Debunking the myth of the violent Muslim

Nearly 10 years after 9/11, the Council on American-Islamic Relations finds fear of Islam continues to grow

“Muhammad was a pervert! Muhammad was a pervert!” the protesters cry as bewildered Muslim Americans walk stoically past into a Southern California fundraiser for women’s shelters held by a Muslim aid group.

A video of this protest can be seen on YouTube. When set against the background of Rep. Peter King’s (R-NY) congressional hearings investigating Muslim radicalization, the video serves to highlight the fear of Islam among some non-Muslims, which has come to be known as “Islamophobia.”

Working to combat Islamophobia, protect the civil rights of Muslims and increase understanding of Islam is the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a national Muslim advocacy organization with affiliates around the country. The Washington state affiliate was incorporated in 2003. The staff organizes frequent events to educate non-Muslims about Muslim Americans and responds to anti-Muslim attacks and harassment.

I recently met with CAIR Washington’s Executive Director Arsalan Bukhari, Community Outreach Coordinator Abigail Stahl, and Civil Rights Coordinator Jennifer Gist to discuss Islamophobia and the Northwest’s Muslim-American community.

Can you define Islamophobia for me?

Arsalan Bukhari: Islamophobia is the fear of Islam and Muslims. But it’s not just the fear, it’s a full ideology. A full complement [of beliefs, such as] that Islam is incompatible with our values.

Jennifer Gist: The general idea that Muslims don’t progress, or are not compatible with democracy or Western values.

Abigail Stahl: Another piece that I would add to it is that Islam is seen as inherently violent.

Bukhari: Anti-Semitism is the closest parallel because both Muslims and Jews are religious minority groups that have been attacked by those who use select actions of a few in each group to assign stereotypes to millions of people who belong to that group. Many stereotypes are also shared. For example, the anti-Semitic idea of “the Jews” trying to take over the world is exactly the same as the Islamophobic one of “the Muslims” trying to take over the world. Anti-black hate, racism, is also a fair analogy, but anti-Semitism is the closest one.

And that’s something I’d like to follow up on. How do you see Islamophobia comparing to discrimination against other minorities throughout American history?

Gist: I see general foundational principles of xenophobia, fear of a number of groups that have looked pretty different from initial European immigrants. We’re working on a program that highlights the similarities between the profiling and internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and the profiling we’re seeing of Muslim Americans today. I don’t think hostility toward Muslims in the United States is going to be the same forever, but I think when that day comes there will be a new group that’s highlighted.

So what are you finding in comparing it to the Japanese internment?

Gist: We had a bit of discussion about the Peter King hearings, that this is concerning that a federal representative is supporting these hearings and we’re not hearing more vocal response as a government to this. Because looking historically, that is one of the steps to isolating a group. Accusing them of sharing similar ideologies, characteristics, tendencies, those kinds of things and acting on that, making it legal to profile.

Stahl: Just to echo what you said, it’s a lot more acceptable to make anti-Muslim comments. There are a lot more protections set up now for Jews in America, for African Americans, for Asian Americans.

John Galliano, a fashion designer for Christian Dior, [was caught on] video making flippant anti-Semitic comments and within a matter of days he was removed from Dior, and he’s one of their top designers. I wonder if that would have happened if he had made comments about Islam or about Muslims, would it have had the same effect? But there’s a good precedent set that if you make anti-Semitic, or anti-this group, anti-that group comments, it’s a serious PR risk. Is there that PR risk if you make comments about Muslims right now?

Gist: The King hearings, the propagation of that kind of misinformation — albeit many people don’t see it as misinformation — to me that parallels with some embarrassing moments where we’ve tried to curve science to our political stance. Way back in the mid- and post-slavery era where a lot of research was coming out about the inferiority of African Americans, that was really well supported and propagated. You’re seeing really similar things now, where there are highlighted spokespeople who are not the researchers, who are not actually conducting science. There are public forums created for these people and [they’re] being received in a way similar to research and science, rather than looking at the actual research that’s out there about Muslims.

Can you give me an example of what you’re talking about?

Gist: One example is with [activist and writer] Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She claims to be a former Muslim from Somalia and she had a huge platform at Town Hall. I think especially speakers like that, former Muslims or Muslims who speak out against other Muslims, are really popular because they’re being seen as credible because of their background, when it’s still purely anecdotal.

Stahl: That leads to a good point, that there is really good quality research that does describe the American Muslim community, even the worldwide population.

Bukhari: Study after study after study shows who Muslims are and it seems like it’s always positive. Really any study that relates to the stereotypes [of] Muslims over and over again challenges these stereotypes, shows that the stereotypes are actually false. They’re not even somewhat supported by fact. Let’s go one by one.

You have this stereotype about Muslims causing terror in America. The FBI’s database of all terror attacks on U.S. soil shows that Muslims are the Abrahamic group responsible for the fewest terror attacks: Six percent of all terror attacks on U.S. soil were committed by Muslim groups, 7 percent by Jewish groups and about 10 percent by Christian groups.

Then you talk about Europe being taken over by Muslims and they’re causing havoc. The last three years, Europol [the combined EU police force] showed that 0.6 percent of all terror attacks on the continent of Europe have been committed by Muslims. 99.4 percent have been by non-Muslims. So why the focus on Muslims?

What other stereotypes are there? Muslims are all suicide attackers. Robert Pape has the only database of all suicide attacks from 1980 till 2010. His first study spanned 1980 till 2003 and showed that the Tamil Tigers [a Sri Lankan separatist group] were the group that had the highest number of suicide attacks. According to his research, suicide attacks are carried out not because of religious motivations, but by groups who perceive themselves to be occupied or who act against those they perceive to be occupiers.

There are many more studies. And we haven’t yet seen any study — no studies at all — even supporting somewhat the claims that are being made against Muslims.

Why do people make the claims? And why do people believe it?

Stahl: Of course, 9/11 was a very emotional experience for the whole country and that has drummed up a lot of fear and misunderstanding and people want to place that somewhere. So it’s being placed on Islam and Muslims at this point.

Gist: We have this large public discourse about Islam being conflated with terrorism, speaking about Muslims as a monolithic group. [It’s an] easily accessible, albeit biased, discourse available on the news and the Internet, and people aren’t really tempted to challenge it and be like “Oh no, I have plenty of Muslim friends who are really decent.”

Bukhari: Also, I think that there is a disparity in coverage. So let’s take two examples. In Oregon there was a case of a [non-Muslim] father and son bombing a bank, which you may have heard about, I think?

[I shake my head, proving his point.]

Bukhari: And then there’s a case with a Somali young man who attempted to bomb the Christmas tree lighting ceremony. With the first case, there is a father and son who made their own bomb, went to a bank, and it went off and killed two sheriff’s deputies in Woodburn, Oregon, just south of Portland. So that was a case that was barely heard about outside of that area, where two people conspired, made a real bomb, actually killed two law enforcement agents and the world didn’t hear about it.

Contrast that with the story of the [Somali] young man who was really angry. And if you walk this block [in the International District] about five times, you’ll find plenty of angry young men that I’m sure are young enough and emotional enough that you can entice them into doing something bad. So you have this angry young man. An FBI informant made contact with him, provided him with all the materials that he needed, an apartment to live in by himself, a fake bomb and a plan. All he was asked was, “What do you want to do?” and he said, “I want to cause the maximum damage.” The informant said ,“Okay, well there’s this event coming up, let’s target this.” All the materials and everything were provided to him. He went there with the fake bomb, he tried to press the button, of course it was fake, nothing happened. He was swooped up by the very informants and agents that worked with him and it was headline news all over the world.

Downtown Portland and Woodburn are no more than half an hour away, I think. So yeah, tale of two events. There are many more examples.

I would like to steer this in the local direction and hear about the demographics of Washington’s Muslim community and the kind of Islamophobic — or not — climate they face.

Bukhari: Sure. In Washington state, there are about 100,000 Muslims. A little bit more than 35 mosques, closer to 40 if you count the smaller ones. As far as ethnic breakdown, about 30 percent African or African American, 30 percent South Asian, which includes the entire Indian subcontinent, and then about 12 to 15 percent who are Arab and Middle Eastern. The rest are Caucasian, South American, and East Asian. According to research and marketing surveys on Muslim Americans, the average American Muslim has higher than median education levels and household income.

Stahl: Your other question was about how Islamophobic the climate around here is?


Bukhari: Well I think it’s increasing for sure. There have been about 10 anti-Muslim hate crimes since October in the I-5 corridor, from the Seattle area to the Portland-Corvalis area. I believe that’s a pretty high number, especially for the Northwest. That’s just against Muslims. There have got to be more against African Americans and Jews and others.

It seems to be linked to the overall mainstreaming in the rhetoric that we’re hearing. Because a lot of the things that are being yelled out to people as they’re being attacked are stereotypes about a person being a suicide bomber or an Iraqi terrorist.

We had a case where a woman was attacked by a man who said he was doing it to defend America. She was holding her six-month-old child in her hands when she was attacked. The guy luckily couldn’t get the knife out of the sheath and the clerk actually took it away, otherwise it would have happened. So you see the connections between what’s being said and what’s happening on the ground.

So what is CAIR Washington doing to document attacks like that and other instances of Islamophobia?

Gist: There was a case in Tukwila [RC, Oct. 24, 2007] where there were two women at a gas station and a [third] woman approached them, yelling insults, talking about suicide bombers, terrorists, telling them to go back to their country. It ended up getting physical and the two [Muslim] women were hit and kicked, one of them had her leg slammed in the door, [the attacker] tried to run them over with her car. So when we got the call, we did full interviews with both clients and then we wrote a letter to the FBI asking them to investigate it as a federal hate crime. It’s to send a public message that we’re taking this seriously, this should be a felony. We also held a press conference. It ended up being fairly widespread, I think both within the Muslim community and without, a lot of people are familiar with that now.

So that’s our responding to things that are important to us, but we also do a bit of proactive work.

That was my next question.

Gist: My specific realm is doing “Know Your Rights” presentations. I give a brief presentation on what your rights are in various settings and then pass out our business cards like mad in hopes that people will tuck them in the back of their wallets and forget about it for two years and if they need it, they’ll find it.

Stahl: We very frequently provide speakers at colleges, universities, schools, churches, who can talk on a variety of different topics, but a lot of what we do are panel discussions about the American-Muslim experience. People tend to really enjoy those, they learn a lot, they get an opportunity to ask questions or clarify things they didn’t understand or misconceptions they have about Muslims or about Islam.

Also we’re working harder to try to empower the local Muslim community to be more active in politics, get to know their legislators, speak up on political issues that affect everybody, not just the Muslim community, so that they’re more engaged, more aware, more knowledgeable about their own rights and responsibilities, as well as seen as more integrated and mainstream.

You alluded to taking a few hundred Muslims to the [state] Capitol on MLK Day. How were you received by the legislators?

Bukhari: I would say very well. We’ve been going for four years. The first couple of years we went under the umbrella of the Statewide Poverty Action Network. We had about five Muslims in 2008 and about 15 maybe in 2009. In 2010 we thought we’d just make it big and bring people from all over the state. We advertised heavily. We had 500 people. We had about 33 districts represented last year and about 31 or so this year, out of 49 districts. Lawmakers were very impressed that they had [such a] large number of Muslims from their districts. I remember one staffer was actually surprised that they had Muslim constituents. I think it was a positive experience for both the constituents and the lawmakers.

How can non-Muslims in the Northwest help foster an inclusive environment?

Stahl: One of the biggest things is to educate themselves on the demographics that comprise the local Muslim community and pay attention to how Islam, American Muslims, non-American Muslims are talked about in the media and respond to that. Visit the national website,

I would also encourage people if they’re curious, visit a mosque! They’ll be happy to receive you. If you’ve got questions, I think that the vast majority of the Muslim community would rather embrace non-Muslims, educate them. If you think you’re going to ask an offensive question, they’d rather you ask it than assume something incorrectly.

Bukhari: Report anti-Muslim discrimination to CAIR. Respond to biases and report them to us so we can mobilize constituents. Just be an ally to people. If you witness something, then speak out and say something.

Gist: I would add to engage in intentional dialogue with family members and friends. For myself, no one in my family is Muslim and many of them were not pleased that I was working here and the conversations that we’ve had [have] opened up their awareness about the situation for Muslims in the United States and the kind of discrimination that they face, and what it means to be an ally to that community. I think many people who have a lot of these misunderstandings, they don’t know anyone who’s Muslim.

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