U.S. Muslims Fear Hate Crimes & Overreaction by Law Enforcement in Wake of Chelsea Bombing

September 20, 2016


Debbie Almontaser

president of the Muslim Community Network.

Ramzi Kassem

professor of law at the City University of New York School of Law, where he directs the Immigrant & Non-Citizen Rights Clinic.

We host a roundtable discussion about the terrorist attacks, and the response to them, in New York, New Jersey and St. Cloud, Minnesota, where a man named Dahir Adan is accused of knifing 10 people. After police arrested 28-year-old Ahmad Khan Rahami, a suspect in Saturday’s bombings, concern has grown that the government may overreact with security measures and individuals may carry out hate crimes. "There is fear for our own personal security, especially for American Muslim women who identify as Muslim via wearing the hijab," says Debbie Almontaser, president of the Muslim Community Network. We also speak with Ramzi Kassem, professor of law at the City University of New York School of Law, where he directs the Immigrant & Non-Citizen Rights Clinic.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, police arrested 28-year-old Ahmad Khan Rahami, a suspect in Saturday’s bombings in Manhattan and New Jersey, after a shootout in Linden, New Jersey. Rahami was injured during the shootout and taken to a hospital for surgery. He’s now been charged with five counts of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer, as well as weapons charges. Police say they identified Rahami from surveillance video.

We are broadcasting here in Chelsea, right between the two sites in the neighborhood, one on 23rd Street, which—where a bomb did explode, and four blocks away, on 27th Street, which did not explode. Police described the device on 27th Street as a pressure cooker bomb connected to a flip phone, packed with shrapnel and wired to detonate. According to law enforcement officials, his fingerprint was found on the pressure cooker bomb, along with a handwritten note that authorities say contained references to other attacks, including the Boston Marathon bombing. Authorities say Rahami may also be linked to a pipe bomb that exploded in a garbage can earlier Saturday morning in Seaside Park, New Jersey.

New details emerged about Rahami and his family throughout Monday. Rahami, born in Afghanistan, is a naturalized American citizen who was living in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He had traveled to Afghanistan, to Pakistan, and lived in Quetta for a time. He traveled several times over the last few years. During his return trips back to the United States, he went through secondary screenings at airports. On Monday, New York Mayor de Blasio called the bombings "an act of terror."

Meanwhile, in St. Cloud, Minnesota, another victim of Saturday’s stabbing attack has come forward, bringing the number of victims to 10. Authorities have not yet named the suspected attacker, who was killed by an off-duty police officer, but his family identified him as 22-year-old Dahir Adan, who was born in Kenya of Somali descent. He grew up in the United States. An ISIS website claimed responsibility, calling the assailant a "soldier of the Islamic State." Authorities say it’s being investigated as an attack of terrorism.

Well, today we’re hosting a roundtable discussion for the hour about the attacks and the response to them. We’ll go to break, and then we’ll be joined by people from Philadelphia, from St. Cloud, Minnesota, and from right here in New York. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: "Almost Blue" by Chet Baker, here on Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from the Chelsea neighborhood of New York. Police here in New York have arrested 28-year-old Ahmad Khan Rahami, the main suspect in Saturday’s bombings in Manhattan and New Jersey. Rahami was born in Afghanistan, is a naturalized American citizen. And we’re also going to be talking about the attack in St. Cloud, Minnesota, in a roundtable discussion about these attacks and the response to them.

Joining us from Minneapolis is Haji Yusuf, community director of #unitecloud, a St. Cloud group that promotes cultural understanding, who spoke Sunday at a news conference on behalf of the Somali-American community after the stabbing. In Philadelphia, we’re joined by Nazia Kazi, a professor of anthropology at Stockton University and author of the article in The Chronicle of Higher Education headlined "Teaching Against Islamophobia in the Age of Terror." Here in New York, Dr. Debbie Almontaser joins us. She’s president of the Muslim Community Network. Back in 2007, she was forced out of her position as the founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission later ruled that the New York City Department of Education discriminated against her based on her race, religion and national origin. Also joining us here in New York, Ramzi Kassem, professor of law at the City University of New York Law School, where he directs the CLEAR project, which stands for Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility.

Well, we welcome you all to Democracy Now! We’re going to begin with Dr. Debbie Almontaser. Your response to what has happened this weekend?

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: Thank you, Amy, for having us. I have to say that this week has been really, really hard for me, as well as other American Muslims across the country, to see what is happening to our nation. And on two levels, there is, you know, fear for our own personal security, especially for American Muslim women who identify as Muslim via wearing the hijab, as well as for our city, our country. And so, it’s been a really, really hard week. But I have to say, in addition to that, there has been just a great deal of love and allyship from people across the country. I’ve received emails, I’ve received texts, just saying, "How are you? I hope everything is OK. If you need anything..." So it’s really wonderful to see our city, as well as our country, standing together united as we face these unbelievable attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: Ramzi Kassem?

RAMZI KASSEM: Yeah, I mean, we’re all—we’re all New Yorkers, of course, so no one—no one is unaffected by these events. No one is untouched. And, of course, you know, as a New Yorker, I’m thankful that no one was hurt seriously, no one was killed. So that’s really the primary thing, the first reaction that all of us as New Yorkers have. Of course, our mind then moves to, well, what happens next when these events take place. And typically, you know, what follows is usually an overreaction by policymakers, legislators, the people who implement policy, so law enforcement agencies on the ground tend to overreact. And that sets the stage for, you know, private acts of hatred, of which there have been many—and here in New York City alone, over this summer alone. And so, that’s my concern at this point, and I think it’s a concern that’s shared by many others who follow these issues and, obviously, many other American Muslims.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, from so many different people of all different ethnic groups, there is a kind of reaction when the people were being sought: Please, don’t let it be, you know, whoever they are. Your thoughts about that?

RAMZI KASSEM: Yeah, I think that’s a—that’s a natural reaction because, especially in the United States, when the backlash to incidents like this, when they have been perpetrated by Muslim-identified individuals, has so often swept far too broadly and included an overreaction by government and, obviously, acts of hate—private acts of hate by citizens, a minority of individuals who are driven to act on their prejudices and take it out, as Debbie mentioned, on women who visibly appear to be Muslim or others. I mean, in 2015, based on a recent study, anti-Islamic incidents went up by 78 percent. And this is a study that draws on official hate crime data from 20 states. So, a 78 percent increase in 2015 in anti-Islam incidents and a 219 percent jump in anti-Arab incidents targeting people who were Middle Eastern or appeared to be Middle Eastern. That’s troublesome. And that’s the thing that we’re most focused on right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Debbie Almontaser, I saw you last week, before all of this, at a public event, and you said to me how afraid you were. This was right after the woman, covered, wearing hijab, was set on fire here in New York. This is before the horror that took place this weekend in our community.

DEBBIE ALMONTASER: When I saw you last week and we had spoken, it’s quite chilling. You know, it’s quite chilling, Amy, to be on Saks Fifth Avenue shopping, window shopping, like any other, you know, person, enjoying the view, enjoying what’s out there to purchase, and standing there and having someone come from behind you and light your shirt is quite terrifying. And so, for me, as well as other American Muslim women that I have encountered and I speak to all the time, is I tell them to please be vigilant, know their surroundings, make sure that they’re traveling with other people, always be in public places where there are a lot of people, to stand in the middle of the subway platform.

And it’s not to say that we live in a dangerous city. You know, there are so many wonderful people. And just the other day, you know, yesterday, walking in the East Side of Manhattan and walking across from a woman who just looked at me and smiled. you know, that smile meant a lot to me, and it means a lot to other people. And so, there are people of good faith who are out there and who know and understand what it’s like to be an American Muslim during this political season.

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