Seattle-area Muslims face fear, kindness after death

Nina Shapiro
Seattle Times

Seattle – — Ikram Warsame seems as frustrated as anyone that it became accepted as fact that her 16-year-old brother was beaten and pushed off a roof in a fit of anti-Muslim violence.

“We never said that,” said the 18-year-old University of Washington student.

The only thing she said she’s been certain about is that the brother who followed in her footsteps, taking classes at Seattle Central College while still at Rainier Beach High School, did not commit suicide when he suffered a fatal fall Dec. 5.

She, her Somali-immigrant parents and her three surviving brothers and sisters are waiting to hear from police exactly what happened, and if it may have just been an accident. “I’m just asking everyone to stop the speculation,” she added.

But the case has taken on a life of its own, prompting a Twitter feed full of outrage, using the hashtag Justice4Hamza, stories in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and a call from Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant to combat Islamophobia.

The swift and fierce reaction attests to the uneasy emotions felt by many local Muslims amid hostile rhetoric from politicians such as Donald Trump and a flurry of anti-Islamic incidents nationwide sparked by extremist violence around the world. The Washington state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations says it has received reports of more than 30 apparent hate crimes against Muslims this year.

With little concrete information to go on, some assumed the worst when it came to Hamza Warsame, which only added to the climate of fear and anxiety.

“It makes people freaked out,” said Michaela Corning, a convert to Islam. “A lot of us feel like we have to be on extra guard.” Muslim women wearing a headscarf or hijab feel particularly vulnerable, she said, and so some have taken to wearing a hat and turtleneck instead.

At the same time, she and other local Muslims say they have noticed people going out of their way to show support, be it with a compliment about a hijab, a “get-to-know-a-Muslim” event at a Kirkland Starbucks or a Columbia City rally filled with picket signs with messages such as “We love our Muslim neighbors.”

Arsalan Bukhari, executive director of the state CAIR, is kept busy with the darker incidents. Every day, he said, something bad is happening to a Muslim somewhere in the country. For instance, he noted, a Moroccan taxi driver was shot in Pittsburgh last month by a passenger he said was ranting about the extremist Islamic State group.

Leaving aside the mysterious Warsame case, local cases don’t seem to have turned that violent. But they have come close. Seattle police said a ride-service driver recently was called a terrorist and punched in the head by one of three passengers picked up in Southwest Seattle.

In March, a woman wearing a hijab said she was sitting in her car outside of a SeaTac 7-Eleven when a man walked up, accused Muslims of being killers and pulled a gun on her, according to a KIRO-TV report. He left without hurting her. A month before, according to CAIR, a Muslim mom in Spokane was picking up her kids from a school bus stop when she was accosted by a man who tried to pull off her headscarf and threatened to rape her.

“It’s not just Muslims, it’s also people who look Muslim,” said Bukhari, noting that Sikhs, Latinos and African-Americans also have been targeted.

“There is quite a lot of fear. There is no doubt about it,” said Hamdi Abdulle, executive director of the Somali Youth & Family Club in Renton. She said she felt it herself a few weeks ago in downtown Seattle. A middle-aged woman who wears a headscarf, she inadvertently stepped in the way of a car that was maneuvering around a parking spot. She had some mild words with the driver, which didn’t faze her.

Then a man in a truck parked nearby piped up. “You get out of here. You don’t belong here,” she said he yelled at her. Worried he might turn violent, she turned to a colleague she was with and said, “Let’s get out of here.”

In more than 20 years in the U.S., it was the first time she experienced such hateful comments.

“There are always stupid guys,” said her husband, Abdulkadir “Jangeli” Aden Mohamud, a former Somali government official. But, he added, in the same way that people shouldn’t generalize about Muslims because of violent extremists, Muslims shouldn’t generalize about Islamophobia.

He also said he understood that people might have questions about Islam given the terrorism that has happened in the name of the religion. For him, though, that has not led to anything he would call discrimination.

Ahsen Nadeem, in contrast, grew up feeling picked on. Going to high school in Auburn in the years after 9/11, he said he was called “Saddam” and “Osama” by classmates. Nowadays, the 25-year-old learns from youngsters he works with at his mosque, Redmond’s Muslim Association of Puget Sound, the new taunts are “ISIS,” referring to the extremist Islamic State group, or “terrorist.”

Yet Nadeem, who immigrated to this country with his parents when he was 3, grew up to find a “very diverse, very accepting” atmosphere at the University of Washington, where he studies dentistry. Whereas before he felt that he had to be Muslim at home and “American” at school, he began to feel comfortable in his identity as an “American Muslim.”

He became president of the Muslim Students Association on campus for a time and read about Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Muslims brought to this country by the slave trade.

“What I realized is that this feeling that I don’t belong because I’m Muslim is absolutely wrong,” he said. “Muslims built this country.

“This is my country,” he emphasized. “I’m not leaving it.”

The U.S. is S. Adnan Mustafa’s country, too; the child of Indian immigrants, he was born and raised in North Carolina.

And like many Americans, he’s sensitive to the country’s geographic variations. These days, he said, “I would be a little more scared to be in a red state.”

He moved to Seattle a year and a half ago for his wife’s medical residency. He’s a doctor at the Sea Mar Kent Community Health Center. His time here has not been free of bias. A patient once heard Mustafa’s last name and told a medical assistant he didn’t want to be seen by a doctor from another country. But Mustafa sees that as a one-off thing.

For the most part, he said of his life here, “I feel protected.” He cited support “from the top down,” including Gov. Jay Inslee’s welcoming of Syrian refugees and Seattle City Council’s resolution urging residents and officials to ensure the safety of local Muslims.

In Mustafa’s neighborhood, Columbia City, Manny Apostol, raised as a Baptist and working as a dispatcher for the King County Sheriff’s Office, took it upon himself to organize a rally “to let our Muslim neighbors know we stand by them,” Apostol explained. About 80 people showed up for the Dec. 20 rally, including Mustafa, who wore a T-shirt with the slogan “hug a Muslim.”

The doctor said he overheard a woman at the rally asking a hijab-wearing attendee to talk about her experiences with discrimination.

“Yeah, I remember seven years ago, there was this one time on the bus,” Mustafa recalled the Muslim woman saying. He took it as an encouraging sign that she had to reach back to a distant memory.

It’s not distant for everyone, of course, as Ikram Warsame is well aware. Noting the “rising rate of hate crimes,” she said, “everyone feels on edge.”

Yet, encapsulating the dichotomy faced by local Muslims, she said she personally feels no fear, especially given the response to her brother’s death. She and her family have been inundated with sympathetic messages from Hamza Warsame’s classmates, from community members at large and from well-wishers across the country and even the world.

“Honestly, we’ve been having more support than ever before,” she said. “It’s just really heartwarming.”