By Amelia Benevente & Michael Lozano
By 2050, the number of Muslims will equal the number of Christians around the world, according to a study released by Pew Research Center on Thursday. But with heavy media coverage of the rise of ISIS and the recent shooting at the Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo, many Muslims feel that public and media sentiment against their religion in the U.S. is growing.
The U.S. Muslim community experienced a growth in discrimination the years following 9/11, said Tarak Mohamed, chairman of the Long Beach Islamic Center. A decade after the attack, some local Muslims say that the prejudice has not waned.
In 2010, up to 48 percent of U.S. Muslims said they experienced racial or religious discrimination that year, according to a Gallup survey.
When the murder of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, N.C. hit the news in February, local Muslims feared an increase in nationwide and local Islamophobia.
“Muslims in the United States and specifically in Long Beach are getting scared that the holy house will get attacked, or the leadership is going to get attacked, or their family, or a lady with her hijab because of her identity,” Mohamed said.
Mohamed, who came from Egypt to Long Beach in 1993, has been the target of religion-based attacks. A swastika labeled “f**k Muslims” was scrawled on his office in 2013.
The Long Beach Islamic Center mosque has also been hit with graffiti. The FBI is investigating both cases as hate crimes.
Ojaala Ahmad, communications coordinator of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), believes Islamophobia is on the rise.
“People don’t know much about the religion and that’s where the fear stems from,” Ahmad said.
On the night of the Chapel Hill murders, a series of tweets criticized the media for not covering the story quickly enough. The hashtags #MuslimLivesMatter and #ChapelHillShooting took over the popular trends section of Twitter and filled the media void.
“I feel like [the murder case is] not getting its due attention because the three victims were Muslim,” said Ahmad, who was a guest speaker at a California State University Long Beach (CSULB) candlelit vigil for the Chapel Hill victims. “Usually in mainstream media, all we see about Muslims is that they’re terrorists, extreme or prone to violence, when, in fact, that conflicts with the very fundamentals of Islam.”
But the prejudice is not just found in media, Ahmad said. A California politician, Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, was recently criticized for tweeting the hashtag #stand against Islam.
“[Media and politicians] need to be very responsible in the way they report because it does lead to hate crimes,” Ahmad said.
Last summer in Long Beach, a man attacked a Muslim woman by grabbing her black hijab and choking her.
“This crime incited fear in the victim for her life and safety,” the City of Long Beach police report said, adding that the incident is being investigated as a hate crime.
Local Muslims like Fatima Abdelhafeez, CSULB Muslim Student Association (MSA) vice president continue to fear for their own safety.
“I think as a Muslim, I take more precautions now,” Abdelhafeez, 20, said. “I love the city of Long Beach. But… If I’m walking alone, I walk with a group instead.”
The campus climate is welcoming to her, she said, but outside of campus, she’s been called a “raghead,” “terrorist,” and told to “go back home.”
“Go home to Anaheim?” she asked, which is the city where she lives. Abdelhafeez is a busily employed student, but when events like the Chapel Hill murders occur, or even the release of films such as American Sniper, she said Muslims like her are unwillingly shoved into the media spotlight.
“Sometimes these things affect me…it definitely comes up when I speak to other Muslims,” she said.
Ahmad said Islamophobia is a top discussion in the Muslim community that is discussed over and over again, “especially when there’s huge national events occurring.”
Despite the tide of media hammering against their religion, local Muslims said they go the extra mile to foster relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.
“You don’t know if another person is perceiving [you] as a threat or as someone not to be trusted,” Ahmad said. “We constantly have to swim against the tide to make it known we’re just as human as everyone else.”
To bridge the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims, Abdelhafeez said Muslims must show their character.
“Smiling is an act of charity…I take it upon myself to be that kind person to them,” she said, adding that she is often the first Muslim that many people in her neighborhood have ever met.
Ahmad said engaging the media to not perpetuate stereotypes is key, adding that CAIR holds frequent workshop trainings to empower the Muslim community to become “effective spokespeople, to not take a back seat and be thoroughly involved in civic participation.”
“We blame ourselves because probably we’re not going a great job introducing ourselves to the United States the way we should,” Mohamed said. “We need some fair airtime to present ourselves.”
CAIR is holding their Annual Muslim Day at the Capitol in late April. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will be present to voice their concerns and advocate bills that champion Muslims’ civil liberties.
One of the bills CAIR is lobbying for is SB 178, the Electronic Communication Privacy Act, which seeks to prohibit government access to people’s electronic information without a warrant.
The bill hits home for Muslims, who have been targets of unfair surveillance by law enforcement, Ahmad said. “We need privacy rights and to ensure we uphold our constitution,” she said.
CAIR will also lobby for SB 358 (a sex fair pay act) and AB 42 (a higher education tuition freeze). “Part of being a good Muslim is being civically engaged…. It’s something that affects greater Californians and that’s why it affects Muslims, as well,” Ahmad said.