On March 26 a delegation of interfaith leaders met with concerned community members at the Colorado Muslim Society, the largest mosque in the Rocky Mountain region, to openly denounce Islamophobia at “Building Bridges With the Muslim Community.” The gathering was organized by the newly formed Coalition for an Inclusive Colorado, and offered breakout talks on everything from Islam 101 to a crash course on bias-motivated crime, otherwise known as hate crimes. The event was spearheaded not by a follower of Islam, but by a Japanese-American man who felt it was his duty to aid a community in need.
On February 19, 1942, Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order to deport and incarcerate more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans in the wake of the bombings at Pearl Harbor the previous December. The effect of that order hit citizens across the country; one of those camps was located in southeastern Colorado. Seventy years later, this dark time in U.S. history inspired Allegiance, a Broadway musical starring sci-fi and Twitter celebrity George Takei, who was himself interned at one of these camps as a child.
“It was very powerful,” says Gil Asakawa, longtime Denver journalist (he was Westword's first music editor) and author who saw the show last November. Just two days later, extremist attacks on Paris sparked loud anti-Muslim rhetoric from presidential candidates. With a trip to the World Trade Center Memorial already scheduled for the next day, it was as if the universe had conspired to deliver a message to Askawa.
“That’s like three things in a row where you see ethnic hatred, hate speech, locking up an entire community on the basis of how they look,” he remembers. He returned home from his trip to New York with a mission, and he founded Inclusive Colorado soon after.
A partnership between a slew of religious communities and civic leaders, the organization bills itself as a nonpartisan coalition motivated to “challenge our state to open their hearts, arms and minds to all those who seek to call Colorado home.” The group is currently focused on Islamophobia.
“Building Bridges” comes at a time when hate crimes are down overall, though not in cases against Muslims, according to a report by the FBI released last November that tracks through 2014. Any effect of election-year fervor is not reflected in that report, and an analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center suggests that “anti-Muslim hate crimes seem bound to rise again in 2015.”
“There are many people I’ve spoken with, older people, who feel as if Islamophobia today is much worse than during 9/11,” Aisha Mohamed, president of the Muslim Students of America CU Denver chapter, told the crowd. During the conference, Mohamed and other young people gathered in a quiet room where they could share their own experiences; one student said she was recently spit on by an angry passerby while at school.
“Me, personally, I kind of feel afraid to be going out with my hijab,” said Mohamed, who added that she doesn’t go out alone anymore. She hasn’t always felt this way. In fact, Mohamed can pinpoint the incident that brought on her fear: the execution of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill in February 2015. Recent comments on the campaign trail have only made things worse, she told the group.
“Obviously, the rhetoric with the political landscape right now, that’s created an uptick” in apparent racism, said Neeti Pawar, founding president of the South Asian Bar Association. Her presentation offered a legal perspective on hate crimes, suggesting that the issue is more serious than official data indicates, since many victims of such offenses don’t report the crimes.
Though she’s not Muslim, Pawar has plenty of reason to feel personal involvement in the struggle. Hate crimes against people filed in the FBI’s “Asian” category seem to correlate neatly with similar crimes against Muslims with eerily similar numbers. This could point to an ignorance by would-be attackers who might confuse, say, an Indian immigrant with a Syrian one. Indeed, only four days after the attacks on the World Trade Center, an Indian Sikh and an Egyptian Christian were gunned down in two different states, crimes that have become symbols of fear in brown-skinned communities.
Two graphs demonstrate that while reported attacks on Muslim and Asian communities have risen in the last two years, those attacks are drops in the bucket compared to similar incidents involving other communities.
In the wake of those tragedies, one particular group saw the writing on the wall. “The Japanese-American community was the first to come out after 9/11 to publicly say in a press conference, ‘Do not go down this path,'” said Asakawa. “I was proud of the Japanese-American community for doing that.”
Mayor Michael Hancock welcomed the crowd, which included members of the Aurora Police Department, the Boulder District Attorney's Office and other law enforcement agencies; Sikhs, Jews, Muslims and Christians were all in the audience, ready to talk about Islamophobia and the days ahead. As the world deals with fresh terrorist attacks in Brussels, Pakistan and Algeria over the past ten days and as the presidential campaign inches toward November, the Coalition for an Inclusive Colorado has plenty of material to work with — and lots of work to do.
Keep reading for more photos from "Building Bridges With the Muslim Community."