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Israel-Palestine war: Anti-Muslim incidents in US revive post-9/11 fears

Rights groups are advising Muslims to remain alert, particularly in regard to threats to religious institutions
Residents of Detroit and Arab community of Dearborn march in support of Palestinians in Dearborn, Michigan, on 14 October 2023 (AFP)

Last week, Aliyah was walking home from a protest wearing an abaya, a long black garment covering her body. She had a Palestinian flag painted on each of her cheeks. 

As she got closer to her house in Queens, New York, a man looked at her and spat. “Get out of here,” he shouted. 

Aliyah proceeded to walk the two-block distance to her house as fast as she could, she then entered her home and quickly locked the door. She had never been so terrified in all of her life. In her 24 years of living in New York, she had never experienced such hatred.

“These are the stories I heard from my parents. People calling them names. Cursing. Changing their seats on the train. After 9/11, this is what my parents told me,” Aliyah, who didn’t want her full name used, told Middle East Eye. 

“My parents went through all that all those years ago. They kept me safe and protected,” she said. “But now it’s happening again.”

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While there are no concrete numbers at the moment, the number of anti-Muslim incidents in the US seems to be on the rise, following the war that broke out between Palestinian armed groups based in Gaza and Israel on 7 October. 

On Saturday in Chicago, Illinois, a six-year-old Palestinian Muslim boy was fatally stabbed and his mother seriously injured when their landlord entered their home with a 12-inch military knife.

On 11 October, an 18-year-old Palestinian man was attacked in Brooklyn by a group of individuals brandishing Israeli flags. Before exiting their vehicle, they yelled derogatory remarks against Palestinians and then proceeded to physically assault him.

According to Chris Habiby, the national government affairs and advocacy director at The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the organisation has seen a high number of anti-Muslim incidents since the war erupted.

He explained that one of the biggest contributors to that is the “rhetoric we are seeing from politicians and the media.”

“This is an issue that has, and will continue to, impact Arab Americans broadly, regardless of their religion,” he said. 

“What we are seeing is at a maximum similar to what we saw after 9/11, more likely worse because of the rhetoric coming from all sides of the political spectrum.”

Follow Middle East Eye's live coverage of the Israel-Palestine war here

On 7 October, Palestinian armed groups, led by Hamas, killed at least 1,400 Israelis in an unprecedented surprise attack on Israel, took at least 150 Israelis hostage and brought them back to Gaza. Israel responded with a bombing campaign that has taken thousands of Palestinian lives and counting.

The Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor has said that in just over a week, Israel has dropped the equivalent of a quarter of a nuclear bomb on Gaza. At least 2,808 people have been killed, including 853 children and 936 women. At least 1,200, including 500 children, are missing and believed to be under rubble. 

'Just like it was post 9/11'

Given the threat posed by “Zionist extremists in the US”, the ADC is advising community members to remain alert, particularly regarding threats to religious institutions, including mosques and churches, especially during prayer services. If someone believes that they were targeted, they can reach out to ADC’s pro-bono legal department, Habiby encouraged. 

Ibrahim Bechrouri, an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, believes that these incidents will continue to rise.

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He said what worries him more in the US context and beyond, is the deployment of violence by the state, whether it’s deportations, criminalisation of First Amendment-protected activities, or FBI harassment. 

“The media and political class decided that what happened on 10/7 was another 9/11,” he told Middle East Eye.” It follows that we are starting to see a similar crackdown on those perceived to be Muslims, both through criminalising narratives and concrete policy measures.”

He explained that it’s important to understand that it’s not just politicians and media who are to blame for the rise. It is university administration, police officers, and social media influencers, all of whom are influenced by the narrative and have the capacity to shape those narratives. 

According to Bechrouri, while there is pushback in making sure things don’t end up as they did post-9/11, it could also be worse than what happened after 9/11.

"One could argue that our societies are even more polarised now, that the far-right is much stronger than it was then and that the advancement of surveillance technologies could result in an even harsher response from the state," he said.

“But we are willingly giving away our data. We are still seeing the same warmongering discourse being spread by media outlets and Washington seems ready to start yet another war in the Middle East,” he said.

“It doesn't seem that the US learned much from the utter failure and horrors of its more than 20 years-long global war on terror.”

Evelyn Alsultany is a professor at the University of Southern California Dornsife. She explained that while hate crimes are committed by individuals, they are the result of messaging from media and politicians, and are deeply connected and shaped by state policies. 

'It doesn't seem that the US learned much from the utter failure and horrors of its more than 20 years-long global war on terror'

- Ibrahim Bechrouri, professor

In this case, she said, it's US support for Israel at the expense of Palestinians, as well as media discourse that Israel is defending itself against a terrorist group rather than Israel's reality as a state occupying a people.

“Anti-Muslim racism is produced at the convergence of state and media discourses that demonise and dehumanise Arabs, Muslims, and Middle Eastern and North African people as threats to national security,” Alsultany told Middle East Eye.

“Individuals internalise these messages and then act upon them."

She added that the dominant discourse promoted is that Palestinians are terrorists who deserve to die, are subhuman, and undeserving of the same rights to safety and security as Jewish Israelis.

It’s something Abdullah Akl, an organiser at Within Our Lifetime, a Palestinian-led advocacy organisation, fears most.

According to Akl, the blame first goes to elected officials who he says completely failed to represent their constituencies. He believes it’s obvious that more hateful incidents will continue to occur in the US, and it won’t change until the media and elected officials change.

“The media has been playing a role in spreading false news and information in regards to what’s happening in Palestine. Thousands of children are killed and thousands are being displaced from their land,” he said.

“People in the US and across the world are being fed fake information, just like it was post 9/11. We may be getting closer and closer to that. But we need elected officials to speak out. And we need for there to be more truth around what is actually happening.”

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