The screeching sound of the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer rang out from the unassuming mosque on Fifth Avenue, the main drag in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, one recent Friday. “Hasten to the prayer, hasten to success,” the voice intoned in Arabic.
This what the poor people in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn have to endure 5 times a day starting at 6AM in the morning:
Financial Times Bay Ridge is geographically close to the hipster Brooklyn neighbourhoods of Park Slope and Williamsburg but could not be more culturally different. It is a world away from the financial district in Manhattan, the epicentre of the September 11 2001 attacks. But Brooklyn is also home to the largest group of people in the US who trace their lineage back to the Arab world, according to census data. And while the heightened sense of a threat from Islamic terrorism that existed post-attacks may have gone, it has given way to a persistent, low-level paranoia that pervades the everyday lives of the million-plus Muslim Arab Americans living here and throughout the country.
(There were two years of protests against a proposed mosque for a Jewish neighborhood in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, where there are few, if any Muslims. After the lengthy battle, the mosque was allowed to begin construction, although the protests still continue because of illegal activities related to construction there)
Islamophobia in the US is becoming entrenched, according to some Muslim leaders. “We’re living in one of the most hostile civic environments for the Muslim community,” says Faiza Ali, a community organiser at the Arab American Association in Bay Ridge. “And it’s gotten worse since 9/11.”
Hate-crime statistics collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation showed a sharp spike in violence against Muslims after the 2001 attacks, which levelled out until 2009, when it started ticking up again (Yet it is still only 20% of the hate crimes committed against Jews and we don’t hear them whining about everyday). There are always problems following events carried out by Muslims, such as the Boston Marathon bombings in March.
The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that in 2011, 21 per cent of the religion-based complaints it received were from Muslims – although they comprise less than 1 per cent of the population.
“Islamophobia has become institutionalised in New York – by our police department, elected officials, politicians who are running for office,” says Ali, a 28-year-old of Pakistani heritage, who became a student activist after being harassed in the wake of the 2001 attacks. “The environment is really difficult. It’s as if we are walking in a city that is our home but feeling like we are strangers,” she says in her office, where the walls are decorated with signs bearing slogans such as “Praying while Muslim is NOT a crime!”
Examples can be seen across the country. In New York, opposition has raged against Muslim community centres such as the Park 51 centre planned for near Ground Zero. In Florida, the pastor Terry Jones wants to burn Korans. In Tennessee, vandalism and bomb threats greeted plans to open a mosque in Murfreesboro. Then there are the attempts by state legislators in North Carolina and Oklahoma, among others, to ban recognition of sharia law.
“I feel like the anti-Muslim feeling has really become more pronounced in the last few years,” says Moustafa Bayoumi, a literature professor at Brooklyn College and author of the book How Does it Feel to be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America. He cites polls from The Washington Post and The Economist that found that the number of people admitting to negative feelings towards Muslims had risen from the 20 per cent bracket in 2002 to more than 50 per cent by 2010.
When his book came out in 2009, Muslim readers told Bayoumi it painted too positive a picture, so much had the environment changed in the interim. It has since deteriorated further, he tells me as we sit in a café selling organic chai lattes in the trendy Brooklyn neighbourhood of Prospect Park. “It took a while for the narrative to take hold, that Muslims were the enemy population,” he says.
The US has been through periods of hostility towards ethnic groups many times before, for example towards German and Japanese Americans in the middle of the last century. But these have been discrete periods in history. There is no end in sight for the war on Islamic terrorism.
Hegazy, an 18-year-old Muslim, is studying political science at a college just north of New York City, while Tabit, two years her senior, has a part-time job at the local police station but is studying to become a nurse. Both can rattle off tales of petty harassment – such as being called a terrorist and enduring “random” searches – that have been a constant presence in their lives since 2001, when they were just children. “We are singled out as a race,” Hegazy says, and Tabit chimes in about the times she has been told to “go back to your own country”. Hegazy bursts out: “This is not nobody’s country, yo.”
Many of the young Muslim Americans in Brooklyn can recount stories of public accusations of being a terrorist, rocks being thrown through their car windows, being targeted for “flying while Muslim”. Many know someone who has answered a knock at the door and found the FBI. High quality global journalism requires investment. Please share this article with others using the link below, do not cut & paste the article. Some young Muslims have tried to hide their faith, removing any outward signs of Islam and changing their names. Mohammeds and Osamas become Mo and Sam. Some hope people will mistake them for Puerto Rican.
But academic research suggests that a much larger number of young Muslim Americans have embraced their faith and are standing their ground in the face of widespread hostility. A Pew Center study published in 2007 found that Muslim Americans under 30 were much more religiously observant than older Muslim Americans, a trend that experts say has only become more entrenched. (And therein lies the danger to America)
Although many of the young people of Bay Ridge profess pride in their religion, the climate of suspicion about Islam is taking its toll on young Muslims. Research by psychologist Mona Amer of the American University in Cairo and Joe Hovey of the University of Toledo has found elevated levels of depression among Arab Americans, most of them Muslim.
Aber Kawas is the American-born daughter of Palestinian immigrant parents, whose life was turned upside down after the September attacks. Her father got caught up in the law enforcement authorities’ terrorism fishing expeditions, leading to him being deported.
Some fear that society’s alienation of young Muslims will contribute to some going off the rails. No one is drawing a direct line between membership of community organisations and young people being radicalized. (Yes, we are) But some wonder whether the alienation of a whole segment of society will tip those prone to radicalization over the edge.