by Kelsey Hamlin
While the vigils held and the support created after the Pulse shooting in Orlando should not be dismissed, the backlash resulting from news coverage of the incident shouldn’t be either.
First came the unabashed news coverage, putting the shooter’s religion and any ounce of potential connection to ISIS at the forefront of their analysis. Some outlets even went so far as to analyze the family’s entire immigrant and religious background.
And following this type of news coverage, along with the onslaught of comments from politicians, came yet a greater potential loss of human life: Three mosques recently received anonymous threats.
The mosques were the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS), the Islamic Center — both in Redmond — and Idriss in Northgate.
But these mosques have a way to communicate with each other and get support in times of crisis, thanks to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). This nonprofit organization documents complaints of discrimination against local Muslims, offers diversity training across public and private sectors, files lawsuits in cases of discrimination, and helps Muslim youth navigate career opportunities.
Arsalan Bukhari, the director of CAIR, said the majority of discrimination reports come from the Seattle area. But, he contended, that could be due to the higher Muslim population or the greater number of mosques in the area.
“There are hundreds of children who, every night, go to mosque to have dinner with their families,” Bukhari explained, “and to meet each other.”
Bukhari even takes steps — which have unfortunately become protocol — as soon as media coverage comes out about a Muslim suspect. He sends out a mass alert and resource list to the entire northwest community (mosques, schools, associations) while also contacting media, hoping to inform them how specific types of coverage can do more harm than good.
“We unfortunately expect loaded coverage,” Bukhari said. “It increases attacks on people, propels the pattern.”
In reaction to these threats, mosques have decided to hire off-duty police officers — if they can afford it.
While the community is thankful for the officers willing to spend extra time to protect them, an officer’s very presence can impact youth:
“Some mosques had officers present every night this month,” Bukhari said.
He also explained how the children should be thinking about what games to play or when they’re going to hang out next, rather than worrying about someone coming into their mosque to do harm. They shouldn’t have to wonder why there is an officer parked outside of their mosque.
“Because that tells them what sort of future they can expect,” Bukhari said, “and that is a real life effect of these sorts of things on real people.”
He said there has been questions from kids who are asking their parents what is going on with the police presence, and those parents subsequently turn to CAIR asking how to have such heavy discussions with their children.
“Younger kids think it’s cool to have an officer there,” Bukhari explained, “but kids who are in middle school or high school…who understand the significance of having an officer present every day and are making the connection of their own safety. It’s a sort of signal that it sends to kids about how society views them now. Why do police have to be there when they’re literally just out playing in a parking lot; why do they have to be there to watch over them? And of course, those questions are answered when they turn on the TV or look at their phone and see what’s being said about them and their lives and their futures.”
Ahsen Nadeem, a 25-year-old youth director at MAPS — one of the mosques that received a threat — works with teenagers ages 13 to 18. His job is to hold discussions, create social gatherings, and organize volunteer events.
For Nadeem, it’s critical that teenagers do not feel hindered by their American-Muslim identity.
“A lot of Muslims right now are in a bit of an identity crisis, given what’s said in the media and by politicians,” Nadeem said. “As if you can’t be Muslim and American at the same time.”
Furthermore, the Muslim teenagers struggling with this concept inspire him. They come together to make 300 to 400 sandwiches in one day, and then hand them out at a food bank or at a tent city the next morning. Nadeem called them his “heroes” because they are willing to take the time to give back to the community on top of handling school, sports, and family.
“And this kind of symbolizes that Muslim value, making sure you take care of others,” he explained, adding that it is tough for him to hear these same teenagers being called names in school. Nadeem attributes an increase in that behavior to this election’s political rhetoric.
“These are the leaders we need,” he said, talking about the kids, “but they’re being put down, being marginalized, and being made to feel different than any other American when that’s not true.”
At the very least, Nadeem hopes people who pick up these narratives realize what they are really doing is dehumanizing Muslims. That type of language, whether people know it or not, creates extreme pain, but also validates extreme outcomes — like threats of violence.
Due to the threat received by MAPS, the mosque has stepped up security, shutting off all entrances except one so that the security personnel has only one area to watch.
“When we first received the threats, there were visibly less Muslims in the mosque,” Nadeem recounted. “It’s kind of a one-two punch: It wasn’t just our mosque. Northgate unnerved some individuals, but slowly things are settling down.”
But, that being said, this is nothing new for the Muslim community. In fact, Nadeem said, “you see this quite often.” It’s the generalizations that hurt the most. When people decide the actions of one extreme person exemplifies the notions of an entire community, there are tragic consequences. Just last year, three Muslim students were murdered in Carolina because of their faith, and because their appearances apparently “match” that faith.
In all reality, the majority of mass shootings that happen in America are not by Muslims. They are by white males.
“But I don’t hear any calls going out to them, asking how they’re not a part of this situation,” Nadeem retorted, “or how they’re not like the other white male that shot up a school.”
Yet another person interacting with Muslim youth is Hikma Sherka of South Seattle. She is in college studying to become a civil rights attorney, and goes to the Ethiopian Muslim Association of Seattle. She’s also a vice president for that community’s youth board.
“We do a lot of work with youth in our community who feel like they don’t have a voice,” Sherka said. “So we can sit down and talk and have conversations in order to be a part of the solution instead of being portrayed as the problem.”
Sherka is 19 years old.
“Personally it doesn’t affect me,” she said about poor news coverage. “It drives me to become a better person and work harder, but not everyone is like that.”
Sherka talked about how it is heartbreaking when things like the Pulse shooting happen and what one person did affects everyone else who looks like him. The youth she works with feel left out, and feel that Muslims are more of a target when they want to be allies.
“Before, I felt discouraged by everything that I’ve seen,” Sherka said. “I don’t ever want anyone else to feel that way. These kids are supposed to be the future of our country, we need to make sure they don’t feel that way. Every kid has the right and the ability to become whatever they want to become.”
Nadeem held the same sentiments. He even urged people to visit his youth group and become as inspired as he has been by MAPS’s Muslim youth.
“You’ll see what amazing individuals they are,” he said, while also contending that they’re still like every other American teenager, worrying about grades and doing sports.
“I just want to make the point that Muslims are just like every other American,” Sherka said. “We have rights like every other American, and we contribute to society like every other American. To generalize Muslims makes no sense at all.”
See also: Huffington Post’s Being Muslim in America
If you or someone you know is facing discrimination or generalized terms that are harmful to a person’s identity, reach out. Call your local police department, contact CAIR, or your county’s civil rights division. There are resources. Not all of the solutions are as extreme as a law suit, and can be as simple as training.
Kelsey Hamlin is an intern with South Seattle Emerald this summer, and has worked with various Seattle publications. Currently, Hamlin is the President of the UW Chapter’s Society of Professional Journalists, and will be starting an internship with KCTS 9 in July. She finished an internship with The Seattle Times in March as an Olympia legislative reporter, and is journalism major at the University of Washington, planning to double-major in Law, Societies & Justice (currently her minor). See her other work here, or find her on twitter @ItsKelseyHamlin.