Countering hate crimes with policy and civic engagement
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On April 5, the Senate unanimously adopted Resolution 118 condemning hate crimes and other forms of racism, religious or ethnic bias, discrimination, incitement to violence, or animus targeting a minority in the United States.

This historic resolution also called upon local, state and federal law enforcement and judicial bodies to more fully monitor, report, and prosecute such incidents. 

As a Muslim American, I am grateful for this welcome gesture to help address the troubling rise in hate crimes against immigrants and ethnic and religious minorities. I recently left the State Department as a foreign policy practitioner to help encourage fellow members of my community in political and social change through the non-profit organization Emgage.

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Although I had spent the last decade working on Middle East foreign policy issues including the war in Syria, the counter-ISIL campaign, and the refugee crisis, I could no longer focus my attention solely on what was happening abroad while my own country was allowing the dark forces of hate and xenophobia to tear it apart.

 

My family immigrated to the United States almost 30 years ago, and in the years that followed, my siblings and I assimilated into American culture, while still maintaining our Syrian and Islamic heritage. I am the product of a successful immigration system.

Yet I fear that 9/11 and the subsequent manipulation of the national narrative about Muslims and Islam has changed that for others in the future. I worry for Muslims who are U.S. born, like my brother, and how the America they see must feel very different from the one I immigrated to.

The Muslim American community has been on the receiving end of a long-running campaign of Islamophobia that pre-dates the current political climate. Indeed, one can trace it back to the cynical use of the 9/11 national trauma by certain political and media personalities to advance their careers and personal agendas.

From radio shock jocks to right-wing state legislatures, Muslims and Islam have been unapologetically ridiculed, demonized, and instigated against.

From Nov. 9, 2016 to Feb. 7 of this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center collected 1,372 reported bias incidents against immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and other minorities. Hate crimes have occurred at places of business, houses of worship, on private property, and even elementary schools.

Incidents against the Muslim community have been especially pernicious, with over 15 Islamic centers receiving threats and offensive messages, and mosques burned in Texas, Florida, and Washington since the beginning of 2017.

Senate Resolution 118 is a welcome and necessary step from our national leaders, but much more needs to be done; not only by our government, but also by average citizens, especially Muslim Americans. Although Muslims continue to vote above the national average in key states, they still lack the capacity, leadership, and partnerships that are necessary for effective civic and political engagement.

We urge organizations and individuals to join and support the efforts being made by Emgage to educate fellow citizens, especially Muslims, about their capacity to become positive agents for change. Too often Muslims are defined by others, may it be via stereotypical portrayals in movies, by demigods in politics, or by radicals and terrorists.

What is needed is for Muslims to step up and define themselves by what they do and what they stand for. Muslim Americans must become more engaged in the civic arena if they hope to change our current trajectory. They must learn how to work with non-Muslims on issues of common concern, may it be hate crimes, criminal justice reform, or healthcare. 

Only by working to bolster our common values with other communities can we hope to overcome the politics of religion, race, or culture. 

This is why initiatives such as the anti-hate crimes resolution are so important, because they seek to uphold universal values that benefit society at large, and thereby lifting everyone, including its most vulnerable elements. 

There is a deep need to lift us all as equal citizens under the laws of this great country.

Emgage is committed to that goal, and we welcome all to join us in the journey. 

Wa’el Alzayat is Chief Executive Officer of Emgage, a non-partisan, non-profit organization working to increase the political engagement of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian Americans. He just concluded a ten-year career as a U.S. diplomat where he specialized in U.S.-Middle East foreign policy.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.