By Akbar Ahmed
It is a difficult time to be a Muslim in America. All polls and figures indicate the continuing rise in Islamophobic assaults and abuse; 2017 was the worst year ever. I will give three random and unrelated examples to illustrate the climate.
Raheel Siddiqui, a 20-year-old Pakistani-American Marine recruit, was a top student at Truman High School in Taylor, Michigan, graduating as valedictorian of his senior class. He left college to join the Marines with dreams of serving his nation.
He ended his life a few months later at U.S. Marines boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. After being slapped and yelled at by Joseph Felix, a 34-year-old drill sergeant, for complaining of a sore throat, Siddiqui jumped from the third floor of a barracks building and landed on a concrete stairwell, later tragically succumbing to his injuries. The Marines later determined his cause of death was suicide. The Siddiqui family was devastated by their son’s death, challenging the suicide narrative and portrayal of Raheel as a weak and overwhelmed Marine recruit in multiple media interviews. They have sued the Marine Corps for $100 million for “negligence on multiple levels of command,” citing severe physical and psychological abuse from drill sergeants as the motivating factor behind the recruit’s death.
It is likely that Siddiqui faced the same type of physical and psychological abuse as Lance Corporal Ameer Bourmeche and Rekan Hawez. Bourmeche recounted during Felix’s court-martial trial that Felix forced him to sit in an industrial-grade clothes dryer and renounce Islam, turning on the machine when Bourmeche refused to do so and only releasing him when he renounced his religion out of fear of further harm. Hawez, an Iraqi Kurd recruit, also faced similar threats from Felix and testified that Felix and another drill sergeant placed him in a dryer in a similar manner to Bourmeche.
Felix was sentenced to ten years in prison; the allegations included vivid descriptions of physical and verbal abuse, occasionally under the influence of alcohol, at Parris Island. Another equally heart-breaking death involves Nabra Hassanen, 17, of Reston, Virginia. Awarm, lively, intelligent young woman, who had just completed her sophomore year of high school, Nabra was one of four daughters from a close-knit Egyptian family and regularly attended the mosque during Ramadan for midnight prayers. She and her friends were walking back to the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS Center) mosque after eating at a nearby IHOP for the fast in the early hours of June 18, 2017 when a 22-year-old man, Darwin Martinez-Torres, began to argue with them while driving by the mosque. Eventually he drove his car onto the curb and began chasing Hassanen and her friends, finally reaching Hassanen (who had tripped over her abaya) and hitting her with a baseball bat before driving off with her.
Nabra was then assaulted a second time, both physically and sexually, before dying as a result of her injuries. Torres then dumped her body into a pond near his apartment; upon being arrested, he led police to her location. Police ultimately ruled her death to be a tragic end to a road rage conflict. Many members of the local Muslim community remain uncertain of this explanation, citing the likelihood that her death was, in fact, a hate crime. The campaign “Justice for Nabra” has centered on bringing Torres to justice for his crimes. However, her father sadly noted that clarity about the nature of his daughter’s death would never bring her back to life. Many have viewed the deaths of Siddiqui and Hassanen as part of a growing pattern of Islamophobia where harassment of young Muslims leads to abuse and, in the cases of Hassanen and Siddiqui, a tragic demise.
On November 28, 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump retweeted a series of video sposted by Jayda Fransen of Britain First, an avowedly Islamophobic organization that is known for opposing the supposed “Islamisation” of the United Kingdom. The videos supposedly depict Muslims engaging in violent acts in Europe, although one video was later revealed to show a Dutch citizen assaulting another person rather than a “Muslim migrant.” Ms. Fransen, the deputy leader of Britain First, has a long history of Islamophobia, and has been arrested numerous times on assault and hate-related charges. Britain First now had the global spotlight through the 40 million tweet followers of Trump.
But it’s not all gloom and doom for Muslims. There are many stories of Muslims serving successfully in the system. In December, 2017, I received this circular from Rizwan Jaka, a leading figure at the ADAMS Islamic center.
“Salaam, Shalom, PEACE, Sat Sri Akal, Namaste, Religious Freedom & Accommodation in The US Army National Guard for Specialist Ali Khawaja, I am pleased to share that the U.S. Army National Guard has granted Specialist Ali Khawaja, ADAMS Law Enforcement Liason Team, The Religious Accommodation to keep his beard grown, so that he may both be in uniform in service to Our Country and also observe His Faith in service to God. There are Muslim Prayer Spaces/Services on Military Bases around the USA and around the World. There are American Muslim chaplains serving our Nation, as well. There are Several Thousand Muslims Serving Honorably in US Department of Defense and Many American Muslim Civilians & Contractors supporting the US DoD. We appreciate all their service to Our Nation.
Army National Guard Specialist Ali Khawaja serving America and God.”
(The writer is an author, poet, filmmaker, playwright, and is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, DC. He formerly served as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. He tweets @AskAkbar)
By Akbar Ahmed