US shootings reveal dangers of Islamophobia

Sunday 28/08/2016
A Muslim woman and her son walk past a Halal restaurant in the Ozone Park neighbourhood of the Queens borough of New York, in August 2016.

Washington - The killing of an Arab- American man in Okla­homa and an imam and his assistant in New York have left some US com­munities feeling forsaken by law enforcement agencies. The killings occurred at a time of heightened xenophobic and anti-Muslim rheto­ric.

Imam Maulana Akonjee and his assistant Thara Uddin were killed in a brazen attack on August 13th. Security camera footage shows the shooter walking away apparently without attempting to rob his vic­tims, even though the imam had more than $1,000 in cash with him.

Oscar Morel, 35, is in custody as a suspect but the New York Police Department (NYPD) has been hesi­tant to term the shootings “hate crimes”, which is how many within the imam’s Bangladeshi commu­nity see it. Instead, the NYPD has said the motive may have been a “botched robbery”.

Morel, charged with first-degree murder, has declared his innocence. His brother told the New York Post that the family felt animosity to­wards Muslims after the 9/11 terror attacks but no longer did so.

That law enforcement agencies were quick to call a crime “terror­ism” when the perpetrator is Mus­lim but reticent to call an attack on Muslims a hate crime is a common complaint of Muslim and Arab com­munity leaders, who say they feel increasingly targeted as political rhetoric against Islam and immi­grants dominates the presidential election campaigning.

NYPD Detective Ahmed Nasser said he, too, often comes across this sentiment from communities he is in charge of protecting.

“I hear it often and I understand where they’re coming from,” he said. “But, from my own experi­ence, when you talk about biases and hate crime, not just Arab or Muslim, when you look at hate crime you have to look at every an­gle. If it’s motivated by bias, then it’s a hate crime but if motivated by robbery, then it’s a robbery.”

This comes as little consolation to the family of Khalid Jabara, 37, who called police in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, less than two hours before he was fatally shot. His voice during that call betrays an un­settling nervousness.

“I just called you earlier about [my] neighbour,” he said in a tran­script released by the Tulsa World. When the dispatcher told him that police were on their way, Jabara continued to describe a confused scene involving a neighbour and his live-in companion.

“This is an emergency,” Jabara said. “The old man left and he told me that [the neighbour] hit him with the gun and fired it three times somewhere in the house.”

What happened next left the Jabara family flabbergasted as to what they could have done to pro­tect themselves. The alleged shoot­er, Vernon Majors, was known for bigotry and drunkenness and had seriously injured Jabara’s mother by running her over with his car and was arrested and faced criminal charges in that case.

Majors was released from prison on bail in May and, according to the Jabaras, he continued his drinking and xenophobic harassment of the family.

Police said they did not believe they had grounds to arrest Majors. After they left, Majors allegedly walked next door and shot Jabara.

According to police reports, Ma­jors repeatedly referred to the Jabara family, as ‘Ay-rabs’ and ‘Mooslems’ (Arabs and Muslims). The Jabaras are a Lebanese-Christian family.

“Majors remarked that Mrs Jabara and her family were filthy Lebanese and they throw gay people off roof tops,” a police report said.

Rami Jabara, the brother of Khalid, circulated a moving post on Facebook that tens of thousands of sympathisers shared widely.

“As an attorney, I have seen the system fail defendants but it also seems to fail the victims just as much or perhaps more,” he said. “I feel like my family lost, my commu­nity lost… I feel like we did every­thing we possibly could do to advo­cate for and protect ourselves.”