'We will have none of it:' fear, optimism among US Muslims

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A Muslim woman talks with immigration experts during a town hall meeting by the Council on American-Islamic Relations(CAIR) at the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center March 17, 2017, in Falls Church, Virginia, where local Muslims met with immigration attorneys, experts in immigration, and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring regarding the Trump administration's "Muslim Ban 2.0". (AFP / PAUL J. RICHARDS)
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Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring delivers remaks during a town hall meeting by the Council on American-Islamic Relations(CAIR) at the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center on Friday in Falls Church, Virginia, where local Muslims met with immigration attorneys, experts in immigration, and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring regarding the Trump administration's "Muslim Ban 2.0". ( AFP / PAUL J. RICHARDS)
Updated 19 March 2017

'We will have none of it:' fear, optimism among US Muslims

CHICAGO, US: In a sprawling banquet hall, Ahmed Rehab walked to a lectern facing a glittering group of diners and launched into a searing speech excoriating the Donald Trump administration.
“This fight is not just our fight, it is America’s fight,” Rehab told the packed room of 1,200 attendees — mostly American Muslims at a fundraiser for the Chicago chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), which Rehab heads.
“As you look at those who are trying to ban good people from coming to this country,” Rehab continued, “people who’ve committed no crime whatsoever other than in their minds the crime of being Muslim... we will have none of it.”
The room broke into applause.
The president’s efforts to institute a ban on travelers from certain Muslim-majority countries have been met with a strong response from Muslim Americans and their supporters.
But there is also fear that Islamophobia is on the rise, and that the Trump administration may still target Muslims.
“There’s a real dread of what’s coming next, what’s going to happen, who will be targeted,” said Louise Cainkar, president of the Arab American Studies Association, and author of a book that examined how Arab and Muslim Americans were affected by policies following the September 11 attacks.
“There’s a sense that they’re going to once again go after civic organizations, possibly surveil mosques, things that have been done in the past,” she said.
What is different now, she said, is that Muslim and Arab groups have established ties with other communities — and demonstrations against Trump’s rhetoric now draw a mix of people from various faiths and backgrounds.
“This is new, and this is really energizing people,” she said.

'Scary environment'
At the banquet hall, those listening to Rehab’s speech had mixed reactions — some concerned, others optimistic because of the sense of cooperation with outside groups.
“My kids are all American citizens,” explained Fraheen Hashmi, a 36-year-old pharmacist with four young children.
“It’s just scary to raise them in this environment,” she said, worried that they might grow up embarrassed of their heritage or afraid to identify as Muslim.
Zayna Saadeh was worried, too. The 59-year-old Palestinian immigrant has lived in the United States for 40 years. But now, she keeps the front door of her clothing store locked for fear of xenophobic attacks. She unlocks only when someone rings the doorbell.
“We’re not stranger(s),” in the United States she said, but“that’s how we feel a lot of times right now.”
Advocacy groups have reported a sharp rise in hate crimes.
Anti-Muslim groups nearly tripled last year, according to an annual census by the Southern Poverty Law Center. And in 2015, hate crimes against Muslims increased 67 percent, according to the FBI.
Those numbers may be going up, amid increasing reports of new incidents.
Last month, an arson fire damaged a Florida mosque, and a Kansas man was accused of shooting two Indian immigrants who he perceived as Middle Easterners, killing one.
This week, the Islamic Center of Tucson reported that a vandal had scattered ripped up copies of the Qur’an, Islam’s holy text, around the mosque.

'The best of America'
But there has also been a rallying response from Muslim groups and supporters, as Muslim-Americans have felt more scrutiny and threats.
During his speech at the banquet hall, Rehab pointed to new allies in the room — non-Muslim lawyers who helped travelers during Trump’s ill-fated first attempt at a ban that triggered chaos at American airports until it was halted by US courts.
“My friends, you are the best of America,” he said.
Other attendees echoed that optimism.
“The negative could be turned into a positive, and I think that’s what we’re seeing now,” said Akif Ali, a 36-year-old born in Houston.
“The best part is that the American public themselves have become very generous to us,” added Saqib Khan, a US-born lawyer of Pakistani descent.
One evidence of the growing support was a gathering at Chicago’s Grace Place Episcopal Church, where about 30 people — many community activists for various other causes — attended a presentation billed as a teach-in about Islamophobia.
Sofia Sami, dressed in the traditional Muslim head covering known as the hijab, stepped in front of a projection screen to help lead the group.
They watched samples of news coverage, discussed their own perceptions, and considered ways rhetoric shapes policies.
Two hours later as people cleared out, Sami reflected on how American politics are changing.
“A lot of people who aren’t Muslims are watching the news and seeking ways to support,” said the 24-year-old first generation American of Indian descent.
CAIR, Rehab’s group, has expanded its capacity in Chicago to take on hundreds of new volunteers, grown its network of schools, mosques and community centers and held know-your-rights training sessions.
“These are definitely times that are rapidly mobilizing the Muslim community, or co-strugglers of color and allies,” said CAIR spokeswoman Hoda Katebi.


East Manhattan a ghost town during UNGA

Updated 23 min 38 sec ago

East Manhattan a ghost town during UNGA

  • General Assembly has gone virtual for first time in its 75-year history due to COVID-19
  • Pandemic has dealt devastating blow to New York’s tourism sector, economy

NEW YORK: Even in a metropolis that draws over 62 million visitors each year, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) is usually one of the most publicized events in New York City. Not so much in 2020.

Outside the UN complex on First Avenue, curbside police barricades line the streets. But there is hardly anyone to see except a policeman, a photographer, and only a trickle of local residents going about their business as usual.

As the UN’s signature big meeting has moved online for the first time in its 75-year history, noticeably absent is the severe traffic congestion caused by police-escorted motorcades whizzing by as presidents, premiers, monarchs and other dignitaries swept across Midtown East for top-level, high-stakes meetings and conferences.

Extensive roadblocks had led the city to declare the second part of September “gridlock alert days.”

This year, no more than 200 New York-based diplomats will be allowed in the Midtown East headquarters, said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the UN secretary-general.

The UNGA is meeting by video because of coronavirus, compounding the pandemic’s blow to the city’s economy.

“Last year during the General Assembly we were at 100 percent occupancy, but since the pandemic everything has come down. We’re now at 20 percent,” Sylvia Natividad, who has been working at the Millennial Hilton across from the UN for the past 17 years, told Arab News.

This hotel is a leaders’ favorite, and Natividad has, along the years, met many heads of state. “It’s hard to be impressed by any of them. You want to impress me? Show me what you’re doing for your people,” she said.

Hotels usually reap about $20 million from UNGA attendees’ room rentals alone. But as she and I chatted, our voices echoed across the Hilton’s large, sumptuous but eerily empty lobby. Only one reporter came in, to ask for the key to the restrooms.  

During the initial coronavirus outbreak, this Hilton offered essential workers over 17,000 free nights.

As the pandemic’s early epicenter in the US, New York saw a 90 percent decline in visitors, dealing a harsh blow to its multibillion-dollar tourism industry.

Last year, according to the city’s tourism agency NYC & Co., visitor spending supported more than 400,000 jobs and generated over $70 billion in economic activity.

The loss of the September swarm of visitors is now mostly felt in the city’s bottom line. Local businesses and their workers hurt the most as they see their income evaporate.

Across on 44th Street, Mona’s Kitchen restaurant owner Oliver recalled the “hustle and bustle” of last year, when on average over 18,000 attendees came through the doors of the UN headquarters daily.

“We had people from all over the world. Security was so tight it blocked off each end of the street. You couldn’t even get down the street without proper clearance and badges,” he told Arab News.

“This year it’s a ghost town. It’s been a ghost town since July. You barely get people walking on 2nd Avenue, so we don’t really get people down here.”

New York restaurants are already straining from a months-long ban on dining out, continuing limitations on table service, and worries about the city’s overall path to recovery.

Mona’s Kitchen made $20,000 per day just from breakfast and lunch this time last year, 50 percent more than on regular days.

“We’ll be lucky to do at least $1,000 today. I’m hoping to do a bit more but I don’t think we will,” Oliver said.

“The only reason we’re able to stay afloat and pay the two, three people I have right now is through the government Paycheck Protection Program. We got the Emergency Disaster Loan also. That allows us to pay rent and utilities,” he added.

“But in the next two, three months, if we don’t see a huge increase in sales and people coming back to the city, it’s going to force us to shut down. I can’t afford to pay rent after a couple of months.”

The UNGA has always coincided with the US Open tennis tournament and New York Fashion Week. For that, September has often brought windfall profits for New Yorkers.

It is a crucial month for the restaurants and bars that cater to world dignitaries, tennis fans and fashion partygoers.

Summer tends to be slow for the food industry, and business owners rely on events such as the UNGA to jumpstart autumn activity.

Beyond the diplomats and dignitaries, the UNGA also brings aides, civil society activists and everyday citizens to New York, showcasing the city to the world.

Now, its tourism sector faces a punishing autumn and winter season. As many as one-third of the city’s 230,000 small businesses will not be able to survive, the non-profit organization Partnership for New York City predicted in a July report.

Poverty and unemployment will rise as tens of billions of dollars are lost in revenue, and tourism will dry up.

Despite the economic devastation of the city, Max Riley, who has been living on 1st Avenue for 20 years, still believes that the UNGA is an “incredible experience every fall.”

Security checkpoints and protests are “a reality we just accept as part of living near the UN,” he told Arab News.

Residents of the east side of Manhattan have long complained about privileged diplomatic parking, illegal parking, traffic congestion and street closures resulting from UN sessions.

However, now the pin-drop silence “is just sad,” said Natividad. “But we’re hopeful everything will come back to normal.”

Riley said: “The entire city is empty. It’s not just this neighborhood. Nothing will change until we have a vaccine, then things will come back. It’ll take a little while. Probably in two or three years we’ll be tired of hearing the word ‘renaissance’.”

Still, despite projections of even deeper economic pain awaiting the city in the months to come, Councilwoman Farah Louis told Arab News: “The economic impact must be weighed against New York’s health and safety.”

Opening up the city would have meant letting a million “potential carriers” of COVID-19 into New York, she said.

“The relative loss of allowing coronavirus to ravage New York once again is much more detrimental to the economy than the relative and temporary tourism industry deficit,” she added.