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Islam Discrimination, Hate Crimes Against Muslim Americans Rising, Officials Say


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Discrimination, hate crimes against Muslim Americans rising, officials say

WASHINGTON - Nearly a decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a new wave of bigotry and discrimination is affecting the everyday lives of many Muslim Americans, a Justice Department official and Muslim leaders said Tuesday.

"We continue to see a steady stream of violence and discrimination targeting Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian communities," said Thomas E. Perez , the U.S. Justice Department's assistant attorney general for civil rights.

Testifying at a hearing chaired by U.S. Sen. **** Durbin, D-Ill., Perez described "a headwind of intolerance" burdening many Muslim communities in this country, including "fear of violence, of bigotry and hate." He said complaints of school and workplace harassment have risen, and the department has opened 14 investigations in the last year into organized opposition to the building of new mosques.

Farhana Khera, the president of the Muslim Advocates civil rights group, cited numerous cases in the past year "of alleged hate-motivated physical violence or threats of physical violence" against Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian Americans across the country.

And Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., said that "Muslim Americans are increasingly facing unjust acts of discrimination and prejudice" -- including the "sometimes imbalanced criticism and hurtful words" of opposition to the proposal to build a mosque and Islamic Center near the World Trade Center site in New York City.

The hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights was the first such hearing to focus on the civil rights of American Muslims. Many interpreted the hearing as an indirect response to a March 10 hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee, chaired by U.S. Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., that focused on what he regards is the radicalization of many U.S. mosques.

Without naming King, Durbin criticized "inflammatory speech from prominent public figures" in this country. Durbin said in his opening remarks that "we must condemn anti-Muslim bigotry and make it clear that we won't tolerate religious discrimination in our communities." To those who try to link the threat of terrorism to law-abiding Muslims, Durbin said: "Guilt by association is not the American way."

While Muslims represent less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, officials said about a quarter of religion-related workplace discrimination cases involve Muslims, as well as more than 14 percent of the overall number of federal religious discrimination cases. The Anti-Defamation League has reported "an intensified level of anti-Muslim bigotry," Durbin said.

The Justice Department has investigated more than 800 incidents of violence, vandalism and arson against people believed to be Muslim, Arab or South Asian, since the Sept. 11 attacks. In a recent case, a Texas man pleaded guilty last month to setting fire to a mosque. And an Illinois man admitted last fall to sending threatening emails to a mosque in Urbana. In another Illinois case, Durbin said "a man was sentenced to 15 months in prison for blowing up the van of a Palestinian-American family" in Burbank.

Republicans on the subcommittee, while decrying cases of bigotry and discrimination against Muslim Americans, said that civil rights issues should not obscure the separate security threat posed by what they regard as the radicalization of young Muslims at some U.S. mosques -- the main focus of this month's House hearing.

Sen. Jon Kyl R-Ariz., told the panel that he was concerned that the hearing might be "part of a narrative that says it's improper to point out the obvious: that too many young Muslims are being radicalized to join jihad." He said "political correctness cannot stand in the way of identifying persons who want to do us harm."

But Durbin and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the hearing was about basic civil rights, not political correctness. While Kyl and King pointed out that Justice Department hate crime statistics show far more reports of such bigotry against Jews than against Muslims, Durbin and Perez said that information, based mostly on voluntary reporting, tends to underestimate hate crimes. Earlier this week, King had criticized Durbin's hearing, claiming that it would "perpetuate the myth that there is a serious anti-Islam issue in this country."

Kehra said the Southern Poverty Law Center has reported "a dramatic resurgence of hate groups" nationwide, and for the first time added five anti-Muslim groups to the list. She said an analysis of public opinion polls found that, since 2005, the percentage of Americans of all political parties who viewed Islam favorably "has declined rapidly." She said one survey found that 43 percent of Americans admit to feeling "at least a little" prejudice against Muslims -- more than twice the percentage who said the same about Christians, Jews and Buddhists.

One case of alleged discrimination that split the senators at the hearing is the Justice Department's recent filing of a case on behalf of a Muslim teacher in Illinois who was told she could not take unpaid leave during the school year to travel to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to participate in the Haj pilgrimage.

Perez defended his department's support of the woman, saying that the case had clear parallels with other cases involving discrimination based on religious beliefs involving Jews and various Christian denominations. But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he would side with the Illinois school district. "I think the teacher could have accommodated her religious beliefs without leaving the school district in the lurch," he said.



1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Full statement of Assistant Attorney Thomas Perez before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee

Published 03/29/2011 - 10:08 a.m. CST
Washington, D.C. ~Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Good morning Chairman Durbin, Ranking Member Graham, and members of the Subcommittee. Thank you for inviting me to testify today about the Department’s extensive efforts to protect the rights of Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South-Asian Americans.

Within hours of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Muslim Americans, Arab Americans, Sikh Americans and South-Asian Americans nationwide were confronted with a powerful backlash. There was a surge of violence targeting these groups, including threats, assaults, arson, and murder. Two days after the attacks, an individual attempted to set fire to cars in the parking lot of a mosque in Seattle, and shot at worshipers fleeing the mosque. On the same day, an individual set fire to a Pakistani-American restaurant in Utah. The first person killed in post-9/11 violence, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was a Sikh, shot while pumping gas at his gas station in Arizona four days after 9/11. In the three and a half months following the 9/11 attacks, more than 300 federal criminal investigations were initiated in response to similar hate incidents.

There was also an increase in other incidents of discrimination. On the afternoon of September 11, a hotel in Iowa cancelled the reservation that an Arab-American group had made to host a convention – a case that led to a settlement with the Civil Rights Division.

The federal government, under President Bush’s leadership, responded forcefully. The Civil Rights Division’s Criminal Section created a task force to address hate crimes, and the civil litigating sections ramped up their work to combat discrimination in schools, in the workplace and in places of public accommodation.

Our predecessors built a solid foundation. Over the last two years, we have worked to build upon that foundation and expand our efforts to engage with the Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian community and ensure we are fulfilling our responsibility to protect their civil rights.

One of my predecessors who is here today, Alex Acosta, was a leader in the administration’s response to the 9/11 backlash incidents. Among other actions, Dean Acosta established a new position of Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination. Eric Treene has held that position since its creation, and continues to be a key member of our team. Eric and Counsel Mazen Basrawi have ensured that we continue to ramp up our efforts on this front, and play a critical role in fostering our relationships with leaders from these communities.

We have continued to host regular interagency meetings with representatives of Arab-American, Muslim, Sikh and South Asian civic organizations, which give the community what I call “one stop shopping” with the Federal government, so that issues can be addressed by the relevant agency in the room.

During my tenure, we have also made it a priority to vastly expand our outreach. I have met with local Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian leaders around the country, and not just in Dearborn, Los Angeles and Chicago. I have met with the Somali community in Minneapolis, with Muslim leaders in New Haven, in Roanoke and in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. These meetings allow us not only to learn about civil rights violations where they are occurring, but also to build bridges to the community, to built trust and understanding. The Attorney General has made engagement with the Muslim-American and Arab-American communities a top priority, and U.S. Attorneys around the country have been our critical partners in this effort.

Regrettably, while nearly a decade has passed since 9/11, we continue to see a steady stream of violence and discrimination targeting Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South-Asian communities. In each city and town where I have met with leaders of these communities, I have been struck by the sense of fear that pervades their lives – fear of violence, of bigotry and hate. The headwind of intolerance manifests itself in many different ways.

Last month we secured a guilty plea from the 50th defendant charged in a federal criminal case of post 9/11 backlash violence, this one involving a man who set fire to playground equipment at a mosque in Texas. Last year, three men were sentenced for vandalizing and firebombing a mosque in Columbia, Tennessee.

In my outreach, I consistently hear complaints that children face harassment in school, that they are called “terrorists” and told by their peers to “go home,” even though America is their home. At the recent White House Conference on Bullying Prevention, we heard from a number of leaders of the Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian communities about how this problem infects classrooms. We have a growing docket of cases involving harassment of Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian students. In fact, harassment of Muslim students is the largest category of religious discrimination matters that our Educational Opportunities Section handles, and this has been consistently true since 9/11.

For decades, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, the Justice Department has worked to combat religious intolerance in the workplace. We have a number of cases involving individuals facing discrimination at work, with the EEOC reporting a 150 percent increase in complaints of discrimination against Muslims since 9/11. Many cases involve blatant, intentional discrimination, such as the EEOC case filed during the Bush Administration on behalf of two Iranian Muslim employees of a car dealership who were repeatedly harassed by management. Similar cases have been filed during the Obama Administration. We recently filed a case on behalf of a Muslim teacher in Illinois who was forbidden to take unpaid leave for a pilgrimage to Mecca, a requirement of her faith. The case is similar to one filed by the EEOC during the Bush Administration against a Tennessee hospital that refused to grant a Muslim medical technician a 3-week leave of absence for the pilgrimage. No person should have to choose between their faith and their work, and Republican and Democratic administrations alike have fought consistently to vindicate this principle.

We also continue to aggressively enforce the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in response to a sharp increase in the number of controversies regarding mosque construction around the country. Of 24 matters opened by the Civil Rights Division since 9/11 under RLUIPA involving mosques, 14 have been opened in the past 10 months. Last year, t he Department filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a Tennessee state court proceeding in which neighbors of a proposed mosque challenged the county’s granting of a building permit. The neighbors argued that Islam is not a religion, and the county was therefore wrong to treat the mosque in the same manner that it would treat a church. The Department’s brief argued that Islam is a religion entitled to protection under the First Amendment, and that RLUIPA requires equal treatment, and the court agreed.

These issues are non-partisan. Our efforts are a reflection of our values as a society. As a nation, we believe strongly and unequivocally in religious freedom, and this belief is embodied in the laws we enforce. Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian Americans contribute to our economy, play a vital role in our civic institutions, serve in our armed forces, and work in and with law enforcement to keep our communities safe.

The headwinds of intolerance these communities face today are no different from the bigotry confronted by groups throughout our history -- by Catholics, by Jews, by newcomers from Ireland and Italy, by Japanese Americans in the wake of World War II, and by countless others who simply wanted to realize the promise of a free and tolerant nation. With each new wave of intolerance, our nation has responded – passing new civil rights laws, striking down old laws that sanctioned discrimination, and eventually recognizing the value of diverse communities and embracing those previously shunned.

Today, we are simply using the long-standing tools in our {censored}nal to address an emerging challenge that threatens the freedom of individuals who want nothing more than for their families to be accepted in their communities, to live their lives and practice their faith in peace, and to realize the American Dream. We will continue to use every available tool in our law enforcement {censored}nal to transform this headwind of intolerance into a tailwind of inclusion and opportunity.

Thank you. I look forward to answering any questions.

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