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BY ALINE REYNOLDS | For victims’ families, the tenth anniversary of 9/11 will be a day of mourning and remembrance. For some Muslims and Sikhs, in particular, the anniversary will be a solemn reminder of the racial discrimination and hate crimes they have experienced as a result of the attack.
Such was the message relayed at “Unheard Voices of 9/11, ”a public forum held on Sat., August 20 at the Asian-American/Asian Research Institute of the City of New York in Midtown.
“It’s critical that we have an event like this to ensure these stories and our communities’ experiences are not lost,” said Sapreet Kaur, executive director of the Sikh Coalition, the event’s organizer.
Kaur was joined by a professor from NYU Law School, a representative from the U.S. Department of Justice, and several civil rights attorneys who spoke and listened to testimonies from citywide Muslim and Sikh civilians.
Muslims, South Asians, Arabs and Sikhs, all spoke of their experiences in school and the workplace. One of them, Gurwinder Singh, was punched to the ground in his neighborhood. Another, Gehan El Sayed, was ridiculed by her peers for wearing a hijab, a Muslim head covering. Workers from the Metropolitan Transit Authority testified that their jobs have been threatened because of wearing religious clothing.
Federal law grants all youths the right to attend schools that are free of discrimination and harassment, according to Eric Treene, special counsel for religious discrimination for the U.S. Department of Justice.
“It’s illegal for schools to allow harassment and discrimination to go on,” said Treene. Similarly, Treene added, people shouldn’t have to choose between their jobs and openly displaying their faith.
Muslims Downtown have also felt victimized since 9/11. Tribeca resident Ameena Meer, a Muslim of Indian descent, said she has experienced and witnessed racial bigotry several times since 9/11, particularly in the months after the attack. Meer has a vivid recollection of crossing Canal Street and being spit at by a pack of men. She was wearing a Sari, a traditional dress worn by Indian women. “They said, ‘we’re going to bomb you guys right back to the stone age.’ The policemen just stood there and watched, and didn’t say anything,” said Meer.
While Meer didn’t feel personally offended, she said, “It made me feel frustrated that people were so quick to associate Muslims with terrorists.”
Two weeks after 9/11, Meer recalls sitting in Tribeca Grand Hotel and watching her friend, actor Waris Ahluwalia, get pushed onto a sofa by three large men. Shortly after that, she said, Ahluwalia was beaten, on a seperate occasion.
And, just two years ago, Meer was falsely stereotyped in a work meeting when a co-worker equated Jesus-believing Jews with Muslims that are pro-Israel. “I said, ‘I’m a Muslim and I’m not against Israel.’ Everybody sort of looked at me, and the whole room went quiet.”
The xenophobia she and other Muslims have experienced, Meer said, is misplaced. “Having immigrants in the U.S. makes us more able to compete in the global marketplace,” said Meer.
“It’s just ignorance — nothing else,” said Lena Alhusseini, a Muslim immigrant from Jerusalem who has lived in Battery Park City for five years.
Though she hasn’t personally experienced racism, Alhusseini felt slighted by the swarms of protestors that gathered at Park Place for demonstrations against the Park51 Islamic community center last year.
“I was surprised by some of the things I heard and saw,” said Alhusseini. “It made me feel like, ‘wow, there are people who are really intolerant and hate without understanding or trying to educate themselves.’”
Nationwide, anti-Muslim crimes increased by 17 times in 2001, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Police Department received 103 reports of hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims in the three months following the 9/11 attacks. But it didn’t stop there: the Council on Islamic-American Relations online reported backlash discrimination against Muslims from September 11, 2001 through February 2004. Just last summer, a college student stabbed a Muslim NYC cab driver.
The city has still not implemented a mitigation plan, something that the Sikh Coalition is strongly advocating, according to Kaur. “If first response officers fail to properly identify a hate crime, these crimes will never be properly prosecuted,” she said.