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Islamophobia After San Bernardino: Fear Within the Muslim Community

This time the homegrown terrorism was too close to home.

I can picture it. This time the homegrown terrorism was too close to home.

I was raised in San Bernardino County – my family purchased our home back in 1980 when the freeway was only two lanes wide and we were completely surrounded by the odors of thousands of cows from local dairy farms. We were the only Muslims for miles around and drove 30 minutes west to get to our mosque. Urban sprawl happened around us as freeways expanded, tract homes were built on decomposing manure and the subsequent economic collapse during the Great Recession resulted in the Inland Region having one of the biggest rates of unemployment.

When I saw the helicopter hovering overhead in the aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting that killed 14 people and injured 22, I could picture it. Every time I had driven through the city, it reminded me an abandoned sleepy desert town stuck in 1980s architecture. As the overhead images flashed across my television screen, I saw images that looked like the neighborhood I was raised in, and neighbors I was raised with.

When the news reported that shooter Syed Rizwan Farook was around the same age as my siblings, was born and raised locally and visited local mosques, it made me picture all the different times our paths could have potentially crossed. Maybe he had been in the same Mosque youth group with my siblings, maybe we had gone to Eid prayer at the convention center together, maybe I had noticed his brown face when we were both at the mall, or football games, or at the movies. The local lake with the broken cell phones, the shooting range where they practiced, the hospitals where the victims were taken – I could picture them all because it was quite literally my hometown.

This week it was revealed that Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik were not posting on social media right before the attacks – despite all the media claims within 24 hours of their identification that they were doing so. It. In fact, the FBI has reported this week, “There is no evidence of posting on social media by either of them at that period in time and thereafter reflecting their commitment to jihad or to martyrdom.” It was also reported that the two were not a part of terrorist cell.

It’s been a few weeks after the shooting and what media outlet is actually going to apologize for reporting false news? How will any retraction now affect the anti-Muslim political climate or what the US Muslim community is currently experiencing?

In the month since the Paris bombings and weeks since the San Bernardino shooting, the US Muslim community (and those perceived as such) have been victims in an uptick of hate incidences. A Somali-American teenager in Seattle was beaten and thrown off the roof of a six-story building. A Muslim woman was shot at as she was leaving a Tampa mosque. A 12-year-old Sikh boy was locked up in juvenile hall without parental notification for saying he had a bomb in his backpack. The Islamic Society of Palm Springs was firebombed. A hijab-wearing sixth grader was called “ISIS” and had her hijab pulled off in the playground. In actuality, there has been a hate incident in the US almost every day.

The mainstream media and Republican campaign trail combined have been driving the Islamophobic media maelstrom, accelerating racist sentiments in the US today. It seems that Donald Trump has been trending on social media daily about Muslims, having realized that exploiting US insecurities by Muslim baiting is a surefire way to keep him his celebrity light flaming just a bit longer.

Whether it be banning entry of refugees to the US or to put the names of all Muslims in a database, Trump has been relentless with his verbal rampage. The rhetoric has gotten so extreme that even politicians from the Republican Party have been distancing themselves from what he has to say, despite Trump’s lead in the Republican polls. There is one group that is not trying to distance themselves from Trump: The Alabama chapter of the Klu Klux Klan is using anti-Muslim recruitment flyers stating, “Help us fight the spread of Islam in our country.”

All this keeps making me think about propaganda – how the media is shaping the way we think and how are we choosing to intake that information. How did the media take the information the government gave them about the San Bernardino shooting and how people accepted what was fed to them so easily. How in my carefully tailored social media feeds, I have a constant flow of news, analysis and essays on various aspects of US Muslim politics and identity experiences. How most Americans receive ongoing exposure to a narrative in which “Muslim” means “extremist.” How ISIS’s main way of connecting and recruiting new members is through leveraging Twitter accounts and pushing out glossy media.

As a host on the show #GoodMuslimBadMuslim, I often get asked the question: What it’s like to be Muslim in today’s political climate? Our monthly podcast has only been out a year, and when interviewed, reporters will often cite a recent Islamophobic hate incident, state what an anomaly it is and make a loose statement of what a coincidence it is that our podcast exists at this time. The truth is over the course of 12 shows, we haven’t been able to go one month without having a hate incident to report on or anti-Muslim micro-aggressions to reflect on. As Muslim Americans, this is a part of our lived experience and if anything, access to social media by this community is only serving to uplift the narratives that had in the past been internalized. In the US Muslim community, I have heard often how it feels like we are in survival mode and that we have to react and condemn. But the truth is that fear mongering – whether hate against Muslims, or Blacks or immigrants – is a tool.

“So, if you’re not on social media, and you don’t have a television, how do you get your news?” I asked R. I was at brunch and R. was an old college friend – we had met the spring of 2001, well before the September 11 attacks. We bonded over both of us identifying as South Asian Americans on the margins (though he is not Muslim), and over our love for punk music. Our lives had since taken divergent paths in very different directions – he was the Luddite real estate capitalist non-voter and I the hyper media connected storytelling voting activist.

“I get the news when I visit sites like Gawker. And I honestly don’t see the point to having to be so plugged in – it was stressing me out. Not being plugged in makes me feel much less stressed.” I found it incredulous. I gave him a look. Our conversation devolved into a shouting match from there, one where he made excuses for the anti-beef lynching of Muslims in India, and Modi’s pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat. It quickly became clear that in his effort to distance himself from media, he too had become a victim to anti-Muslim propaganda. It was then I realized just how deep the Islamophobic messaging machine was running.

As Muslims in the US, we don’t have an opt-out to self-select this choice. We are constantly placed in this narrative and made to feel like we are in constant reaction. It is stressful. There is no safe space. Islamophobia is placed on Muslims – much like racism is placed on Black people. We know race is an artificial concept, but this is the imagined reality that we live in. I wish I could remove myself from all media and choose a life of ignorance – but the truth is that would make me no better than the 30 percent of ignorant Republican voters that want to bomb “Agrabah.” I need to be informed, but how do we maintain self-care in a hyper-hateful media world?

“Trying not to lose too much sleep,” Basim Usmani of the punk band The Kominas said, when I asked him how he is self-caring at this time. “I can’t stop thinking about how this is going to pan out. I’m extremely apprehensive about what’s in store for this country I call home. I’ve been around and recognize that hypocrisy is everywhere, but this moment in time is hyperbolically hypocritical.”

Another friend, S., pointed to the importance of taking time for ourselves. “Somewhere along the way, self-care became an option, not a necessity – and it should never be an option, always a necessity,” S. said. “It’s funny – I was better emotionally equipped to deal with the bullshit post-9/11 than I am now. In some ways, these days I feel broken – a sort of broken than comes from fatigue and over-thinking. “

“I call my mom a lot,” said writer Kirin Khan. “I know there are a lot of people who are resisting, and that is reassuring – I remind myself of that fact when I start to feel really scared. I see people who speak back, speak out, when I don’t have it in me. I read books by Muslim women, and I write and paint.”

Where is the line between feeling safe and staying vigilant in our current reality, as a US Muslim? When walking on the street places a constant target on you for being Muslim, a woman, brown-skinned – how do you take up space and take back your space?

Most importantly, what are you doing to combat and resist Islamophobia and how are you leading with compassion?

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