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US officials and activists push back against Islamophobia

Seattle's city council voices support for Muslim Americans amid a spike in hate crimes targeting the community
Activists, interfaith groups and politicians are are joining together to condemn rise of anti-Muslim sentiment (AFP)

DEARBORN, United States - The past week has witnessed a spike in hate crimes against Muslim Americans, including vandalism of mosques and verbal and physical assaults on followers of the faith. However, civil rights activists, interfaith groups and government officials are pushing back against the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment.

In Seattle, Washington, the city council passed a resolution voicing support for the Muslim community.

"Muslims are part of our society and, inspired by their faith, give back every day as US military personnel, police officers, doctors, nurses, caregivers, teachers and in many other roles contributing to the success of the United States of America and the City of Seattle," the resolution, which was adopted on 14 December, reads.

"Our nation’s founding documents emphasise the freedom of religion and a society that embraces religious pluralism."

The Seattle city council is not the first municipal body in Washington to stand in solidarity with Muslim Americans. In September, Spokane, a city of 210,000 people, adopted a resolution recognising the contributions of Muslims to the nation.

Arsalan Bukhari, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in the state of Washington, praised Seattle and Spokane.

"These sort of vocal and public acknowledgements of American Muslims' lives and contributions send a message to young people that they belong, that they have the right to have the same hopes and dreams as everyone else, that they can be fully American and fully practicing Muslims," Bukhari told the Middle East Eye.  

Bukhari called on government officials and celebrities to speak out against bigotry and reassert American values of acceptance and freedom of religion.

He said both resolutions in support of the Muslim community in Washington faced opposition from hate groups, including a demonstration in front of Spokane city hall.  

"But those (are) outliers," he told Middle East Eye. "They don't represent the American public. They certainly don't represent American values. Our job is to make sure that average Americans hear from their neighbours who are Muslim and hear from their leaders about the contributions of American Muslims." 

In Philadelphia, a pig's head was thrown in front of a mosque following comments by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who said Muslims should be banned from entering the United States.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter held a press conference with imams and priests to denounce the attack. Asked about Trump's plan, Nutter said: "He's an asshole."

In his Oval Office address after the San Bernardino shooting, President Barack Obama said terrorists do not represent Muslims.

"Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbours, our co-workers, our sports heroes - and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defence of our country," Obama said on 6 December. 

Earlier in December, Hamza Warsame, a 16-year-old Somali American died after falling from a balcony in Seattle. Activists suspect his death could have been the result of a hate crime. 

But Bukhari urged people to avoid speculation about Warsame's cause of death, stressing the investigation is still underway.

Attorney General Lorreta Lynch said this month that she stands with the Muslim community, promising to prosecute anti-Muslim rhetoric that "edges towards violence".

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is pictured standing with Muslim American activists (CAIR)

Fatina Abdrabboh, the director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in Michigan, said Americans have a responsibility to defend their fellow citizens who are Muslim.

"We're counting on, we're grateful to and expecting that our allies ensure that their voices of support for us are heard," she said. 

Abdrabboh said the government at the local and national levels should have a consistent message that it will protect all citizens. 

"Those who are thinking about victimising Muslims should know that they will be prosecuted heavily," she said.

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat whose district includes Dearborn - home to a large Muslim community - said lawmakers can help combat bigotry.

"We need to lead," the congresswoman told MEE. "We need to remind people that we can't let fear cause hatred and division."

Brenda Rosenberg, the founder of Pathways to Peace Foundation in Action, stressed the importance of other faith groups coming to the defence of Muslims. 

"I am standing with Muslims as a Jew," she said. "If people hear me talk about anti-Semitism, 'Oh, another Jew talking about anti-Semitism.' But when they hear me talking about Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiments, people's ears open up wider, and so do their hearts."

Barbara McQuade, the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, said Muslim citizens are a part of "our American family".

McQuade, who was attending a press conference for a coalition against Islamophobia, said the legal system can help quell attacks against Muslims. 

"One important thing we can do is prosecute hate crimes and prosecute threats that are directed at Muslim Americans to send a strong deterrent message that it's not just misguided to do these things, but it's illegal," she told MEE.

'We are all Muslim'

Documentary-maker Michael Moore sent an open letter to Trump, slamming him for his Muslim ban proposal.

"I was raised to believe that we are all each other's brother and sister, regardless of race, creed or colour," the letter read. "That means if you want to ban Muslims, you are first going to have to ban me. And everyone else. We are all Muslim."

Moore published the letter on his website along with a photo of himself in front of a Trump tower with a sign that reads: "We are all Muslim."

The filmmaker urged his followers to post photos of themselves with that statement on social media.

On Monday, staffers at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Michigan posed for a picture while holding the same sign.

Rana Elmir, deputy director of ACLU-Michigan, said this show of solidarity by her colleague is essential for combating feelings of isolation that many Muslims feel.  

"While this gesture will not cure the hate, bigotry and harassment confronting Muslim Americans, it helps change the narrative and interrupt the drum beat of hate," she said via email.

"Stating that we are all Muslim at the ACLU is a continuation and loud proclamation of our mission to fight for what is just when policies, practices and laws are put in place to discriminate (against) and harm Muslims."

Elmir said the organisation is concerned about the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment, but silencing Islamophobic speech is not the solution. 

"As a matter of policy and principle, we believe the best way to combat hate speech is with more speech, not censorship," Elmir said. "As a Muslim, I believe that I can do both – fight bigotry, while also protecting free speech. In fact, I believe my free speech rights are essential to my ability to fight bigotry."

Steve Spreitzer, president of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, an organisation that advocates for equality and interfaith dialogue, said Americans' lack of contact with Muslims is contributing to the rise of Islamophobia. 

Spreitzer added that anti-Muslim sentiment spikes every four years because of the "manufactured bigotry" of the elections cycle. 

He added that the rise of the Islamic State (IS) has also contributed to fuelling the hate. 

"This course of terror that Daesh is perpetrating globally is hijacking Islam," he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS. 

Spreitzer said building human bridges between individuals inside and outside the Muslim community is the best way to combat the bigoted narrative.

"The simple fact is we need to stand with each other; we need to know each other," he said. 

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