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National NOW Times >> Spring 2002 >> Article

Hate Crimes Rise From Ashes of September 11 Attacks

by Rati Bishnoi, Communications Intern

How does the immigrant wife of a gas station owner heal after her husband has been killed? How long can a young woman stay in her home, afraid to go outside because her religious headwear might offend her neighbors? How can a nation heal itself by wounding religious and ethnic minorities?

Many Middle Eastern and immigrant women have searched for answers to such questions in the months following September 11.

Some in the U.S. responded to the unspeakable attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon by attacking people who are, or appear to be, Middle Eastern or Muslim. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights received 692 reports of ethnic intimidation between Sept. 11 and Oct. 1, of which 391 were aimed at Arab Americans.

Many women who look Middle Eastern or wear the hijab have been spat upon, cursed or physically threatened since September 11. South-Asian women who dress similarly to Arab women have found themselves the victims of harassment. Non-Muslim groups have also fallen prey to the backlash. Sikh men, especially, have been targeted because they wear turbans and beards.

Some of the attacks reported since September 11 include:

  • In St. Petersburg, Fla., four men pulled up beside a Muslim woman who was driving home with her infant and started shouting insults and beating her car with a baseball bat. The woman was wearing the traditional hijab; authorities cite that as the reason for the assault.
  • In Mesa, Ariz., a man shot and killed a Sikh gas station owner. The man then shot a Lebanese-American clerk at another gas station. While being arrested, he told police: "I'm an American. Arrest me. Let those terrorists run wild."
  • In Ohio, police said a 29-year-old man rammed his car into a mosque at 80 mph, smashing through the empty religious center.
  • In Queens, N.Y., a 66-year-old Sikh man was badly beaten with a baseball bat by four youths outside the neighborhood religious center.
One result of these attacks has been to make Muslim women afraid to wear the hijab, the traditional headscarf that symbolizes their faith. Many women who choose to wear the hijab consider it an honor, a symbol of modesty and devotion which emphasizes their knowledge and skills over their looks or sexuality. But the Council on American-Islamic Relations urged Muslims who dress in Islamic attire to avoid public areas after September 11 effectively forcing conservative Muslim women to choose between wearing the hijab and going to the mall or the grocery store. In New Orleans, NOW activists have been providing safety escorts to local women afraid to venture out alone.

NOW and other groups continue to press for passage of the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act, which would expand protections for victims of ethnic, religious and race-based hate crimes, and extend the law to include hate crimes based on sex, disability and sexual orientation.

In addition, Washington, D.C., area Sikh college students and young professionals working as part of Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force (SMART) drafted a resolution condemning hate crimes against Sikh Americans and calling for state and federal authorities to prosecute all hate crimes to the fullest extent of the law.

Introduced by Senator Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the resolution was co-sponsored by 34 senators, passed by the Senate and sent to the House where it currently resides in the Subcommittee on the Constitution.

"Religious extremism, intolerance and hate are practiced all over the world, including in our own backyard," said NOW Action Vice President Olga Vives.

"When Timothy McVeigh committed the Oklahoma City bombing, we did not blame every white male with a military background. It would be equally ignorant to blame everyone who is or appears to be Muslim for September 11."
NOW interns outside the White House call for an end to racism. From left to right: Rati Bishnoi, author of this story; Natasha Price, government relations intern, and Blanca Escarti, legal intern.

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