In March 2011, Mohammed Ezzahir, a Muslim limousine driver of Moroccan origin, picked up two male passengers in Washington, D.C. They asked to be driven to National Harbor, a tourist attraction in the state of Maryland, just a few miles outside the city.
The two men appeared to have been drinking, according to Gadeir Abbas, Ezzahir’s attorney, who works with the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a prominent national Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization. When the passengers inquired about Ezzahir’s’s faith, he replied that he was a Muslim. The response from the two men was: “Oh, so you’re a [expletive] terrorist, a jihadist,” according to an account of the incident provided by Abbas.
Oh, so you’re a [expletive] terrorist, a jihadist.
For the ensuing portion of the ride the passengers continued to mock Ezzahir’s faith, and the rhetoric escalated from there. “If you call the cops, we’re going to kill you,” was one of the threats allegedly uttered.
When Ezzahir pulled up at National Harbor, all three men got out of the car, but before the passengers went on their way, one of them punched Ezzahir in the head, knocking him to the ground and fracturing his wrist. Both passengers ended up being identified and apprehended that very night.
But the story does not end there. The first passenger was never formally charged. According to Abbas, he ended up paying $60 in restitution and the case against him was practically dismissed.
The other offender, according to court records, did get arraigned and charged with second degree assault, reckless endangerment and theft of property or services. But no court date appears to have been set yet.
Abbas says CAIR welcomes the prosecution of at least one of the offenders, but regrets that the alleged actions of both men were never treated as a hate crime, an additional statute that provides for sentencing enhancements.
Hate crimes – the larger picture
The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) defines a hate crime as “a criminal offense committed against a person, property, or society that is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin.” Almost all U.S. states have hate crime statutes, including the state of Maryland, where the offenses against Ezzahir were allegedly committed.
For several years now, the FBI has been tracking hate crimes in the United States. They are divided into the categories of their definition.
In 2010 – the latest year for which figures are available – the FBI documented 6,624 hate crime incidents. Almost half of the cases were based on racial bias, mostly against African-Americans. Just over 18 percent stemmed from religious bias – the category under which anti-Muslim hate crimes are listed. Within that category, cases of anti-Muslim bias account only for 13.2 percent of the total or 160 separate incidents. By comparison, cases of anti-Jewish bias account for 67 percent of the total or 887 separate incidents. The proportion becomes even more disparate if one takes into account that adherents of Judaism make up some 1.7 percent of the U.S. population, with Muslims accounting for about 0.6 percent (Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey).
Why the apparent disparity? One factor, as seems to have been the case with Ezzahir, is that some incidents of anti-Muslim bias just don’t make it into the books as hate crimes. The other, according to Abbas, is – few cases, especially if they affect members of the Muslim community, ever get reported.
It’s more ‘I am Muslim, and this is what happens to Muslims.’
Abbas says that in his experience representing hate crime victims, the decision by victims to keep silent is not a reflection on whether or not police officials will act.
“It’s more an acknowledgment that there is a bigotry that pervades American society, that does inevitably chill that community’s willingness to go to official authorities. It’s more ‘I am Muslim, and this is what happens to Muslims.’”
Abbas adds that he anticipates, at least on the books, a future rise in hate crimes against Muslims.
“Not because of [an actual] rise in violence, but as American Muslims come of age in the United States, there will be a greater willingness to ensure the incidents are documented”, Abbas says.
Newscaster/multimedia reporter at the Voice of America in Washington, DC, for the English to Middle East Team and rotating host of Women Rising.