­mu­ni­ties that they tar­get, just as I hope that my actions have spurred. How­ev­er, our work can­not be done alone. As Pres­i­dent Oba­ma notably wrote in his final mes­sage to the Amer­i­can peo­ple as Com­man­der in Chief, “Amer­i­ca is not the project of any one per­son. The sin­gle most pow­er­ful word in our democ­ra­cy is the word ‘We.’ ‘We the Peo­ple.’ ‘We shall over­come.’” Together, we must push forward the fight against islamophobia, for this is not a matter of one culture or religion or language or social class; it is a struggle for achieving equality for all people.

***

The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author and do not nec­es­sar­i­ly reflect the offi­cial pol­i­cy or posi­tion of South Asian Amer­i­cans Lead­ing Togeth­er (SAALT). South Asian Amer­i­cans Lead­ing Togeth­er (SAALT) is a nation­al, non­par­ti­san, non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion that fights for racial jus­tice and advo­cates for the civ­il rights of all South Asians in the Unit­ed States. Our ulti­mate vision is dig­ni­ty and full inclu­sion for all.

 

 

 

This Week in Hate: hate continues to rise, our communities continue to suffer

 

Ear­li­er this year, SAALT released our post-elec­tion analy­sis of hate vio­lence and xeno­pho­bic polit­i­cal rhetoric called “Com­mu­ni­ties on Fire.” Dur­ing the first year fol­low­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion (Novem­ber 7, 2016 to Novem­ber 7, 2017)—we doc­u­ment­ed 302 inci­dents of hate vio­lence and xeno­pho­bic polit­i­cal rhetoric aimed at our com­mu­ni­ties, an over 45% increase from our pre­vi­ous analy­sis in just one year. An astound­ing eighty-two percent of inci­dents were moti­vat­ed by anti-Mus­lim sen­ti­ment. Addi­tion­al­ly, One out of every five per­pe­tra­tors of hate vio­lence inci­dents ref­er­enced Pres­i­dent Trump, a Trump admin­is­tra­tion pol­i­cy (“Mus­lim Ban”), or Trump cam­paign slogn (“Make Amer­i­ca Great Again”) while com­mit­ting the attack.

Since Novem­ber 7, 2017, which marked one year since the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, SAALT has doc­u­ment­ed 40 additional inci­dents of hate vio­lence and xeno­pho­bic polit­i­cal rhetoric. Three of the eight instances of xeno­pho­bic polit­i­cal rhetoric were anti-Mus­lim videos retweet­ed by Pres­i­dent Trump in a sin­gle day.[1]

Fourteen of the thir­ty-two inci­dents of hate vio­lence were verbal/written assaults, fol­lowed by twelve inci­dents of prop­er­ty dam­age, and six phys­i­cal assaults. The cumu­la­tive post-elec­tion total is shown in Fig­ure 1 below com­pared to the year lead­ing up to the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Emerging Trends

Property Damage

On Decem­ber 1, 2017, Bernardi­no Bolatete was arrest­ed for plan­ning to “shoot up” the Islam­ic Cen­ter of North­east Flori­da.[2] He told an under­cov­er detec­tive, “I just want to give these freak­ing peo­ple a taste of their own med­i­cine, you know? They are the ones who are always doing these shoot­ings, the killings.” Fol­low­ing this event, four more mosques were van­dal­ized around the coun­try. Mosques in Upper Dar­by, PA[3]; Clo­vis, NM[4], and Queens, NY[5] were van­dal­ized with “Trump”, “Terr-” “911” and oth­er anti-mus­lim phras­es.

In tune with the dis­turb­ing trend of Mosque van­dal­ism, Tah­nee Gon­za­les and Eliz­a­beth Dauen­hauer tres­passed the Islam­ic Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter of Tempe, Ari­zona. While on Face­book lives, the women stole the masjid’s edu­ca­tion­al mate­r­i­al and called Mus­lims “dev­il-wor­ship­pers” who are destroy­ing “Amer­i­ca.” The women also encour­aged their chil­dren to par­tic­i­pate in anti-Mus­lim behav­ior.

Continued Targeting of Sikh Americans

Twen­ty-two per­cent of hate inci­dents we doc­u­ment­ed in “Com­mu­nites on Fire” tar­get­ed men who iden­ti­fy or are per­ceived as South Asian, Mus­lim, Sikh, Hin­du, Mid­dle East­ern, or Arab. Per­pe­tra­tors of hate crimes often use the reli­gious pre­sen­ta­tion of tur­ban-wear­ing Sikh men to tar­get them. Our report found over sev­en inci­dents of hate vio­lence aimed direct­ly against Sikhs Amer­i­cans, which reflect­ed a sig­nif­i­cant dis­con­nect between SAALT’s com­mu­ni­ty-report­ed and pub­licly-sourced data and data report­ed to the FBI.

In Jan­u­ary 2018, at least three inci­dents of hate vio­lence tar­get­ed Sikh men. In Belle­vue, Wash­ing­ton, an unknown per­pe­tra­tor took a ham­mer from his bag and swung it against the head of Swarn Singh, caus­ing his head to bleed.[6] At the AM/PM con­ve­nience store in Fed­er­al Way, Wash­ing­ton, a man threat­ened to kill a Sikh employ­ee and told him to “go back where you came from.”[7] Lat­er in the month, a Sikh Uber dri­ver, Gur­jeet Singh, picked up a cou­ple in Moline, Illi­nois.[8] The male sus­pect put a gun to Singh’s head say­ing that he hat­ed “tur­ban peo­ple.”

Addi­tion­al­ly, on March 3, 2018 Chad Horse­ly plowed his pick­up truck into Best Stop Con­ve­nience Store because he thought the store own­ers were Mus­lim; they were Sikh Amer­i­cans.[9]  On Feb­ru­ary 20, 2018, a Sikh gas sta­tion own­er was called a “ter­ror­ist” and told that he should “go back to his own coun­try.” When the vic­tim tried to take pho­tos of the vehi­cle license plate, Steven Laver­ty exit­ed the vehi­cle and tried to punch the vic­tim and took his phone.[10] On Feb­ru­ary 1, 2018, Pit Stop Gas Sta­tion in Ken­tucky, owned by a Sikh Amer­i­can, was found van­dal­ized with swastikas, “white pow­er,” “leave,” and “f**k you,” spray-paint­ed on its exte­ri­or.[11]

While we rec­og­nize that many instances of hate vio­lence or xeno­pho­bic rhetoric against our com­mu­ni­ties go unre­port­ed, we at SAALT remain com­mit­ted in refus­ing to nor­mal­ize hate. Down­load our report “Com­mu­nites on Fire”, to read more about our rec­om­men­da­tions on how to com­bat hate vio­lence and address the under­ly­ing sys­tems and struc­tures that pro­duce this vio­lence.

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/donald-trump-britain-first-retweet-muslim-migrants-jayda-fransen-deputy-leader-a8082001.html

[2] https://www.actionnewsjax.com/news/local/jacksonville-officers-man-planned-mass-shooting-at-islamic-center/658434170

[3] http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2017/11/30/upper-darby-anti-muslim-signs/

[4] http://www.krqe.com/news/new-mexico-mosque-vandalized-by-a-real-christain/1009337281

[5] http://www.qchron.com/editions/queenswide/vandal-scrawls-graffiti-at-mosque-site/article_bd1eaf88-a7d6-5006–9244-a1175c21b3fe.html

[6] http://www.king5.com/article/news/crime/sikh-community-facing-rise-in-hate-crimes-seeks-help-from-cities/281–509640203

[7] http://www.king5.com/article/news/crime/sikh-community-facing-rise-in-hate-crimes-seeks-help-from-cities/281–509640203

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/03/07/an-ex-deputy-rammed-a-truck-into-a-store-because-he-thought-the-owners-were-muslim-police-say/?utm_term=.96c4bbd6f212

[9] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/03/07/an-ex-deputy-rammed-a-truck-into-a-store-because-he-thought-the-owners-were-muslim-police-say/?utm_term=.96c4bbd6f212

[10] http://www.newsindiatimes.com/sikh-gas-station-owner-in-new-jersey-becomes-victim-of-hate-crime

[11] http://www.indiawest.com/news/global_indian/indian-american-owned-gas-station-in-kentucky-vandalized-with-racist/article_ce755584-0b0b-11e8-949b-d30fdeef3b05.html