Author on extremism, local officials talk countering hate in Boston

By Miriam Fauzia 
BU News Service

BOSTON — Nineteen-year-old Aya Zeabi was taking a very full afternoon bus home from Boston Medical Center about a year ago when a man with a black backpack sitting across from her began to yell obscenities. 

The man called the Boston University student a terrorist and said that she should go back home to her country.

“[He] then told me to pull my hijab off and that I should just shoot myself in the head,” Zeabi recounted.

He then began to scream that he would shoot her himself. In that moment, as he reached down for the black backpack, Zeabi feared he was actually going to shoot her. 

“I was so frightened, I was shaking,” she said. “I was paralyzed into silence and couldn’t think or act.” 

Despite how vocal the man was, none of Zeabi’s fellow passengers came to her aid, and only when she managed to get off at the next stop did one woman approach and ask if she was okay. 

“I responded ‘I will be okay’ because really what other response is there?” she said.

Hate crimes, including Islamophobia, are on a rise, both in the United States and elsewhere in the world, said Farah Pandith, the first-ever special representative to Muslim Communities appointed by then-Secretary Hillary Clinton in 2009. 

During a talk Monday at the Boston Public Library on her new book, “How We Win,” Pandith discussed the growing phenomenon and its impact on Islamic, as well as right-wing extremism.  

“It’s not like we’ve never lived in a planet where hate has never existed,” Pandith said, “but the ability for hate to grow and be honored, by people who are in power, is the dynamic [that is] different today.”

Pew Research Center analysis of hate crime statistics recorded by the FBI showed a significant increase in assaults against Muslims between 2015 and 2016, surpassing the peak reached in 2001. 

And since his election to office, one study has found President Trump’s Twitter usage associated with a 38% increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes. 

In Massachusetts, a 2017 report released by the state government demonstrated 16 instances of Islamophobic attacks reported overall with 13 occurring in Suffolk County, which includes Boston. 

Barbara Dougan, civil rights director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)’s Massachusetts branch, said that while the numbers are significant, they may not be entirely indicative of the magnitude of the issue. 

“It’s all about the reporting,” she said, “I think just because people report here doesn’t mean that things are worse here than in other areas … We know that this is a sort of issue [that is] greatly underreported.”  

Dougan said one component of under-reporting is correlated with the immigrant population, an inherited attitude to“not get involved in anything “controversial.” Another is immigrants being completely unaware of their rights and the proper channels to report their assault.

Pandith believes that there are solutions to tackle the concerning problem of Islamophobia.  

“It’s important we use many different people in the field of social science to understand how we as humans talk to each other and how we relate to each other,” she said.

In its response to Islamophobia within its own public spaces, the City of Boston launched a poster campaign in July 2017. The posters, a cartoon how-to guide drawn by Paris-based artist Maeril, demonstrate how a bystander can use a technique called ‘non-complementary behavior’ if they see a Muslim being harassed. The posters were plastered around various locations in Boston for six months.

Dougan believes the priniciple of bystander intervention and local community involvement do play an important role in countering Islamophobic harassment. 

She recounted the story of a 10-year-old Framingham schoolgirl who had received a note calling her a terrorist and a week later, a written death threat. Dougan said the public response during that time was overwhelmingly heartwarming.  

“We got letters from all across the country,” she said. “Some of these letters we’d be reading them out loud to one another … I couldn’t do it after a while. I had such a lump in my throat.”

Pandith meanwhile, said Monday she is optimistic that there will be change.

“[Hate] is something we know how to solve,” she said. “It’s not something like the trauma of 9/11 where we didn’t even know where to begin. Today, 18 years after 9/11, we know what to do, I’m just hoping that we get going with the program to do it.” 

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