Police: Woman who was told to remove hijab was lying

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

A University of Michigan student whose story was reported worldwide was not telling the truth when she told police she was threatened by a man who told her to remove her hijab and could now face felony charges for filing a false report, Ann Arbor police said Wednesday.

The woman told police that the man would set her on fire with a lighter if she did not remove her hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women, so she complied then fled the area of East William near State Street. Her story appeared in global publications last month couched as a hate crime following the win of President-elect Donald Trump.

But her report did not add up after Ann Arbor and UM police and the FBI interviewed multiple witnesses and reviewed video surveillance in the area of the alleged incident, said Detective Sgt. Matthew Lige of the Ann Arbor Police Department.

“This crime never happened,” Lige said. “It put the Ann Arbor community under significant pressure and put us in the national spotlight and it just did not happen. I have been doing this job for over 20 years and I have not seen a national or a law enforcement-related event that put as much as pressure on us as this report did given the timing that it was reported after the election.”

Trump, a businessman-turned-Republican candidate, was elected president Nov. 8, upsetting the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, who polls predicted would win the race. During the campaign, Trump took controversial positions that have changed regarding Muslims in America. Initially, he called for banning all Muslims. That morphed into a “temporary ban,” and eventually, his “extreme vetting” for Muslims seeking entry into the United States.

After Trump’s stunning election, protests broke out nationwide. Three days later, the UM student made the false report of being targeted because of her culture and the incident became part of the national discussion focused on a backlash against Muslims, and other groups, following the election.

Ann Arbor police quickly made the report a priority investigation with a number of detectives involved. They discovered early inconsistencies in the woman’s version of events and were unable to substantiate the claims with witnesses or video surveillance of the area, Lige said.

Additionally, the alleged incident occurred on a busy intersection near the heart of UM’s central campus, where there are many pedestrians, cars and businesses. But not one person came forward to corroborate the woman’s report, Lige added.

“I am grateful that there was not someone like she described who was approaching Muslim women and accosting them,” Lige said.

The woman, whose name was was not made public, will now face potential felony charges of filing a false felony report of ethnic intimidation.

The police investigation will be submitted to the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office for review.

A leader of the Islamic community in Detroit, home to one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Muslim-Americans, had mixed reactions.

“Unfortunately, there are people who falsely report crimes of various ethnic and religious groups and have different motivations,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “Even though this case appears to be bogus, that does not in any way take away from the real hate incidents that swept our country after the election of President-elect Trump.”

“This bogus case and a few others don’t decrease our concern of intolerance pertaining to people of color across the nation.”

At the time of the incident, CAIR Michigan called it another anti-Muslim incident in the wake of Trump’s election and called for it to be investigated as a hate crime.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, in its fourth update on hate crimes following the election, has culled 1,094 hate crimes in the U.S. between Nov. 9-Dec. 12 — including 49 in Michigan, ranking the state seventh in the nation for the most hate crimes.

The SPLC — an Alabama-based nonprofit organization fighting hate, intolerance and discrimination through litigation and education — also reported that 13 alleged crimes across the nation turned out to be false.

UM’s false incident became a political issue on campus after Trump’s election.

It emerged during a walk-out organized by UM’s Students4Justice. Hundreds of students met on the Diag and marched through many campus buildings before ending on the steps of Angell Hall.

While the walk-out addressed many issues, the last person who spoke addressed the report of the student threatened and asked to remove her hijab. Sophomore Alyiah al-Bonijim spoke before scores of students and said the incident went beyond ethnic intimidation. She called it a sexual assault, because it was the equivalent of telling someone to strip.

But when she learned Wednesday that the woman was not telling the truth, al-Bonijim said she was shocked.

“That’s sad that she would do that,” said al-Bonijim, 19, of Dearborn. “This is happening all over. I don’t think that lying about it has any justification.