In polarized climate, some US Muslims feel threatened


In polarized climate, some US Muslims feel threatened
People gather at a vigil to mourn for the victims of the Christchurch mosque attacks in New Zealand, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, March 15, 2019.

Shahed Amanullah, a Muslim American tech entrepreneur from Northern Virginia, says it was hard to sleep after watching a video of a right-wing extremist open fire at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand.

“It was the picture we’ve all had in our heads for years. And it became real,” Amanullah said of the 17-minute video, apparently recorded by the attacker as he walked room to room, shooting at worshippers.

A 28-year-old Australian man has been arrested and charged with the attack, which left 49 people dead. Authorities described the man as an “extremist, right-wing violent terrorist.”

In a hate-filled, anti-immigrant manifesto posted online, the alleged gunman encouraged more attacks on Muslims worldwide and said he hoped the violence would worsen political divisions in the United States.

As Muslim Americans attended prayer services across the country Friday, many worried about “copycat” incidents, especially now that potential attackers have a video demonstration and training manual, said Amanullah.

“Muslims at prayer are uniquely vulnerable. They’re literally lined up with their backs toward you. You couldn’t get more vulnerable than that,” Amanullah said

U.S. reassures Muslim-Americans

In a statement, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said it was “doing all it can to protect the homeland from violent extremists.”

“While we are not aware of any current, credible or active threat domestically, nor of any current information regarding obvious ties between the perpetrators in New Zealand and anyone in the U.S., the department is cognizant of the potential concerns members of Muslim American communities may have as they gather at today’s congregational prayers,” the DHS statement said.

“Communities with concerns should contact their local law enforcement agency, whom we are committed to supporting as they protect local mosques and reassure local community members,” the statement added.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the U.S. “strongly condemns” the “vicious act of hate.” On Twitter, President Donald Trump slammed what he called the “horrible massacre,” but did not directly refer to white supremacists or terrorist activity against Muslims.

Rising anti-Islam bigotry

For some Muslim American organizations, those comments were not enough, especially amid what they see as an intensifying wave of anti-Muslim rhetoric during Trump’s tenure.

At a Friday press conference, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) called for “national action to challenge growing Islamophobia, white supremacy and anti-immigrant bigotry.”

“CAIR has reported an unprecedented spike in bigotry targeting American Muslims, immigrants and members of other minority groups since the election of Donald Trump as president and has repeatedly expressed concern about Islamophobic, white supremacist and racist Trump administration policies and appointments,” the organization said.

White House officials strongly deny any link between Trump and Islamophobic incidents, noting the president has repeatedly condemned hatred and violence in all forms.

But as a presidential candidate, Trump called for the “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”

Though Trump eventually backed down from that proposal, he later surrounded himself with several senior advisers who had explicitly embraced anti-Islam views. Those advisers include former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who once tweeted that “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL,” and former chief strategist Steve Bannon, who has said the U.S. is the “wrong place” for “sharia-compliant” Muslims.

Underestimating white nationalist violence?

The White House has also been accused of underestimating the threat posed by white nationalists and other right-wing extremists.

Asked Friday whether white nationalism was a growing threat, Trump replied “not really,” and suggested that such groups are small in number.

Comments like that are problematic for analysts such as Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, who said in an online post that the U.S. and other Western governments should begin to prioritize white nationalist and other forms of right-wing terrorism.

“The Trump administration has cut programs focusing on right-wing groups even amid a growing threat,” Byman said. “Given the recent decline in jihadi violence in the United States, transferring some resources [to deal with white nationalist violence] is appropriate.”

Trump has instead preferred to point out the threat caused by “radical Islamic terrorism” — a phrase he makes a point of repeating. That has pleased many conservatives, including Trump’s Republican allies in Congress, who accused former President Barack Obama of not doing enough to prevent acts by Muslim extremists.

That political climate is helping to create a scary moment for many American Muslims. But Amanullah said he wouldn’t be scared away from attending Friday prayers.

“I have a great deal of faith in my fellow Americans,” he said. “The one thing that’s super important to people is setting aside a few minutes on Fridays to push the world away. And we can’t have that stolen from us.”

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