A little boy sitting in a chair and smiling for the camera. He was Palestinian American

‘We Are Not Terrorists’ – Muslims and Sikh Americans Fear Fresh Wave of Hate Crimes Amid Middle-East Conflict

A little boy sitting in a chair and smiling for the camera. He was Palestinian American

Six-year-old Wadea Al Fayoume was fatally stabbed 26 times by a suspect who proclaimed, “You Muslims must die.” (Facebook photo via Ethnic Media Services)

By Sunita Sohrabji, Ethnic Media Services

Muslims and Sikh Americans are fearing a wave of retaliatory hate crime attacks amid the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict, which has collectively killed almost 5,000 people since Oct. 7.

Moina Shaiq, president of the Muslim Democrats and Friends Club of Alameda County, told Ethnic Media Services: “This is 9/11 all over again.”

After the horrific Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — which killed more than 3,000 Americans — Muslim and Sikh Americans became the targets of retaliatory hate attacks. The first victim of a post 9/11 hate crime was Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona, who was murdered Sept. 15, 2001, by Frank Silva Roque. The killer told friends after 9/11 that he was “going out to kill some towel heads.”

Because of their religiously mandated turbans and beards, Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims.

‘What Have We Done?’

Shortly after the Israel-Palestine conflict broke out, Shaiq said she called Fremont Police Chief Sean Washington to ask for extra patrol during Jumma — Friday prayers — at her mosque. Washington immediately obliged, but Shaiq said she was uncertain as to whether Muslim Americans in other jurisdictions are getting the same level of protection.

Shaiq characterizes herself as a “hijabi,” wearing the headscarf mandated by her faith. When she took her three young grandchildren to the Oakland Zoo on Oct. 15, Shaiq said, “People were giving me looks. I felt very uncomfortable.”

“It makes us feel so guilty, as though we have done something wrong. There is a feeling of shame and guilt we carry always. But what have we done?” she queried.

Palestinian American Boy Killed

Muslim American fears intensified this week as news emerged from Plainsfield, Illinois, that a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy, Wadea Al Fayoume, was fatally stabbed 26 times by suspect Joseph Czuba. According to police reports, Czuba — the Al Fayoume family’s landlord — forced his way into the apartment and first confronted Wadea’s mother, Hanaan Shahin. He proceeded to attack her with a 12-inch military-style knife, yelling, “You Muslims must die.”

Shahin was able to escape to a bathroom, but without Wadea. Czuba sat on top of the little boy and repeatedly stabbed him, then sat in the apartment until police arrived.

Czuba is in custody and is being held without bail. He has been charged with three counts of murder, one count of attempted murder, two counts of aggravated battery and two counts of committing a hate crime.

Justice Department Investigation

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced Oct. 16 that the incident would be investigated as a hate crime. “This incident cannot help but further raise the fears of Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian communities in our country with regard to hate-fueled violence.”

Ahmed Rehab, executive director for the Council on American Islamic Relations’ Chicago chapter, told Ethnic Media Services that Wadea was buried Oct. 16, and a vigil was held for him and his mother Oct. 17.

“I have three children. One of them looks just like this little boy. I haven’t seen them in two days because of the work I’ve been doing with Wadea’s family. Because they will never see their little boy again,” said Rehab.

‘Worst Nightmare’

He quoted Wadea’s father, Oday El-Fayoume, who said at a news conference: “I came to this city for my children. And now, I have had to bury one of them.”

Rehab said the Muslim American community is living under the specter of fear. Mosques have canceled events after hours and are increasing security measures. Parents are pulling their children out of school because of fears of bullying. “There are definitely reverberations for our community. It is our worst nightmare come true.”

He blamed Wadea’s death on the media. “You see all over the news that Muslims are now being portrayed as inhumane animals. That is why this little boy lost his life.”

School Bullying

Zaheer Abbasi, a Pakistani American shopkeeper, told EMS with a laugh: “My little boy is always making up excuses not to go to school. His belly has ached on hundreds of mornings, despite my wife’s good cooking.”

Abbasi’s tone sobered. “On Monday, when I dropped him off, I watched Rafa walk away. And then I ran to get him. He is my only child, my heart. We will keep him home for now.”

FBI Hate Crime Data

The FBI released its Uniform Crime Reports data Oct. 16, the department’s annual tracking of bias-related crimes for the prior year. In 2022, 158 anti-Muslim attacks, and 92 anti-Arab attacks were reported by local law enforcement agencies to the FBI. Anti-Jewish attacks spiked by 36%, with concerns the current Middle East conflict could drive the number up even higher.

Critics of the program note that reporting by law enforcement is voluntary, likely leading to undercounts in actual numbers of such crimes. Moreover, the characteristics of a hate crime are strictly defined, so that law enforcement often does not record a bias-motivated attack as a hate crime.

Antisemitic Attacks

Rehab told EMS the Muslim American community is reluctant to report such incidents. “If we are reported, you would see at least triple those numbers,” he said.

According to FBI data, most of the bias attacks against Muslims and Arabs were perpetrated by white males.

As with previous years, the largest number of hate crimes involved Black people — 3,424.

Sikh Teen Attacked

The Sikh American community is also on high alert, with an attack on a Sikh teen on a New York City bus Oct. 15, fraying nerves even further. The attacker, who is still at large, punched the victim and tried to remove his religiously mandated turban. “We don’t wear that here,” said the attacker, according to police reports.

“Unfortunately, our community knows all too well how major geopolitical events, as well as accompanying inflammatory political rhetoric, can bring further harm to already marginalized communities,” said Harman Singh, Policy and Education Director at the Sikh Coalition.

The organization has sent out a flyer to its members with tips on how to keep safe and how to report bias-motivated attacks. Sikh Americans were the targets of 191 hate crimes in 2022.

Q&A: Sikh Richmond Man Reflects Seven Years After Brutal Hate Crime Attack

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