San Francisco is supposed to be our liberal enclave in America. Green, accepting, and open. But on Wednesday morning on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), while checking e-mail via my phone, a middle-aged man scoffed at seeing a press release in Arabic that I was reading. He muffled something under his breath. All I caught was “Islam” something as he moved away, not making eye contact.
In the days since the bombings at the Boston Marathon, this has become more commonplace in the Bay Area, and as someone who lived in the Middle East for the past 10 years, I can assure you it’s not healthy.
Take, for example, an incident last Friday on the same train. An elderly woman, her hair covered, was walking with her husband, who was holding her arm. She motioned toward the seats reserved for senior citizens and the disabled. Two men in their twenties were already seated there. Usually, San Franciscans are quick and on their toes, moving to allow our elderly to take seats without being forced to meander through the crowd toward the back.
But the boys didn’t move. They stared straight at the woman, unflinching. Then they shocked me by saying to the couple, “Seats taken.”
Looking around, the car was nearly empty, but these boys refused to move. One of them, loud enough for the woman to hear, exclaimed, “Won’t give up my seat to a terrorist.”
Screaming ensued. It went back and forth until another passenger quickly intervened and forced the young boys off at the next stop.
I asked the couple as they took up their spots what they were feeling.
“Embarrassment,” the husband said.
I was angry and frustrated. It was all part of the endless coverage on television and online concerning the Boston Marathon attack that left three dead and hundreds injured.
“Muslim” this. “Terrorist” that. Al-Qaeda influence. Chechen terrorists.
It was an onslaught of anti-Islamic reporting that I feared could only lead to acts of hate. And here I was, seeing it first-hand. Having not been in the United States over the past decade, it was a wake up call to all the reports I had read over the years of attacks and racism directed at anyone who looked Arab or spoke Arabic or wore a veil.
It got worse.
Over the weekend Republican Representative Peter King, the chairman of the House subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, called on the government authorities to boost surveillance of Muslims in the country, citing the alleged Islamic ties of the Tsarnaev brothers.
Police must “realize that the threat is coming from the Muslim community and increase surveillance there,” the New York lawmaker told National Review.
King, who is known for his anti-Islam stances, spearheaded controversial hearings on the radicalization of Muslim-Americans in 2011 and also told CNN that “we can’t be politically correct. I think we have to see, has radicalization extended into the Chechen community?”
South Carolina’s Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on Saturday that the Tsarnaev brothers were on a “jihad mission.”
“Radical jihadists are trying to attack us here at home,” the South Carolina Republican told Fox News. “Every day we face threats from radical Islamists and they are coming through our backyard and trying to radicalize American citizens.”
Ann Coulter has been even worse. She said, of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s wife, “I don’t care if she knew about this. She ought to be in prison for wearing a hijab.”
Such blanket condemnations of Muslim women creates a climate of hatred here.
Heba Abolaban is a 26-year-old doctor in Malden, Massachusetts, whose family lives in Syria. She wears a hijab. Last Wednesday, “she put her baby daughter in a stroller and headed into the sunshine to a play group with a friend,” the Boston Globe reported.
“But as they strolled down Commercial Street, an angry-faced man charged toward the petite woman, his hand balled into a fist. He punched her hard in the shoulder and screamed curses inches from her face. Then he pointed at her and walked away shouting.
“He said, ‘(Expletive) you. (Expletive) you Muslims, You are terrorists, you are the ones who made the Boston explosion,’” said Abolaban, recalling the episode in a phone interview Thursday. “I was really, really completely shocked. I didn’t know what to do. Then I realized what happened. I was crying and crying. “I was so afraid he might hurt my baby.”
That is not the America we should be creating in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.
At Sandy Hook elementary school, and at that theater in Aurora, Colorado, we also had scenes of horrible mass violence.
But when white people kill, they are mentally unstable. When Muslims kill, they are terrorists, or as King and others would likely say, “just Muslim.”
Journalist Joseph Mayton reported from Egypt and other countries in the Middle East over the last ten years. He now works in San Francisco.
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