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After New Zealand Attack, Fear Again Echos in Arab American Community

posted on: Mar 20, 2019

By: Heba Mohammad/Arab America Contributing Writer

Fifty individuals were murdered in New Zealand last week in a premeditated attack on two mosques in Christchurch. These victims, of different backgrounds and with varying life experiences, were targeted by a white supremacist with a destructive agenda. This act of violence re-amplifies important conversations the global community, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, must grapple with as it continues its unceasing mourning period.

To preface the following remarks, it is vital to remember multiple things can be true at once: conflicting feelings, outcomes, and realities may occur or exist simultaneously. This is a given In complex situations.

In the immediate aftermath of the violent attack on New Zealander Muslims, fear reigned supreme among reactions. Direct fear took hold in Muslim communities globally, with many calling for heightened security protocol around religious centers. Throughout the period since the attack, and surely for a long time to come, a shared sorrow has blanketed Muslim communities as they mourn their brothers and sisters.

There is a secondary type of fear that has emerged in this case, which may be referred to as adjacent fear. In a broad sense and to a degree, this is the fear that settles over peoples who were not directly targeted, yet reasonably harbor fear. Non-Muslim New Zealanders are likely experiencing adjacent fear now.

To a different degree, adjacent fear takes hold in minority black and brown communities that have long been victims of indiscriminate violence targeting those who are, at least, non-white, and perhaps of a different faith than the majority of their region’s population.

Arab Americans are among those who confront adjacent fear when Muslim communities are attacked, and in particular, of course, when it is directed at American Muslims. To better understand adjacent fear, and its manifestation in the Arab American community, a conversation about the nuances, or lack thereof, of hate, must be had.

A bone-chilling reality of hate crime is that perpetrators often do not care about accuracy when selecting victims. There are a plethora of examples of hate crimes committed against individuals who are misidentified and become victims of misdirected bias or hate. The specter of misidentification and indiscriminate violence has been repeatedly raised in a post 9/11 climate that has led to dramatically increased hate crime rates against Arabs, Muslims, and Sikhs.

Law enforcement agencies tasked with reporting hate crime are aware of perpetrators’ tendencies to misdirect their hatred of one identity group against a member of a different identity group, and it has shaped reporting mechanisms. When hate crimes are officially reported to law enforcement agencies, they are inputted based on the bias motivation or perceived identity of the victim, rather than their actual identity.

This distinction allows observers to know what forms of hate are on the rise, while simultaneously putting victims of misdirected bias or hate in the disadvantageous position of using government data that does not depict the whole story of hate and its manifestations against their communities.

The American Sikh community has long documented cases of targeted hate perpetrated by people who believe them to be Muslim. In one of the most infamous cases of a hate crime committed against Sikhs in the United States, that of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin which claimed six lives in 2012, it is believed anti-Muslim bias was the motivator.

Hate crime offenders do not care to understand the nuances of the identity groups they are conflating (and it certainly would not change the severity of the situation even if they correctly targeted their victims). While it may seem apparent to many that Sikhs are distinct from Muslims, there is another problematic conflation occurring in practice among allies and hostile parties alike: that of Muslims and Arabs.

A majority of Arab Americans are Christian, yet this fact goes unrecognized by many outside the community. Similarly, the majority of American Muslims are African American. The casual interchanging of Arab & Muslim identities in common discourse has added credence to the conflation and contributes to the misidentification of victims. In another infamous and tragic case, Arab American Khalid Jabara was murdered by his neighbor after months of harassment that included anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments, despite the Jabara family’s adherence to Christianity.

Please note: the identity conflations do not arrange themselves neatly into static pairs (i.e. Muslim to Arab, or Sikh to Muslim), and they do not simply include the three identities mentioned. For the sake of simplicity, we will carry on with these examples in mind while recognizing the deep complexity of understanding how perpetrators identify victims and how that contributes to adjacent fear.

After the 2012 gurdwara attack, changes in hate crime categorization and reporting added new categories to the FBI’s Universal Crime Reporting (UCR) Program to address the need for more nuanced data. These categories include anti-Arab, anti-Hindu, anti-Sikh, and five additional religious bias motivations, and the first reporting year with these newly publicized categories was 2015.

It is too early to draw definitive conclusions from the three years (2015-2017) worth of UCR data available since significant numbers are not typical in the initial years of collection. However, the raw numbers demonstrate consecutive increases in hate crime targeting Arabs and Sikhs and show an upward trajectory overall.

Interestingly, there was a dip in anti-Muslim hate crime between 2016 & 2017, although the total number is still far higher than average. Advocates will be watching the numbers of the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim categories for the next several years to observe how the ongoing identity conflations will play out among bifurcated categories.

This backdrop of anecdotal and data-driven evidence provides insight on the origins of adjacent fear, and why Arab Americans of all or no faith backgrounds are victim to it when Muslims are targeted, even if they are not Muslim. Globally, minorities share the experience of adjacent fear, but there are contributing factors to the fear that add a tinge of uniqueness to the Arab American experience.

Hate crime targeting Arab Americans and the Muslim and South Asian communities increases when major events unfold in the Middle East or after incidents of mass violence. In instances when region-specific events are the motivation for perpetrators, it is logical to conclude their intended targets are those of Middle Eastern or Arab descent, but it is clear the violence does not always reach its intended target due to conflation or misidentification.

Additionally, the United States has an active and well-established network of white supremacists that are more likely to openly espouse their beliefs (read: free speech guarantees that reliably benefit white folks) and have the weapons to carry out acts of mass violence.

Other countries are addressing their own white supremacist movements, but greater restrictions factor into those movements’ growth and influence.

Perhaps most influentially in the Arab American experience is the lack of information about the community in the education system and in public discourse broadly. There are too few resources devoted to humanizing the Arab American community, and that has been detrimental. Victories are being had in school districts to incorporate a curriculum that does not present Arab Americans in a national security framework, and these changes must be multiplied and implemented broadly. Without a systematic method for introducing all Americans to their diversifying neighborhoods and humanizing communities outside
their own identities, the “us vs. them” mentality is certain to grow.

Finally, greater urgency to address this reality must be generated: there is generally a lead up to violent acts that begins with small aggressions and ends in violence. The normalization or excusing of hostility toward entire groups of people must end because it allows the expansion of white supremacist networks to continue unchecked.

Ultimately, adjacent fear is a byproduct of empathy. The communities who experience it understand what it is like to be targeted and to question the physical and emotional safety of their surroundings. As a result, adjacent fear is often accompanied by adjacent sorrow. We mourn with our siblings globally and stand with those in the struggle for justice, safety, and equity for all.


Heba Mohammad is a National Field Coordinator at the Arab American Institute