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Trump & Media Focus on Muslims After Attack in NYC, Even as NYPD Says Islam Played No Role

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We look at how the treatment of Muslims and how the phrase “Allahu akbar” is used in the media after so-called terror attacks, like the one in New York City, with Farhana Khera, the executive director of Muslim Advocates.

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

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring into this conversation Farhana Khera, who is executive director of Muslim Advocates. Prior to joining the group in 2005, Khera was counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights. Your group, Farhana, put out a statement; Muslim Advocates put out a statement. Talk about your concerns about what’s happening right now in the aftermath of this attack in New York City.

FARHANA KHERA: Good morning, Amy. And first of all, I just want to express my sincere thoughts and prayers to the victims of this horrific attack and send my support and strength to the people of New York.

Our concerns at Muslim Advocates are really focused on the response by the president and other senior government officials. After the attack, we saw tremendous leadership from New York government officials—Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio—calling on New Yorkers to come together as we mourn and as we look for answers and understand exactly who was behind this attack—are there others?—and really find the answers about this. In contrast, the president immediately sought to try to divide Americans and further his own political agenda. And what do I mean by that? It’s things like what you were just discussing earlier: trying to basically score political points, to feed his agenda, his long-standing policy to radically transform our immigration system, to significantly curtail, if not outright stop, the immigration of nonwhites to the United States. And this—and we could just see, in contrast, after the Las Vegas shooting, after the Charlottesville attacks, we did not see the president calling for changes in policies, like gun control policies, after the horrific attacks in Las Vegas. But here we see the president immediately calling for changes to the immigration system.

The other concern we have is Senator Graham, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, claiming that he and the president had a phone call the evening of the attack and that they both agree that this is a religious war. This was deeply disturbing to us, because we know—and I think all Americans can agree—that violence, unfortunately, has no single faith, race or political ideology, whether—you know, you just look no further than the Charleston attacks, the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting, the congressional baseball game attack, to know that violence, unfortunately, it comes in various forms. And so this is just deeply, deeply disturbing. And furthermore, the New York Police Department’s own deputy commissioner, John Miller, yesterday, in a press conference, very explicitly and clearly said Islam is—had no role in this attack. So, law enforcement officials, who are closest to this investigation, are going out of their way to say religion has no role. And yet the president and senior government officials of the United States government are trying to say that this is a religious war. And in fact, I think what’s really disturbing about this is it actually plays into the propaganda of ISIS. So this is not helpful. This is a time for the president and our government leaders to bring the American people together.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, I wanted to ask you about how this is described. There’s been a lot of discussion since Tuesday’s attack about the way that the phrase “Allahu akbar” is used in the media after what the media is universally describing, or generally, as the “terror attacks.” I want to read from a New York Times op-ed by Wajahat Ali, who said, “It’s easy to forget that language is often hijacked and weaponized by violent extremists. Some people yell 'Allahu akbar' and others chant 'heritage,' 'culture' and 'white pride.' The preferred slogans of a killer don’t make much difference to the people whose lives are lost or their loved ones, but they make all the difference in Americans’ collective understanding of a tragedy.” Can you talk, Farhana Khera, about the use of “Allahu akbar” and how often people will use that phrase in a day—Muslims—to describe almost like “Oh, my god”?

FARHANA KHERA: Yeah, so, “Allahu akbar” is Arabic for “God is great.” So, it’s an exclamation. It’s professing, essentially, love for God, acknowledgment of God, in kind of everyday activities, or certainly to put an exclamation point when you’re celebrating. It’s part of the prayers for Muslims, in the call to prayer as well as as we recite our prayers. So, this is—it has a religious connotation. And it’s specifically used by ISIS followers because they’re trying to invoke religion to justify their violent ends and to recruit people to their cause. But I think, as Wajahat points out, you know, there are other violent groups, whether it’s neo-Nazis and white supremacists with their “Heil Hitler” and other phrases and chants that they use, that are also demarcations of people who are parts of their movements.

And I think, if I can just say, Amy, I think what’s been troubling to me in last 24, 48 hours is, after an attack like this, there’s immediate media focus on whether—what the words were uttered: Was it “Allahu akbar,” or wasn’t it? But when when the perpetrator is not a Muslim, there isn’t that same kind of attention by the media to understand: “Well, what words were uttered when James Fields rammed his car into protesters in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer? What was he thinking? What was in his internet, you know, history?” There isn’t that same kind of in-depth investigation and reporting and trying to understand. But when the perpetrator is Muslim, there’s an immediate kind of fixation to want to see, well, exactly were these words used by the perpetrator. But as I mentioned earlier, as even the NYPD acknowledges, religion is not at the core of this violent conduct.

AMY GOODMAN: And then you have the issue of the mispronunciation. You’ll have a lot of people saying, “Alu akbar,” which, online, people are laughing a lot about, yes, even in this very difficult time, meaning “Potatoes are great.”

FARHANA KHERA: Yes, yes. “Alu” is an Urdu word for potatoes. And some are—some media folks and others are mispronouncing or misspelling the word, and they’re actually spelling the Urdu word for potatoes.

AMY GOODMAN: Shayana Kadidal, would you like to weigh in here?

SHAYANA KADIDAL: Sure. You know, it’s clearly Muslim-specific, this response, right? When [Richard Rojas], you know, a person of color, drove a car at high speed into a crowd of people in Times Square earlier this year, nobody was saying, “Send him to Guantánamo,” or “This is an ISIS-inspired attack,” even before we knew that he was high on PCP when he did it. You know, and I worry, with Farhana, that what we’re seeing is, you know, a cycle where rhetoric from the president, gratuitously cruel measures like the immigration ban, and whatever response to this they come up with, will in fact fuel more radicalization, more calls to violence from the other side, and it will just build on itself, right? I mean, this guy was a guy who wanted to come to the United States, Saipov. He applied for a green card lottery because he wanted what we had to offer. And something went wrong here. And I worry that the president is just feeding into more of those kind of things going wrong in individual cases.

AMY GOODMAN: Farhana Khera, what about that, the whole issue of he was politicized, he was radicalized, here in this country?

FARHANA KHERA: Yeah. So, you know, and I just want to underscore a number of things that my colleague Shayana said, you know, and just to put a finer point on this, Amy. After the attack in Charlottesville, where Alex Fields rammed a car into a group of protesters, we didn’t hear the president or other government officials saying that Fields should be sent to Guantánamo. But that’s immediately what we’re hearing from this president, from Senator Graham. And it’s deeply disturbing, because it’s sending a signal that there’s two systems of justice, that if you’re Muslim, you’re going to be treated outside of our Constitution and outside of our justice system, and that you’re not going to be entitled to the same rights and protections as other Americans.

We saw the Bush administration make an attempt to actually treat lawful residents and U.S. citizens differently. And we saw the Obama administration try to turn away from that. And this is a deeply disturbing signal that this administration may be going back to some of those practices from the Bush administration. I hope that’s not the case. I understand that the president was just tweeting earlier this morning. Perhaps he’s having some second thoughts about his initial thoughts about sending Saipov to Guantánamo. And I hope he’s getting some counseling from his attorney general and Justice Department officials, that federal charges have been filed, and we should follow and allow the U.S. criminal justice system to take its course.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Farhana, you facilitated the first and only meeting between Muslim community advocates with President Obama when you were at the Justice Department?

FARHANA KHERA: That was while I was executive director of Muslim Advocates, but yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, when you—uh-huh.

FARHANA KHERA: Yeah. And yeah, that was an important opportunity. I believe that was about two years ago, which was an opportunity to sit down. It was about a dozen or so American Muslim community leaders, from all walks of life, to have an opportunity to sit down with the president and share our concerns about hate and bigotry—and it was just the beginning of this new wave of increased hate and bigotry targeted to American Muslims, in the wave of hate crimes that we’ve been saying—as well as to address concerns about the targeting of our community by federal law enforcement authorities. We appreciated that constructive conversation, and we did see increased leadership from the president after that, speaking out against anti-Muslim bigotry. We have not seen nearly that level of concern by this president or members of his White House. And in fact, we’ve seen the exact opposite: a desire to demonize our community in an attempt to score political points.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Shayana Kadidal, the president just tweeted some more. He said, “Would love to send the NYC terrorist to Guantanamo but statistically that process takes much longer than going through the Federal system. There is also something appropriate about keeping him in the home of the horrible crime he committed. Should move fast. DEATH PENALTY!” exclamation point.

SHAYANA KADIDAL: Wow! Does any of that apply to the plotters of the 9/11 attacks, who are sitting at Guantánamo, still not tried, 14 years after they were arrested?

AMY GOODMAN: You advocate for them to be brought up into the U.S. justice system?

SHAYANA KADIDAL: As a New Yorker, absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you all for being with us. Farhana Khera, Muslim Advocates, head of Muslim Advocates, Islamica Magazine called you one of 10 young Muslim visionaries for leadership, innovative approaches and a level of success that bodes well for America. Shayana Kadidal of the Center for Constitutional Rights. And Yolanda Rondon, attorney for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Before we go, a very quick point, a very quick question for Yolanda. This issue of Muslim families all over being so deeply concerned every time there is an attack in a country that leaps so quickly to caricatures and stereotypes, feeling, “Oh, my gosh, what happens if the person is Muslim? What will it mean for my family?” Yolanda?

YOLANDA RONDON: Yes, of course. There is a legitimate reason behind this. We have to look no further than the recent DOJ statistics released on the hate crimes that have occurred against the Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian communities. We have to also look, you know, no further than the mass reports ADC receives about bullying of students in their children’s schools, right? And no further than the DOJ’s, you know, essentially limitless RLUIPA cases that they’ve taken on this year, where there’s mass targeting, both violently as well is systematically, to exclude and keep Muslims and Arabs out of certain communities, right?

And so, this is the backlash that people are talking about. And it’s not only the backlash in violent mechanisms, but in the systematic biases that play out when it comes to employment and thus forth, as well as in the media coverage of it, right? The backlash that people are painted, right? When someone gets on a train today who’s wearing a headscarf—right?—they’re going to feel uneasy, right? People are going to look at them wary, right? Who should have to live like that, right? Who should have to worry about going to the grocery store just to buy food and worrying, “Hey, is someone going to call me a terrorist today? Or is someone going to try to remove—forcibly remove my headscarf?” Right? No one should have to live like that, especially in America.

AMY GOODMAN: Yolanda Rondon, thanks so much for being with us, attorney for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Love Song for Glen Canyon” by Katie Lee. Musician, writer, environmental activist Katie Lee died at the age of 98 this week.

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