SHAFAQNA – Just before mass on March 19, Rev. Tomy Kalathoor Mathew, an Indian priest, was stabbed in the neck right before services in Melbourne, Australia. The perpetrator confronted Rev. Mathew, with witnesses claiming that the man accused him of being “a Hindu or Muslim” before brutally attacking him. The 72-year-old attacker was taken into custody after the incident and Rev. Mathew was taken to the hospital. Thankfully, he survived his traumatic injuries, though the psychological trauma he likely suffered is another matter all its own.
This isn’t the first attack of its kind by any stretch of the imagination. Attacks against Southeast Asian-Americans have made the news more often as of late. The perpetrators often associate the victims with Islam, even though they’re not Muslim. This demonstrates how the victims of Islamophobia aren’t just Muslims—despite what many may believe—and that the racialized component of Islamophobia, or the association made between skin color, language and national origin, leaves a direct impression on Islamophobes and allows for them to widen the scope of anti-Muslim violence.
In January, South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), national South Asian advocacy organization, reported that attacks against South Asian Americans has returned to levels seen in the aftermath of 9/11. During the 2006 elections alone, SAALT found that out of 200 documented hate crimes, 95% of the incidents were motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment. “Regardless of the target, it is enough simply to be perceived as Muslim to be the victim of violence.”
Samrat Jeet Singh, an assistant professor in the Department of Religion at Trinity University and senior religious fellow at The Sikh Coalition, told MintPress that since the terror attacks of September 11, there has been the formation of a new racial category that he calls “the apparent Muslim.”
“Although Muslims constitute an immensely diverse community, our society continues to racialize Muslims through oversimplified stereotypes of how Muslims look. These perceptions are primarily based on visual cues, such as phenotypical features — brown skin — as well as cultural or religious markers, including facial hair, veils, and head coverings,” he said.
Singh explained that understanding the racialization of Muslim identity helps us to actually see why anti-Muslim sentiment often impacts those who are not Muslim. The communities affected by anti-Muslim hate crimes have included Arabs, Sikhs and Southeast Asians. Singh said that over the last several years, leaders in these communities have worked to build relationships and solidarity “with the understanding that we are all in this together and will only succeed if we help empower one another. Hate is unacceptable, no matter who it targets, and especially in our current moment, authentic justice can only be achieved through authentic allyship.”
Rana Sodhi holds a photo of his brother, Balbir Sodh. Days after the Sept. 11th attacks, Balbir was shot dead while placing flowers on a memorial at his gas station in Mesa. The gunman mistook Sodhi, a Sik, for a Muslim. (AP/Ross D. Franklin)
One of the most traumatic attacks suffered by the Sikh-American community occurred in 2012, when white supremacist Wade Michael Page went on a shooting spree after entering a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin—ending in the murder of six Sikh congregates. The first victim of a backlash against Muslims in the U.S. after September 11 was Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man who was murdered in Arizona by Frank Roque. Before killing Sodhi, Roque had casually told a waiter that he was “going to go out and shoot some towelheads.” The same day Roque killed Sodhi, he shot at a gas station where a Lebanese-American man was working as a clerk, as well as fired at the home of an Afghan-American family.
The stories of those impacted by Islamophobia, specifically those who are not Muslim, are harrowing and countless.
In October, an American-Israeli Tennessee man was beaten by a large group of teenagers who punched him in the face, grabbed at his throat and called him anti-Muslim slurs. He was left bloodied and bruised following the attack — and a day after reporting the incident to local authorities, his vehicle was vandalized. “I want to take care of it as soon as possible so nobody can get hurt,” the victim told WMC Action News. “They can kill somebody.”
On March 12 of this year, a Florida man attempted to burn down a convenience store based on the assumption that the owners were Muslim and Arab. His bigotry, in that sense, was misguided: the owners were Indian and were not Muslims. In another recent case in Oregon, 52-year-old Jason Kendall attacked a worker at a Middle Eastern restaurant — beating him over the head with a pipe, calling him a terrorist and demanding that the victim “get out of America.” His actions were spurred by his belief that the worker was Arab. Kendall would later callously refer to the service worker as “a Saddam Hussein-looking guy.”
Recently in Trout Lake, Washington, a Buddhist monk was violently attacked by a man who assumed he was Muslim based on his religious attire. Kozen Sampson was struck in the face, and then slammed into his car by the assailant. “I do remember [him yelling] an F-bomb [about] Muslims, and that was it,” Sampson told KATU News.
In her article “Racializing Islam Before and After 9/11: From Melting Pot to Islamophobia,” author Hilal Elver, a research professor and global distinguished fellow at the University of California School of Law, describes prejudices directed against Muslims as having consequences because approaching Muslim-Americans as though they are one homogenized group is done through stereotyping. She said this is “one of the significant indications of the racialization process.”
“There is a tendency in the United States to undermine the vast differences [of Muslims] by essentializing and racializing them. As a result, many people, whether they are Muslim or not, are subject to Islamophobic attitudes because of such stereotyping,” she added.
Sangeetha Sudharshan, a student of gender studies at Australia’s Macquarie University in Australia, told MintPress that September 11 marked a moment in history “where Muslim bodies were going to be targeted by racist and xenophobic vitriol. The hijab presented itself as a site of racialisation, and is particularly distinct as a religious garment that is correctly attributed to women practicing Islam. Aside from the racist xenophobia, Muslim women were then especially vulnerable to misogyny and racism.”
Sudharshan mentions Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian man in Kansas who was killed by a white man named Adam Purinton, as one example “of how brown bodies are not just seen as the Other, but are seen as the Muslim Other that purportedly represents a ‘terrorist threat’ to the supposedly civilised West, that has been waging a war in the Middle East for 14 years now.”
Sudharshan, a Buddhist, argues that Islamophobes make no efforts in distinguishing between Muslims and non-Muslims, an argument she backs up with her own experiences. “My experience with Islamophobia was shocking,” she said. “Not because they singled me out for my brown skin, but because they believed that my brown skin had to mean that I was Muslim. It was personally painful to be publicly questioned for my skin color, but it was far more painful to realize that it stems from the indubitable hatred of racialized Muslims.”
Sudharshan said we need to make it our mission to not only stand in solidarity with Muslims, “but to make public our love, care and compassion for our Muslim brothers and sisters.” This can be done by organizing and striking against Islamophobia in ways similar to those used by members of the New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance, who stopped accepting fares at JFK Airport after President Trump’s first temporary travel ban on Muslims was introduced.
“These actions function as sites of resistance, as a site of learning and building solidarity with one another. Building communities of resistance and solidarity in a society that works to atomize the Muslim community is necessary in our fight against Islamophobia,” she said.