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American Muslims feel singled out amid a climate of fear

December 11, 2015 at 6:40 PM EDT
In the wake of recent terror attacks, American Muslims have been weathering a backlash. In Texas, a group has been protesting in front of an Islamic center, brandishing rifles. In Pittsburgh, a Moroccan immigrant taxi driver was shot by a passenger asking about the Islamic State. The NewsHour’s P.J. Tobia reports on how rising fear and political rhetoric is affecting Muslims across the country.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we get the perspective of those Muslims in America, a community under assault in the wake of recent attacks.

Just this afternoon, there was a fire at a mosque in Southern California. The imam said there was a loud boom, and the building had been firebombed.

It is the latest in a string of violence directed at Muslims.

The NewsHour’s P.J. Tobia has our story.

AYA LAOFIR, High School Student: I pray five times a day, which I don’t get to do at school, but I come home and pray. I do my homework, read a little bit, and then I go to bed.

P.J. TOBIA: Fifteen-year-old Aya Laofir, is just like any other American teenager. At school, being Muslim just isn’t a big deal.

AYA LAOFIR: Overall, I think, you know, school is good when it comes to me and my scarf.

P.J. TOBIA: But on the way home, sometimes, there is trouble.

AYA LAOFIR: There is this man who sits on the sidewalk sometimes, and he starts, you know, harassing — well, not harassing me, well, calling me names and telling me to go back to my country.

P.J. TOBIA: She lives in Northern Virginia, one of the most culturally diverse regions in the nation, according to the last census.

AYA LAOFIR: As I’m walking, and I see people, they duck their heads, or when I smile at them, they don’t smile back, I’m just like, oh, is it because I’m wearing my scarf? Is it because of what’s on the news?

P.J. TOBIA: What’s on the news is a series of terrorist attacks, most recently in Paris, France, and San Bernardino, California, killings in the name of the Islamic State.

In response, the temperature of America’s political climate is rising. Leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has proposed to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the country, a policy which one in four Americans now support, according to an NBC poll.

And it’s not just Trump. Other leading GOP candidates have also made comments that have upset American Muslims. As a result, many like Aya, now feel unsafe.

In Irving, Texas, one group has been holding regular protests in front of an Islamic center since late November, brandishing semiautomatic rifles, some wearing masks. The protesters want to stop what they call the Islamization of America.

In Pittsburgh, a Moroccan immigrant taxi driver was shot after his passenger asked him about the Islamic State. And in Northern Virginia, this outburst happened at a community meeting for a planned Islamic center.

MAN: Nobody, nobody, nobody wants your evil cult in this county. And I’ll tell you. Let me tell you what.

(APPLAUSE)

MAN: I will do everything in my power to make sure that doesn’t — does not happen. We don’t want it. Because you are terrorists. Every one of you are terrorists. I don’t care what you say.

P.J. TOBIA: A recent New York Times/CBS poll found Americans more worried about a terrorist attack than at any time since 9/11, worries that are also present in Muslim communities around the country.

Aya’s family mosque, the Dar Al-Hijrah Center, has been the target of violence. Last month, someone threw smoke bombs and a Molotov cocktail over the fence in the middle of the night. The mosque’s leader, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, says they have been through this before and could almost see the violence coming.

IMAM JOHARI ABDUL-MALIK, Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center: We have this sense of a rising anti-Muslim-specific intolerance after the Paris attacks. This community immediately went on high alert in preparation for a backlash.

P.J. TOBIA: Imam Johari invited us to stay after evening prayers to speak with congregants.

Theraiah Hussein is a mother of six.

WOMAN: Everything changed, even starting from my kids’ school, because that’s what we care about, being called terrorists, being called ISIS, and being called bad names. And that’s what really killed me.

MALIK OSMAN, Elementary School Student: Somebody just called me a terrorist because they saw me walking.

P.J. TOBIA: An adult person or another kid?

MALIK OSMAN: A child. I was really scared from then on. And that’s why I don’t wear a head scarf.

P.J. TOBIA: So, you don’t wear a head scarf because someone called you a terrorist? How does that make you feel?

MALIK OSMAN: It makes me feel really angry, like, awkward.

P.J. TOBIA: Aya’s father, Badr, watched with dread as the news of the San Bernardino attacks unfolded.

BADR LAOFIR, Aya’s Father: We start praying — inside, I’m sure you would be doing the same thing — that the shooter is not a Muslim, but, of course, he’s a Muslim. So, another wave is going to start, and people, the media, and every time, like every time.

P.J. TOBIA: Badr is vigilant about his family. He has a strategy for the simplest of tasks, like the neighborhood walk.

BADR LAOFIR: I tell my wife and my daughter, if she walks, she doesn’t — she needs to walk when a lot of people are around. And a parking lot here, she’s always with one of the — my kids, always cell phone on hand. Sometimes, people can attack you and follow you and attack you even if — in the place where you live in.

COL. EDWIN C. ROESSLER JR., Chief of Police, Fairfax County: Where there is fear and anxiety, the role of law enforcement is to come in, and to alleviate that and provide a sense of security.

P.J. TOBIA: Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler says after an attack like San Bernardino, local law enforcement must be proactive.

EDWIN ROESSLER: And we contact the mosque and we say, we’re going to increase patrols. Do you want us to show up at events? And it’s a two-way partnership.

P.J. TOBIA: Public officials across the U.S. have asked the Muslim community to take a lead role in addressing the issue of radicalization, including President Obama in a prime-time address.

PRESDIENT BARACK OBAMA: Muslim leaders here and around the globe have to continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL and al-Qaida promote.

P.J. TOBIA: Not everyone agrees.

ROSA RAD, Washington, D.C., Resident: I find it to be incredibly offensive.

P.J. TOBIA: Rosa Rad, 23, lives in a trendy Washington, D.C., neighborhood.

ROSA RAD: To have to be, like, vigilant and have to be super aware of what’s going on is bizarre. I don’t see any other communities being given that responsibility. And I think everyone needs to be vigilant and to be aware. By singling out the Muslim community, you’re not doing anything but perpetuating that negative — negative view that people already probably already have towards Muslims.

P.J. TOBIA: The vitriol has even been felt outside of Muslim communities. In Manassas, Virginia, about 30 miles West of Washington, D.C., the local mosque has been repeatedly vandalized. After the San Bernardino attacks, a death threat was phoned in.

It has made some non-Muslim residents more than a little uncomfortable. Patty Reed works at a local hardware store.

PATTY REED, Virginia: Gosh, it just makes us look like a bunch of rednecks. I’m going to be honest. And I don’t like it. Why we wouldn’t be able to talk to these people, talk to — you know, voice our concerns?

P.J. TOBIA: But many are scared, saying recent events have them on edge.

WOMAN: If you’re somebody who is doing the right thing and you’re here in the right way, then it truly isn’t fair to you. But things happen. You know, it isn’t fair to us what’s going on either, but — or those people that died, but it’s what’s going on in the world today.

P.J. TOBIA: But inside the vandalized Manassas Mosque, its leader, Imam Abu Nahidian, says he has used the moment to teach faith and acceptance.

IMAM ABU NAHIDIAN, Manassas Mosque: Remember, it takes two to tango. Both hand has to make a noise. One hand has — if one side is a little bit off the track, go with them, be kind to them. These are the orders of the holy Koran. All of them — it’s loaded with them. Therefore, we have to go ahead and talk to them that the reason that you’re scared of me is you, not me. I didn’t do anything to scare you, so take that away from your heart.

P.J. TOBIA: In fact, he says the events of the recent weeks have revealed some of the best of this rural community. This bouquet of flowers, like the threatening phone call, came from an anonymous sender, but with a different message.

“You don’t know me,” the card reads. “As a white Christian, please know that my family will continue to stand with yours.”

Meanwhile, high school freshman Aya Laofir has taken to writing poetry in response to the hate.

AYA LAOFIR: “So, Donald Trump, come forth and into the light. Open your eyes and heart. This is the United States of America. Do not start tearing it apart.”

P.J. TOBIA: For the PBS NewsHour, I’m P.J. Tobia in Washington.

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