Behind the Veil of Islamophobia
The murder of Shaima Alawadi isn’t a sign of increasing prejudice, but of writers’ credulousness
Less than a month after the controversial killing of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida, Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year-old immigrant who fled her native Iraq in 1993, was found in her California home bludgeoned with a tire iron, breathing but barely alive. Next to her brutalized body was a terrifying letter: “Go back to your country you terrorist.” According to Alawadi’s 17-year-old daughter, Fatima, this wasn’t the first racist threat made against the family. A few weeks before the assault, a note left on the family’s car was blunt: “This is my country, go back to yours, terrorist.”
The Washington Post noted the parallels between the Martin and Alawadi cases: “Martin was wearing a hoodie when he was shot, and Alawadi wore a traditional hijab.” This precipitated “hoodies and hijab” rallies on a number of college campuses across the country. At Columbia University, for example, an event sponsored by the Columbia Democrats, the Columbia-Barnard International Socialist Organization, and the Columbia Queer Alliance drew over 100 protesters, many wearing hooded sweatshirts and Islamic headscarves.
Three days after the attack, Alawadi was taken off life support, her body returned to Iraq for burial. The story provoked a torrent of outrage: It was, the New York Times reported, the “most-discussed topic worldwide” on Twitter; it spidered through Facebook; and online petitions protesting growing American Islamophobia proliferated. The San Diego Union-Tribune, the Alawadis’ hometown newspaper, marveled at how “social media exploded” in the wake of her killing.
While the local police urged media restraint, the Alawadi family’s lawyer speculated that because they lived in El Cajon, Calif., a suburb of the “military town” of San Diego, it was possible that the murder was committed by an Islamophobic veteran. The blogger Ferrari Sheppard told his 16,000 Twitter followers, “All politicians who sold that false Iraq war, slaughter has [sic] Shaima Alawad’s [sic] blood on their hands … who continue to push Islamophobia.” Writing on CNN’s religion blog, Linda Sarsour, the director of the Arab American Association of New York, wondered why more people weren’t jumping to conclusions: “[W]ith only initial evidence—a dead black teenager, an iced tea, a pack of Skittles, a neighborhood watchman—a many of us have presumed the Martin killing is an unfortunate result of racism in America. … Why not the same for Alawadi?”
Muslims, Sarsour argued, have themselves fallen for Islamophobic stereotypes: “Muslims allow our internalized oppression to lead us to believe the stereotypes perpetuated against our community,” she wrote. “I have seen tweets and comments from Muslims suggesting the possibility Alawadi’s killing might be an act of domestic violence or, worse, an honor killing.”
Though Sarsour raised these possibilities to dismiss them, police have now concluded that this is most likely what happened. Last week, Kassim Al-Himidi, Alawadi’s husband, was arrested and charged with her murder. (He is pleading innocence.) Court documents obtained by local media outlets reveal a family in turmoil, where traditional religious values often collided with those of their adopted country. They disclosed that Alawadi, who was married at age 15, was in the process of filing for divorce from her husband. And the couple’s own daughter was said to be bristling at an arranged marriage, having recently jumped out of her mother’s speeding car after being discovered with an older, unapproved boyfriend.
If the above is indeed true, the killing of Shaima Alawadi isn’t a warning sign of increasing religious intolerance, but of a shocking degree of credulousness from writers and activists. Why withhold judgment when the initial assessment conformed so neatly to an existing political narrative about the rising tide of American Islamophobia?
The truth is that violent Islamophobic outrages are relatively rare in the United States. The latest available FBI statistics recorded 160 anti-Muslim “bias incidents” in 2010, most of which were not violent. (In 2010, there were seven hate crimes classified as “murder and nonnegligent manslaughter” across all groups, with four committed by whites and three by blacks.) The theory that Alawadi’s neighborhood is a magnet for hate crimes is also unfounded. “Crime statistics showed no history of hate crimes or overt hostility toward Iraqi immigrants in El Cajon, even during the 1991 Persian Gulf War or the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq,” The Los Angeles Times observed.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that hate crimes against Muslims are a myth. But despite the killing of six Sikhs last August—the shooter Wade Michael Page, who was affiliated with a variety of anti-Semitic groups, presumed his victims were Muslims—the evidence for “skyrocketing” Islamophobia, as claimed the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mark Potok, in the United States is thin. Indeed, a look at the FBI’s hate-crimes statistics since the 9/11 attacks shows that attacks against Jews have outpaced attacks against Muslims, even adjusting for differences in population. (According to the Pew Center, Muslims constitute approximately 0.8 percent of the United States, while Jews make up around 2 percent.) In 2008, the FBI recorded 1,013 anti-Jewish hate crimes and 105 against Muslims. In 2010, there were 887 anti-Semitic attacks versus 160 anti-Muslim attacks. Excluding 2001, when crimes against Muslims showed a dramatic single-year spike, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, these numbers have been rather consistent.
A few caveats about federal hate crimes statistics are necessary: Not every jurisdiction reports hate crimes—some police forces drop out of the assessment—so dramatic increases or decreases are difficult to discern. What constitutes a hate crime is confusing, too. As Sudhir Venkatesh, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, explained on the Freakonomics blog, according to FBI statistics “a ‘victim’ could be a person, installation, building, or ‘society’ in general.” So, if you think that a hate crime is always, or even usually, a physical assault on someone because of ethnic or religious background, you would be wrong.
Nevertheless, the statistics are helpful in observing general trends in racism and anti-religious sentiment. The latest numbers provided by the FBI (for 2010) showed an uptick in anti-Muslim hate crimes, variously described by commentators as a “surge,” “dramatic spike,” and “staggering” increase in criminal Islamophobia. But the numbers jumped from 107 incidents to 160. In a population of 320 million, these hardly demonstrate an “epidemic” of anti-Islamic feeling.
Americans’ feelings toward Islam and Muslims are complicated. Two years after the 9/11 attacks, a Pew poll found that “only 24 percent [of those polled] have an unfavorable view” of Islam. In 2010, that number had increased to 38 percent. But even here we should avoid falling into the trap that an unfavorable view of Islam is ipso facto evidence of racism, any more than we would ascribe dangerous intolerance to those with an “unfavorable view” of Catholicism, or religion in general.
There is, though, a general sense that violent racism is endemic to modern American society. Thus the hate-crime hoaxer naturally sees a racially motivated incident as a reliable way of attracting attention to a particular cause or, as seems to be the case with Shaima Alawadi’s husband, a reliable way of distracting attention from the commissioning of a crime, while provoking a media referendum on the ubiquity of American intolerance.
The Facebook group “One Million Hijabs for Shaima Alawadi,” which was a hive of activity in the weeks following her murder, has since been taken offline. Despite some posts about women’s rights and feminism, the Islamophobia angle was what the organizers were interested in pushing. She was, it now seems, killed because she was a woman who attempted to throw off the shackles of an oppressive husband. Which makes this case doubly tragic. Just because Shaima Alawadi wasn’t killed by an American racist doesn’t mean that there isn’t cause for activist outrage.
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