Hate crimes don’t take place in a vacuum.
At about 8 p.m. on December 27, 2012, Sunando Sen, a 46-year-old graphic designer and resident of Queens, was standing on a New York City subway platform when he was shoved from behind into the path of an oncoming train. A moment later, he was crushed to death.
Police apprehended 31-year-old Erika Menendez and charged her with murder. When asked why she did this, Menendez reportedly told Queens district attorney Richard Brown: “I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers I’ve been beating them up.” Sunando Sen was raised in the Hindu faith in Calcutta, India.
This murder marks the latest in a string of hate crimes directed against Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs and Hindus, including the stabbing of Muslim cab driver Ahmed Sharif in Queens in 2010 and the massacre of Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wis., in 2012.
Subsequent investigations into Menendez’s life reveal that she has a long history of mental-health issues and had committed violent attacks on other people. In this context, it would be easy, as some in the media and city officials have already done, to dismiss this as just another senseless act perpetrated by “some lunatic.” And it’s certainly the case that this country’s mental health system is in dire disrepair. The lack of resources and the persistence of cultural stigma severely limit access to proper mental health care for many who desperately need it.
But there is a deeper fault at play in this tragedy. The actions of Erika Menendez are the most extreme product of a flagrant and pervasive climate of prejudice directed against Islam, and even faiths frequently confused with Islam.
The mainstream media and entertainment industry courses with the poison of Islamophobia. There are action movies like Zero Dark Thirty and critically acclaimed and popular television shows like Homeland that provide ideological justification for the “global war on terror,” torture and anti-Muslim stereotypes.
Then there are the anti-Muslim billboards in the New York City subway system itself. The same Pamela Geller who stoked anti-Muslim hate by organizing opposition to the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” in Lower Manhattan in 2010 is back with a series of Islamophobic public transit advertisements and billboards. These ads have included quotes from the Koran superimposed over pictures of the World Trade Center collapsing on 9/11, alongside calls to support Israeli “civilization” against the Palestinian “barbarians.”
If you’re looking to find those responsible for creating a culture of anti-Muslim, anti-Arab and, in this case, anti-Indian hate, this would be a good place to start.
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HOWEVER, BIGOTS like Geller and the entertainment industry don’t exist in a vacuum. They take their cues from the government itself.
Some examples: The New York Police Department has launched invasive spying investigations into Muslim student associations and community mosques all over the Northeast, but finds no plots and makes no arrests. The FBI sends agents provocateurs into Muslim communities to entrap young people in “terrorist” plots, proving that the only terrorists the FBI are able to catch are the ones they create themselves. And the drone attacks carried out by the Obama administration’s Pentagon have murdered civilians throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan.
On this planet, there is no greater purveyor of violence, destruction and injustice against Muslims and Arabs than the government of the United States. It is this institution that has established Islam as “the enemy.”
And this is not to speak of more everyday forms of Islamophobia on a daily basis–an oppressive matrix of stereotypes, racist comments, snide glances and other forms of overt and covert abuse that have been a regular feature of life in the post-9/11 world.
It is up to all of us to turn the tide and confront the culture of Islamophobic racism whenever and wherever it shows itself. This means challenging every instance of such harassment in whatever way we can.
The murder of Sunando Sen is a tragedy made possible by a climate of hate and bigotry. By all accounts, he was an upstanding and kind man with dreams of his own and a future he was building for himself.
In 2010, it took a mass movement of thousands in New York chanting “As-salamu alaykum! Welcome to New York!” to stop the advance of Pamela Geller’s Tea Party bigots when they challenged the construction of the Park51 mosque. Something like that is what’s needed now.