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A few weeks ago, Rep. Peter King of Long Island stirred up simmering prejudices with congressional hearings on Islamic “radicalization” in the U.S., which yielded little actual information about security risks and spread plenty of misinformation about Muslim communities. On Tuesday, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois tried to counterbalance King’s blatherfest with a hearing on Muslim Americans’ civil rights. And this time, we did learn something: the bias against Muslims takes many forms other than police harassment, unjust detention, or even the occasional bomb plot. Pervasive anti-Muslim and anti-Arab discrimination impacts people’s lives at the intersection of workplace rights and civil liberties.
Employment discrimination surfaced as a key issue during the hearing — and a textbook example of the low-grade alienation that Muslim, South Asian and Arab communities encounter every day.
Sen. Durbin noted in his introductory remarks, “Some have even questioned the premise of today’s hearing: that we should protect the civil rights of American Muslims. Such inflammatory speech from prominent public figures creates a fertile climate for discrimination.”
As if on cue, King made a comment to Fox News that fell, not unexpectedly, somewhere between a slur and a hallucination: “This just perpetuates the myth that somehow Muslims are the victim of Sept. 11.”
All the political static surrounding the hearing unfortunately may have drowned out alarming testimonials about discrimination. Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez, of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, testified at the hearing that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commision (EEOC) registered “a 150 percent increase in complaints of discrimination against Muslims since 9/11,” which of course doesn’t cover the incidents people were too intimidated to report:
Many cases involve blatant, intentional discrimination such as an EEOC case filed during the Bush Administration on behalf of two Iranian Muslim employees of a car dealership who were repeatedly harassed by management, called unspeakable words, terrorists, “camel jockey,” and other epithets. Similar cases have been brought during the Obama Administration.
Last year, the New York Times quoted Mary Jo O’Neill, an attorney of the EEOC’s Phoenix office: “There’s a level of hatred and animosity that is shocking… I’ve been doing this for 31 years, and I’ve never seen such antipathy toward Muslim workers.”
The hearing discussed a workplace discrimination lawsuit filed against the Swift meatpacking company by 160 Somali and Muslim Americans, alleging that “Managers, supervisors and other employees regularly throw blood, meat and bones at the Somali and Muslim employees.”
Also noted was the religious discrimination case of Safoorah Khan, a Muslim school teacher in the Chicago area who in 2008 “was forbidden to take an unpaid leave for a pilgrimage to Mecca, a requirement of her faith.”
No excuse to miss work, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham. He suggested that a pilgrimage to another continent was roughly equivalent to an extended egg hunt and church potluck:
Now put yourself in the school district’s position… You know, I’m a Christian. I don’t believe there’s anything in my faith that says that I get three weeks off to observe Easter on any particular year.
Of course, if Graham wanted a quick lesson in how jingoism and bias play into the public education system, he could have referred to the plight of educator and activist Debbie Almontaser, who was appointed to head an Arabic-language themed school in Brooklyn but saw her dream derailed by a virulent smear campaign. (Though her civil rights grievances were eventually validated, she was never reinstated.)
Pakistani immigrant Mohammad Kaleemuddin recalled in a Times interview last year that his coworkers at a construction company sometimes pelted him with epithets like “terrorist” and “Osama”:
“It was very rough,” said Mr. Kaleemuddin, who was fired after protesting to management about the ethnic slurs. “It brought a bit of terror in my chest. I’d wonder, ‘Why are they doing this? I’ve always been nice to them.’ ”
In precarious workplaces, a hateful interaction can turn downright deadly, such as the stabbing of a Muslim cab driver in the midst of midtown traffic.
As reports like this pile up, Muslim Americans are pressed further to the margins of their communities and workplaces, breeding mistrust resentment, and perhaps, over time, even more violence.
In our public discourse, news of garden-variety violent hate crimes is safely quarantined as the work of looney “fringe” elements. The subtler cumulative insults and indignities in everyday settings, however, extend the bounds of “acceptable” discrimination and entrench systemic barriers to economic opportunity. While the public attacks against Muslims on Capitol Hill grow more shrill by the day, the soft terror suffered by workers in our neighborhoods carries a much more dangerous tone: silence.
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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.