Kevin Vodak Presents on Hate Crime Prosecution to Law Enforcement Officials (CAIR-Chicago)

Published September 26, 2011 (http://www.cairchicago.org/2011/09/26/kevin-vodak-presents-on-hate-crime-prosecution-to-law-enforcement-officials/)

By Ben Small

CAIR-Chicago Litigation Director Kevin Vodak presented the “Hate Crime and Bias Awareness” conference on September 15th, 2011 to discuss the ways in which law enforcement agencies can improve their procedures and techniques in addressing hate crimes. The conference, which took place at the Center on Halsted, an LGBT community center at 3656 North Halstead, was organized by the Office of Illinois Attorney General in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice and hosted both state and local law enforcement as well as state’s attorneys.

The consensus of the conference was that hate crimes are drastically under-reported. The FBI generates reports on both numbers and types of hate crimes from participating local law enforcement agencies nationwide. However, of the 14,422 agencies in the program in 2009, only 15 percent reported any kind of hate crime at all. This percentage misrepresents the amount of hate crime that transpires countrywide.

With regards to anti-Muslim incidents, there were 107 incidents in 2009, which was a minor increase from the 105 incidents reported in 2008. Evidence suggests that many anti-Islamic hate crimes go undocumented, whether due to the underreporting of incidents by the victims or the under-recording by law enforcement officials. The statistics for 2010 are expected to show large increases in anti-Muslim hate crimes due to rising Islamophobia stemming from high profile campaigns by popular anti-Islam hate figures such as Robert Spencer and Pamela Gellar. In particular, the controversy surrounding the Park51 Islamic Center near Ground Zero created a large amount of hateful fervor.

Vodak sat on a panel alongside two gay rights activists, Candice Hart from Illinois Gender Advocates and Lisa Gilmore from the Center on Halsted, as well as Matt Nosanchuk from the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division of the US Attorney General’s Office.

Vodak explained the story of Amal Abusumayah, a victim of a hate crime in Tinley Park in November 2009, as an example of how to effectively prosecute perpetrators of hate crimes. Abusumayah was shopping at a Jewel grocery store when Valerie Kenney, 54-year old banker, shouted derogatory remarks about Muslims, in reference to the recent Fort Hood shooting, before later trying to pull off Abusumayah’s headscarf. Initially Abusumayah was reluctant to press charges, “I just wanted to forget about the whole thing,” she had explained. “These things are quite common. I thought telling the police was enough.”

Upon later reflection she felt that women don’t report these crimes because they see no point and would rather let the incident slide. She then decided to press charges to send a message that actions such as those of Kenney are completely unacceptable. CAIR-Chicago advocated on behalf of Abusumayah and generated media coverage of the incident in order for her message to reach the general public.

On January 5, 2010, Kenney was charged with battery and aspects of the Hate Crimes Law sentencing guidelines were incorporated into her sentence. She was sentenced to 2-years probation, 200 hours of community service and a $2,500 fine. Furthermore, she apologized in court to Abusumayah, her family and the Muslim community.

The prosecution of Kenney is a strong example of how hate crimes should be prosecuted in order to educate against ignorance and challenge Islamophobia. Vodak hopes his suggestions to the law enforcement officials in attendance will be taken into consideration and used as a framework for action in both Illinois and nationwide.

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Civil Disobedience at the Secure Communities Hearing (CAIR-Chicago)

Published August 29, 2011 (http://www.cairchicago.org/2011/08/29/civil-disobedience-at-the-secure-communities-hearing/)

By Ben Small

On Wednesday, August 17th 2011, CAIR-Chicago staff attorney, Rabya Khan, and communications intern, Becky Fogel, attended a public hearing held by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to discuss the Secure Communities program. The event ended in civil disobedience led by local youth and the arrest of six attendees. The program aims to identify and deport undocumented immigrants that are also criminal offenders. However, it has proved to be more effective at removing non-criminals, breaking up families and instilling fear in innumerable harmless people across the United States. Nearly half of all those that have been deported in Illinois alone have never been convicted of any crime.

Activists from the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) and the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL) gathered outside before the hearing and formed a sit-down protest, blocking a street intersection. They demanded that the only viable solution to the failings of Secure Communities is to terminate the program. The police eventually forced protesters off the streets and the events only caused a slight delay to the proceedings. Yet, the hearing was further delayed when the police stopped letting people into Ibew Hall for the event. Only after the chants of “let them in” rang around the hall and the verification that there was a lawful number of people in the building could the hearing eventually advance.

The board at the hearing was made up of members of the Chicago Bar Foundation, representatives of DHS as well as other attorneys affiliated with immigration organizations. Speeches were made by people who have been affected by Secure Communities. This included an elderly, Caucasian male who has been working in manual labor all his life alongside immigrants. An attorney named Moni Valasquez from the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) had a client affected by Secure Communities speak. The overwhelming feeling at the hearing was that the program is ineffective and the source of fear and injustice for countless within this country’s borders.

The hearing was interrupted by Alaa Mukahhal who commandeered the microphone to launch into a passionate and animated speech about her and her family’s experiences as undocumented inhabitants of the US under the dread of Secure Communities. She rallied the crowd to join her and five others to walk out of the building, right then and there, to intentionally obstruct traffic and put themselves under the risk of being arrested and, thus, potentially deported.

Hundreds of protesters left Ibew Hall and blocked the streets outside for nearly an hour, for the most part, in a relatively placid manner. Trouble eventually ensued when a group decided to block the on-ramp to the Kennedy Expressway. One man in particular was chased down and arrested as he began to make his way to the expressway proper. At this point the protest got physical with three police vans arriving on the scene, arresting five others with makeshift plastic handcuffs and charging them with mob action misdemeanors. They were released at 4am the next morning, ordered to do community service and handed a pending court date of September 8th. Their futures remain in the balance.

Staff Attorney Rabya Khan Meets with High School Regarding Anti-Muslim Worksheets (CAIR-Chicago)

Published August 16, 2011 (http://www.cairchicago.org/2011/08/16/staff-attorney-rabya-khan-meets-with-high-school-regarding-anti-muslim-worksheets/)

By Ben Small

CAIR-Chicago Staff Attorney Rabya Khan met with officials at a Chicago-area high school on Monday, August 15th, regarding a complaint CAIR-Chicago received by a parent alleging that the high school’s social studies class is distributing misleading worksheets on Islam. The worksheets in question, produced by a California based educational resource company, teaches students that the religion of Islam is oppressive towards women, inherently violent, and played an important role in harboring slavery.

One of the readings contains verses from the Quran which are quoted out-of-context wrongly giving the impression that women are considered inferior to men. A corresponding worksheet then asks: “The Qur’an stresses the equality of all believers. Yet many say its views about men and women definitely give men more power. How does the top passage here from the Qu’ran support this view?” The reading is accompanied by a photo of two women in burqa, a full-body covering worn by only a minority of Muslim women worldwide. The inauthentic translation, imagery, and presentation of information leads students to a biased conclusion about the status of men and women in Islam.

Another reading implies that slavery was an encouraged practice in Islam, and then the corresponding worksheet states “Slavery was common in Islam; however, it took several very different forms. […] Prepare a brief talk to the class on what you learn about these two forms of slavery. Title your talk, “Slavery’s Many Forms in the Islamic World.”” Wrongly suggesting some sort of link between slavery and Islam. In reality, the Qu’ran strongly condemned slavery and offered enticing rewards to those who freed slaves. Prophet Muhammad himself freed numerous slaves and the situation for slaves greatly improved with the advent of Islam.

In the textbook “The Rise of the Modern Middle East”, lesson titles include “Islam and Islamic Radicalism”. The parent who brought these reading materials to CAIR-Chicago’s attention expressed concern that that over emphasis on the small number of radical Muslims in the world will reinforce stereotypes that link Islam and terrorism and that students will not receive a balanced understanding of Islam and Muslims.

Rabya Khan met with school officials to convey the importance of presenting balanced perspectives and not perpetuating stereotypes. CAIR-Chicago has requested that the school remove the worksheets, and not use them again or any similar worksheets. Rabya also provided a resource list of organizations that can conduct workshops on Islam, including CAIR-Chicago, and is compiling a list of educational resource companies with balanced materials on Islam and Muslims.

Norwegian Terrorist Associated with Anti-Muslim Groups in the US and UK (CAIR-Chicago)

Published July 26, 2011 (http://www.cairchicago.org/2011/07/26/norwegian-terrorist-associated-with-anti-muslim-groups-in-the-us-and-uk/)

By Ben Small

Some of you may have come across the article that I wrote last week on the English Defence League (EDL), an anti-Islamic street movement in my homeland, Britain.  The article drew comparisons with Islamphobia in the US, particularly among Tea Party constituents.

In the wake of the abhorrent events that occurred last Friday in Norway, information has come to light revealing connections between the terrorist suspect, Anders Brehing Breivik, to the anti-Islam movement in England, as well as to prominent Islamophobes in the US. Do these recent revelations mean that people will begin to identify the extreme right as a terrorist threat and stop assuming that all terror acts are associated with Muslims?

There are unconfirmed reports that Breivik, whose deplorable acts were committed to “save Europe” from Islam, was involved directly with the EDL as recently as 2010 when he attended at least one of the movement’s marches.

Much attention has also been given to Breivik’s championing of the American right-wing, anti-Muslim celebrities Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller who are mentioned numerous times in his 1,500 page manifesto entitled ‘2083: A European Declaration of Independence’.

Breivik cites Spencer’s work as inspiration, saying, “about Islam I recommend everything written by Robert Spencer.” Breivik cites him scores of times throughout the manifesto; he clearly held him in very high regard.

Similarly, he lists Geller among his roll of “decent human beings”, linking to her anti-Muslim blog Atlas Shrugs . The two partners in spreading Islamic hatred together created such anti-Muslim hysteria as the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy and have, interestingly, both vocalized their support of the EDL [although Gellar retracted her support recently when she realized the EDL is also anti-Semitic.

There is no doubt that to, at least some extent, the opinions and thoughts of Breivik have been influenced by the likes of Spencer and Gellar. Whether it actively informed his detestable views or simply made him more comfortable in the fact that he is not alone in what he believes.

Breivik’s relationship with far-right groups in England dates back to 2002, when the seeds of Breivik’s vile hatred were originally being sewn, seven years before the EDL was officially founded. It was then that Breivik allegedly met with other extremists in London to clarify their goal: to establish the Knights Templar Europe, a group that harkens back to the Crusades of the Middle Ages and brings forth those ideas to the arena of modern Europe to campaign against Islam.

Since then he has been in league with those involved with the EDL, whether it be before its founding or after, amassing 600 EDL friends on Facebook and speaking with “tens of EDL members and leaders”, as described in his manifesto.

He even claims to be an important part of the EDL’s foundation, saying “I was one of the individuals who supplied them with processed ideological material (including rhetorical strategies) in the very beginning.” A sobering prospect indeed that the same terrorist that murdered scores of people last Friday served to inspire the formation and the tactics of an anti-Islamic group in England.

Following what I wrote on the far-right threat last week, the events on Friday made very clear the threat cannot be ignored. In fact, the popularity of far-right groups in Europe is increasing as they speak about Islamic hatred on cultural grounds, rather than the racial grounds of the traditional far-right. This is deemed a more acceptable and less irrational for those that feel their cultural values are “threatened”.

The notion of “Eurabia”, which is the idea that due to high immigration and birth rates the European continent will become Muslim, has been snowballing in recognition in recent years. A very popular video with 13 million views on YouTube, entitled “Muslim Demographics”, is partly responsible.

The video is a lesson in scaremongering as it uses incorrect facts and figures to lead the viewer to believe various implausible outcomes for European countries, such as France becoming an Islamic Republic within 39 years. The BBC produced a video countering these claims for the BBC Radio 4 program More or Less that explains how the authors of the original video altered figures to make the situation appear different. It explains that, in general, the science of population demographics to project future population trends is often inaccurate, and I’m sure this is particularly true when the figures are wrong and the authors have a political agenda.

Nonetheless, it is the rhetoric of “Eurabia” in videos such as “Muslim Demographics” and opposition to notions of multiculturalism that inspired Breivik (the word “Eurabia” was commonly featured in his manifesto, alongside “demographic Jihad”) and could serve to inspire others. The fear links the British and the American far-right most notably with groups such as Stop the Islamization of America (SIOA) and their counterpart Stop the Islamisation of Europe (SIOE).

It has even impacted mainstream conservative politics as British Prime Minister, David Cameron, alongside the French and German premiers, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, who have all discussed the failure of multiculturalism. Further, Dutch politician and leader of the Netherland’s third-largest political party, Geert Wilders, regularly spouts his alarm over a Muslim Europe among his peers of more far-right leanings.

These groups and politicians deplore Breivik’s actions but their attitudes are the same. Although Spencer and Gellar’s words do not direct the reader to commit a massacre, there is complicity. When the two of them blame the teachings of Islam for causing terrorism, where do they see their own teachings in the terrorism they inspire? Breivik consumed their views, like millions of others around the world, but was simply more willing to step further in getting his point across. He is certainly a deranged individual but what is to say that there are not many more like him. Not all that make up the far-right are as erratic, unintelligent and disorganized as the thugs that constitute the English Defense League. Some, like Breivik, are calculated, methodical and capable of far greater atrocities than an immature street chant about Allah.

Islamophobia in the UK: The English Defense League (CAIR-Chicago)

Published July 21, 2011 (http://www.cairchicago.org/2011/07/21/islamophobia-in-the-uk-the-english-defense-league/)

By Ben Small

As an Englishman abroad in the United States, something that has truly struck me is the different channels and the vast parity in scale that Islamophobic rhetoric pervades American society in comparison to England.

Obviously there are Islamophobes in my country. The United Kingdom has a Muslim population that numbers almost three million (around 5 percent of the total population, compared to 0.8 percent in the US) and has a rich history of intolerance; from the heyday of the National Front in the 1970s to the more recent exploits of the British National Party, who managed to gain seats in the European Parliament in 2009 before their fall from grace in the 2010 General Election.

Today, it is the hate group the English Defense League’s (EDL) name that is gracing the headlines. Yet, what is comforting about the EDL is the vast majority of England’s population ignores their nonsense as exactly that: nonsense. In fact, counter-protests by groups such as Unite Against Fascism (UAF) often substantially outnumber and outlast any protest by the EDL.

What troubles me about the United States is that Islamophobia reaches out to many more people with much greater success. The Tea Party movement captivates the minds of many using fear, lies and propaganda through prominent politicians, including members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. There is even a whole news channel that is dedicated to transmitting these ideas that stir up anti-Islamic sentiment. Islamophobia has much more power and influence in the U.S. as it finds its way to society through these “legitimate” means in comparison to the illegitimate protests of the EDL. Reports in recent months suggest the Tea Party is forging links with the EDL. Could this have implications for Islamophobia on both sides of the Atlantic?

The Tea Party’s Islamophobic tendencies are clear to see. From their unfounded resistance to Park51, to the email exposed by the Huffington Post that was issued by TeaParty.org, in which they called for a blanketexpulsion of Muslims from the shores of America.

Figures in the Tea Party will slip up in public statements with banal and immature statements regarding Islam that fall in line with their ultra-conservative beliefs. One classic example of this was Tea Party Express organizer, Mark Williams, who referred to Allah as a “monkey God”.

Alongside the Tea Party movement, overpaid right-wing commentators for conservative TV networks and talk radio shows attract millions of viewers and listeners each week. Personalities such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have an insurmountable amount of power to influence the views of swathes of America’s population with misinformed statements that help to spread not just Islamophobic views, but racist and homophobic views too. One must only point to Beck’s ludicrous statement that 10 percent of Muslims are terrorists. Or Limbaugh’s views that the success of Park51 is a win for “terrorists”, comparing it to the Klu Klux Klan erecting a memorial at Gettysburg. Those in the audience who do not seek out or understand an alternative opinion will take these views as fact, encouraging them to adopt an Islamophobic outlook. What these media personalities spout is not the full story or, for the most part, not a story at all.

The EDL on the other hand utilize far different tactics in their spread of Islamophobia. They are the newestgroup making waves across the Atlantic, having formed in June 2009 with the explicit goal to prevent the spread of Islam. Their beliefs stem from passionate national pride combined with the idle racism of working-class pub culture in England.

Although, interestingly, the Muslim population of the United Kingdom, which the EDL target under the guise of patriotism, is said to be more patriotic than the rest of the population, according to a 2009 study.

This study exists in stark opposition to the EDL’s view that Muslims aim only to wreak havoc and “Islamize” the nation. The methods of the EDL are inspired by the violent activity of soccer hooliganism, a subculture that many members claim allegiance to. They are not a political party but merely a street protest movement with membership in the thousands whose ultimate aim, besides the removal of Islam from Britain, is to arouse violence and provoke reaction. Yet, the hateful opinions of the EDL are ultimately no different from the multi-millionaires that grace the media and inspire the political movements of America. Only the millionaires are better trained at PR and infinitely more powerful. One must only point to the incident in which Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams wrote a “satirical” letter from the “Colored People” of America to President Lincoln that praised slavery. This did get Mark Williams fired, but the reference to Park51 as a place for “terrorists to worship their monkey God”, was apparently not offensive enough to warrant an appraisal of Williams’ position in the movement.

Not that this renders the EDL insignificant. Their inflammatory behavior not only inspires pages upon pages of media coverage, but also serves to destroy community cohesion and strike fear into those targeted in the heavily Muslim populated towns and cities that the group seeks out, for example Bradford, Luton and Blackburn. Those protesting emblazon themselves with the St. George’s Cross, whether simply flying the flag or wearing intimidating masks featuring the famous red cross. These masks are designed to simultaneously express their national “pride” alongside hiding the identity of the wearer, in a manner acknowledging the illegality of their behavior, whilst others mockingly wear burqas. They sing inane words to the tune of traditional soccer chants, including the grammatically nonsensical “I’m England ‘til I die”, “we love the floods” in reference to the recent floods in Pakistan and “who the **** is Allah?” There is absolutely nothing peaceful about the manner in which EDL supporters protest and, as such, they consistently crescendo with an outbreak of violence.

In recent weeks EDL activity has increased due to the anniversary of 7/7, a terrorist attack in London in 2005. In the incident, four Islamic terrorists, born in the United Kingdom, coordinated a suicide bomb attack on public transport in the capital, killing 52 people and injuring over 700 more. The EDL use this as a flash point to raise awareness for their cause, with marches occurring in Halifax, Middlesbrough, Plymouth and Cambridge all in the same weekend.

One EDL supporter, Christopher Payne, was arrested for placing a pig’s head scrawled with an anti-Muslim message on a 4ft pole outside of a proposed new mosque site at the end of June. A group of forty people even attempted to intimidate a Muslim European parliament member, Sajjad Karim, outside his home in Lancashire whilst his wife and children remained inside.

When the EDL say they are opposed only to “Islamic extremism”, they routinely attack any semblance of Islam. Members of their 92,000 strong Facebook group spout hateful comments on a regular basis, calling for a “Muslim holocaust” and for anything with the word “Islam” in it to be burned.

What is particularly foreboding about the EDL is that they do not look like they are going to disappear any time soon. In their two year history their support has grown exponentially and the organized marches are increasing in regularity. More concerning is the transatlantic link that is forming between the EDL and the Tea Party here in the U.S.

A Tea Party activist and Rabbi, Nachum Shifren, who is a regular speaker at Tea Party conventions, was invited to speak in London during October last year. In his speech about Sharia law in London he referred to Muslims as “dogs” and said that the EDL would start “the liberation of England from evil”.

Pamela Gellar, a figure growing in prominence within the Tea Party after her involvement with Park51 and Stop the Islamization of America (a registered hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center), publicly supported the EDL and defended their actions. “I share the EDL’s goals,” Gellar said in her blog, “We need to encourage rational, reasonable groups that oppose the Islamization of the west.”

Gellar did withdraw her support of the EDL on 30th June in response to rising anti-Semitism from neo-fascist elements of the movement. It doesn’t bear thinking what would, in her eyes, be ‘unreasonable’ if she did once deem their actions ‘reasonable’. “They [EDL] now have been clearly infiltrated by the worst kind of influences,” she said, “they are now unrecognizable to me.” Her attitude reeks of double-standards when it comes to religious persecution. She clearly has no issue with the anti-Islamic hatred that boils within the EDL, but when their rhetoric has murmurs of anti-Semitism she is quick to dismiss the group.

Whilst the mainstream Tea Party activists may distance themselves from the violence of extreme groups, it is clear that this opinion is not shared by all supporters. The potential financial support from the wealthy Tea Party members could see the EDL’s operations spread beyond a street movement to become a political party up for election. Likewise, could the EDL’s influence be supplanted to the U.S. with greater utilization of guerilla street tactics?

The former seems much more likely than the latter as financial support is far more subtle than the adoption of protest methods that could destroy the reputation of the Tea Party. What’s more, the Tea Party is far more established and powerful than the EDL, likely forming a role akin to a parent in any such relationship between the two. Although Gellar’s rejection of the EDL shows indifference to the Islamic cause, hopefully it is a sign that even the most extreme segments of the Tea Party will continue to distance themselves from this violent group, much like its mainstream constituents do. These Tea Partiers may share the opinions of many members of the hateful and despicable EDL, but they should know when to draw the line on what they publically endorse.