Anti-Muslim sentiment around the U.S. is on the rise. The uptick started right after the attacks in Paris in November. Then came the December shootings in San Bernardino, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim entry into the country.
Now American Muslims are at risk all over the country. According to CAIR- a Muslim civil rights group- there were 75 attacks on mosques reported in the US last year- the highest on record.
Here in the Bay Area, in the last month alone, a Castro Valley woman verbally attacked and threw coffee on Muslim picnickers at Lake Chabot, police arrested a man who threatened a Richmond mosque with a pipe bomb, and on the day after Christmas, a mosque was firebombed in Tracy.
In Santa Clara, I met up with Zahra Billoo. She’s the executive director of the Bay Area chapter of CAIR - the Council on American Islamic Relations. They’re a Muslim civil rights group that fields calls from people who’ve been harassed because of their faith, and then provides legal aid.
I find Billoo working in a coffee shop, not her office. The reason? CAIR offices were evacuated the day before following the discovery of a suspicious package, containing a white powder. Police, the FBI, firefighters, and a hazardous materials team shut down the CAIR office to investigate. Three CAIR workers were sent to the hospital for medical investigation, and released later that night.
A week earlier, CAIR’s Washington, DC headquarters also received a suspicious package. The powder sent to CAIR turned out to be benign in both cases, but, Billoo says- it’s been a difficult time recently for Muslims.
“We’ve seen an unprecedented number of complaints to the CAIR offices across the country," she says. "Everything from people being yelled at in parking lots or being bullied at school, to violent attacks on people like the one at Lake Chabot earlier this week."
There are about 250 thousand Muslims living the Bay Area, most in the South Bay, where the CAIR offices are, and in the East Bay. In San Francisco, the Tenderloin neighborhood has a sizeable Arab Muslim population. Which is why, when Asya Abdalrahman was recently verbally attacked there, she was surprised. She and her mom and two children were walking in the Tenderloin in the afternoon, when she says a man walked by and shouted at them, "No more Muslims!”
“I was really taken aback that this could happen in San Francisco," Abdalrahman says. "In an area where you think people are more accepting because it’s so diverse.”
Asya Abdalrahman and her mother both wear the Islamic headscarf- the hijab. She says things are different now on the street.
"There are a lot of people who wear headscarves in the Tenderloin," she explains. "It’s a normal thing. But now people are staring at you more accusatory. As if you’ve committed a crime.”
Muslim women are especially at risk in times of increased Islamophobia because they are visually identifiable as Muslims -- because of the hijab. And Muslim men are taking notice of that difference.
Muaaz Inaam, a theology student at Zaytuna college in Berkeley, says that just like people talk about white privilege, he feels he has a "non-wearing-hijab privilege."
His wife wears a headscarf, and he says he sees Islamophobia mostly through her experiences on the street, not his. Once, they witnessed a Sikh man in a turban trying to cross the street. A driver was blocking him and wouldn’t move. Inaam’s wife told him things like that happen to her all the time.
“I feel like there’s a lot of things that I take for granted because as a man I'm not necessarily recognized as Muslim,” he explains.
Since the attacks in Paris, conversations about Muslim women and public safety have ramped up at mosques and Islamic centers. And, online. After the San Bernardino attacks, the popular webiste Muslimgirl.net issued a 7-page Muslim Women Safety guide. Among the tips: Be aware of your surroundings; try not to travel alone at night; and if you feel at high risk, you may decide to temporarily take off your scarf for safety reasons.
San Francisco high school student Nora AbdelAl wears a headscarf, and pondered taking it off. The 17-year-old says she is getting longer stares and glares in public spaces -- like the library.
“And then I think,” she says, "Well I thought his was a country where you can practice your religion for free! But I really feel like I can’t practice my religion for free if every time I go outside people are just going to treat me differently.”
It especially hurts, she says, in neighborhoods like the Mission. “Where a lot of new people are moving in," she says. "And I walk and a lot of people stare at me, and I’m like I was born here!”
Another tip from the safety guide says that Muslim women who don’t want to totally take the hijab off can keep a baseball cap or beanie handy to wear so as not to draw attention by “looking Muslim." Asya Abdelrahman - the woman who was yelled at in the Tenderloin - takes issue with that.
“I’m not going to change who I am, and how I am," she says. "That’s allowing whoever’s trying to intimidate me to control me. And I’m not going to take it off because I’m afraid.”
She laughs, “Actually, I’m kind of a stubborn person, so I’m going to wear it more.”
Back in the Santa Clara coffee shop, CAIR Santa Clara executive director Zahra Billoo works at her laptop, snacking on a fresh batch of cookies she baked early in the morning. She says she’s not discouraged. Her message to Muslim women is to try to not be out alone - but also, she says, “Be aware of the fact that I think a lot of people are expressing support of Muslims and Muslim women these days. So be cautious and optimistic.”
Three days after they were evacuated, Billoo and the CAIR team moved back into their offices in Santa Clara.
If you witness or experience a hate crime, contact the CAIR offices.