Islamophobia at the heart of a New York murder case
Many New Yorkers were shocked when they learned, during the holidays, that an Asian immigrant was deliberately pushed to his death in front of a subway train. Their shock turned into disgust when it turned out that the motive for the crime was ethnic hatred.
On Thursday, Dec. 27 2012, Erika Menendez, of Rego Park, Queens, pushed Sunando Sen, a 46-year-old Indian immigrant, into the path of an approaching No. 7 train at the 40th Street-Lowery Street station in the Sunnyside neighborhood of the Borough of Queens in New York.
Sunnyside is a relatively small (35,000 inhabitants), but thoroughly ethnically mixed neighborhood. The majority (about 50 percent) are of European descent, mainly Irish, Italian, Jewish, Greek, Albanian, Turkish, Armenian and Romanian. Asian immigrants (from Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) comprise about 25 percent of its cultural mosaic. Latin Americans (from Colombia, Ecuador, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico) account for the rest.
The perpetrator explained her action by telling authorities, conflating Hinduism and Islam as one lump of foreign enemy: “I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers.” She is being charged with second-degree murder as a hate crime.
While the murder itself was obviously the work of a criminal mind consumed with hate and bigotry, the killer’s “justification” may reflect some of the new anti-Muslim propaganda waves, through which some fringe anti-Muslim forces have been trying to foment hatred against Muslims in New York. In her twisted logic, by referencing her crime in terms of what she thought was an acceptable hatred of Muslims and Hindus, she sought to situate the crime in a culturally sanctioned bias.
One such wave is a series of Islamophobic advertisements spread throughout New York’s subways and funded by a hate group called the “Pamela Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative.” The posters feature a picture of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, with misplaced and distorted quotations from the Qur’an.
The campaign rented space in some 40 subway stations in New York. The message of these ads is more sinister than the previous year’s campaign, also in subway stations, which referred to Muslims as “savages” bent on destroying America.
Reaction of most New Yorkers to such ads is that of disgust, disdain or just indifference. However, twisted criminal minds may find comfort in such ads to commit even more violent acts. According to news reports from New York, Erika Menedez has admitted that she had been harassing Muslims for years, since 2001. The killing of Sen was the last outrage of this criminal mind.
Having lived in New York for almost two decades, I know that anti-Muslim and anti-Arab propaganda is nothing new there. Some tabloids and radio and TV programs in the city have consistently portrayed Muslims and Arabs as the sources of all evil, long before Sept 11, 2001. Now there are these hateful subway ads.
However, I also know from living in the city that New Yorkers are very tolerant and sophisticated, not easily affected by such propaganda and would dismiss it as ignorant or politically motivated rubbish.
Some New Yorkers have been so appalled by the new waves of advertisements that they are doing something about them. Last year, religious and civic groups matched the anti-Muslim posters with advertisements, also spread throughout New York subway system, promoting the peaceful nature of Islam and Muslims.
This year, a new campaign is seeking to raise interest through the Internet to push a message of tolerance to counter anti-Muslim ads that have been posted in public transit systems in New York and throughout the United States.
This new campaign, called “Talk Back to Hate,” is seeking to raise enough money to place advertisements in ten subway stations throughout the New York transit system. You can find it on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.
Leading this new project is Akiva Friedlin, a New Yorker who is doing much of the initial work, including much of the online media and social media presence, as well as shooting and editing of the video promoting the initiative.
This is how Friedlin explained to the Internet-based magazine ThinkProgress the motivation for his counter-campaign: “I started the project because, like many people I’ve spoken to, these ads feel like an attack on our most basic communal values. They’re doubly offensive, for both attempting to demonize and intimidate individual members of a particular religious group, and trying to exploit the city’s grief and anger. After seeing the incredible strength and generosity that many New Yorkers displayed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy — the simple decency of people working tirelessly with Occupy Sandy and countless nonprofit and community groups — it seemed especially important to respond with a message that accurately represents the way we try to live our lives here.”