Discrimination, hate crimes against Muslim Americans rising, officials say
WASHINGTON - Nearly a decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a new wave of bigotry and discrimination is affecting the everyday lives of many Muslim Americans, a Justice Department official and Muslim leaders said Tuesday.
"We continue to see a steady stream of violence and discrimination targeting Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian communities," said Thomas E. Perez (right), the U.S. Justice Department's assistant attorney general for civil rights.
Testifying at a hearing chaired by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Perez described "a headwind of intolerance" burdening many Muslim communities in this country, including "fear of violence, of bigotry and hate." He said complaints of school and workplace harassment have risen, and the department has opened 14 investigations in the last year into organized opposition to the building of new mosques.
Farhana Khera (right), the president of the Muslim Advocates civil rights group, cited numerous cases in the past year "of alleged hate-motivated physical violence or threats of physical violence" against Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian Americans across the country.
And Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., said that "Muslim Americans are increasingly facing unjust acts of discrimination and prejudice" -- including the "sometimes imbalanced criticism and hurtful words" of opposition to the proposal to build a mosque and Islamic Center near the World Trade Center site in New York City.
The hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights was the first such hearing to focus on the civil rights of American Muslims. Many interpreted the hearing as an indirect response to a March 10 hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee, chaired by U.S. Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., that focused on what he regards is the radicalization of many U.S. mosques.
Without naming King, Durbin criticized "inflammatory speech from prominent public figures" in this country. Durbin said in his opening remarks that "we must condemn anti-Muslim bigotry and make it clear that we won't tolerate religious discrimination in our communities." To those who try to link the threat of terrorism to law-abiding Muslims, Durbin said: "Guilt by association is not the American way."
While Muslims represent less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, officials said about a quarter of religion-related workplace discrimination cases involve Muslims, as well as more than 14 percent of the overall number of federal religious discrimination cases. The Anti-Defamation League has reported "an intensified level of anti-Muslim bigotry," Durbin said.
The Justice Department has investigated more than 800 incidents of violence, vandalism and arson against people believed to be Muslim, Arab or South Asian, since the Sept. 11 attacks. In a recent case, a Texas man pleaded guilty last month to setting fire to a mosque. And an Illinois man admitted last fall to sending threatening emails to a mosque in Urbana. In another Illinois case, Durbin said "a man was sentenced to 15 months in prison for blowing up the van of a Palestinian-American family" in Burbank.
Republicans on the subcommittee, while decrying cases of bigotry and discrimination against Muslim Americans, said that civil rights issues should not obscure the separate security threat posed by what they regard as the radicalization of young Muslims at some U.S. mosques -- the main focus of this month's House hearing.
Sen. Jon Kyl (right), R-Ariz., told the panel that he was concerned that the hearing might be "part of a narrative that says it's improper to point out the obvious: that too many young Muslims are being radicalized to join jihad." He said "political correctness cannot stand in the way of identifying persons who want to do us harm."
But Durbin and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the hearing was about basic civil rights, not political correctness. While Kyl and King pointed out that Justice Department hate crime statistics show far more reports of such bigotry against Jews than against Muslims, Durbin and Perez said that information, based mostly on voluntary reporting, tends to underestimate hate crimes. Earlier this week, King had criticized Durbin's hearing, claiming that it would "perpetuate the myth that there is a serious anti-Islam issue in this country."
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Kehra said the Southern Poverty Law Center has reported "a dramatic resurgence of hate groups" nationwide, and for the first time added five anti-Muslim groups to the list. She said an analysis of public opinion polls found that, since 2005, the percentage of Americans of all political parties who viewed Islam favorably "has declined rapidly." She said one survey found that 43 percent of Americans admit to feeling "at least a little" prejudice against Muslims -- more than twice the percentage who said the same about Christians, Jews and Buddhists.
One case of alleged discrimination that split the senators at the hearing is the Justice Department's recent filing of a case on behalf of a Muslim teacher in Illinois who was told she could not take unpaid leave during the school year to travel to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to participate in the Haj pilgrimage.
Perez defended his department's support of the woman, saying that the case had clear parallels with other cases involving discrimination based on religious beliefs involving Jews and various Christian denominations. But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he would side with the Illinois school district. "I think the teacher could have accommodated her religious beliefs without leaving the school district in the lurch," he said.
Contact Beacon Washington correspondent Robert Koenig.