Last week, two separate brutal attacks against Muslim men took place in Queens, New York. On November 24, 72-year-old Ali Akmal was nearly beaten to death while going on his early morning walk and remains in critical, but stable, condition.
CBS New York reports:
Akmal's tongue was so badly swollen that he couldn't talk for two days. When he finally could, he told police that when he first encountered the two men, they asked him, "are you Muslim or Hindu?"
He responded "I'm Muslim," and that's when they attacked.
The beating was so savage and personal, Akmal was even bitten on the nose.
Just a few days earlier, 57-year-old Bashir Ahmad was beaten and stabbed repeatedly as he entered a mosque in Flushing, Queens early in the morning on November 19. The attacker yelled anti-Muslim slurs at him, threatened to kill him, and also bit him on the nose. Ahmad was hospitalized and received staples in his head and stitches in his leg.
These vicious attacks come just a few months after the white supremacist rampage that left six Sikhs dead in Oak Creek, Wisconsin in August, followed by a string of at least 10 separate anti-Muslim attacks around the country in the two weeks that followed.
Needless to say, I was horrified last week when I heard about the attack on Ahmad and am even more horrified today after learning about Akmal, a grandfather, nearly being killed in this act of violent hatred a few days later. The trauma of the Oak Creek shooting is still fresh for us Sikhs in the United States, and there is little doubt that these recent attacks on Muslim men in Queens are rooted in the same type of bigotry that has so often made Sikhs targets since 9/11. As I've said before, our struggles are deeply connected.
The way I heard about the attack on Ahmad last week was almost as troubling as the attack itself. I read this headline on NBC New York's website: "Queens Mosque Stabbing Victim Says He'd Retaliate if Given Chance."
Before providing any details on what happened in the attack and why, the story leads off with, "A Muslim man who was stabbed as he tried to open the door to a Queens mosque says he will strike back if he ever sees his attacker."
I read the headline and lead paragraph repeatedly; I could hardly believe what I was seeing. A man was just beaten and stabbed in a possible hate crime (the article mentions the anti-Muslim slurs), but the story is: "The Muslim may retaliate."
The New York Post's coverage of the incident was similar, leading off with:
A devout Muslim man who was stabbed as he tried to open the door to a Queens mosque on Sunday says his hate-spewing attacker had better watch his back.
'If I see him again, I will kill him from 20 feet away,' 57-year-old Bashir Ahmad told The Post yesterday. 'I will hurt him.'
I imagine I would be extremely emotional after such an attack as well, and while I have never been physically assaulted, I have experienced plenty of racist harassment, including my turban being pulled off on the NYC subway. My emotions ran out of control in the minutes and hours after it happened -- I was fuming with anger, rage, humiliation. I guess I should consider myself lucky that no reporters were there. Apparently the anger of someone with brown skin and a beard makes a more exciting story for the media than the bleak reality of racist violence.
Perhaps we shouldn't even be so surprised by these attacks when the media's depictions of Muslims has become so biased. American media -- including Hollywood -- have long portrayed Arabs and Muslims as barbaric, blood-thirsty caricatures. Things have apparently gotten so out of control that even after a Muslim man like Bashir Ahmad is victimized in such a horrific way, the take home message for the public is still that the Muslim is the aggressor, is suspicious, is a potential threat.
Not long ago, blackface and minstrel shows were commonplace in the U.S. Racial justice activists worked tirelessly to push these sorts of bigoted depictions of black folks to the margins and did so with great success (though the problem is far from solved). We desperately need a similar movement today to uproot Islamophobia from the mass media.