A few weeks before white supremacist Jeremy Christian allegedly stabbed two people to death on a Portland train for standing up to racist harassment, Arsalan Bukhari, the executive director of the Washington chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), stood before more than 1,000 people in Bellevue's opulent Meydenbauer Center. In his eight years working for the largest and most influential Muslim civil-rights organization in the United States, Bukhari had never seen so large a turnout for a local event hosted by the nonprofit. It was an extraordinary success. But as he would point out in his speech, these were extraordinary times.
An illustrious lineup of guests spoke at the May 7 dinner, including Washington State attorney general Bob Ferguson, who mounted a legal challenge to Trump's Muslim travel ban, and Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father who delivered a prime-time speech on the final night of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
A festive ambience at this year's dinner reflected the early victories for the American Muslim community in the ongoing battle against what many perceive to be President Donald Trump's anti-Muslim agenda. Tailored Italian suits, flowing North African djellabas, designer hijabs, and vibrant salwar kameezes showcased the ethnic and geographic diversity of a religious tradition whose close to two billion adherents span the continents. A bystander could have easily mistaken the event for a large Muslim wedding.
There was certainly much to celebrate—federal judges had recently blocked Trump's repeated attempts to institute a travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries. The sold-out fundraiser raised a record-breaking $260,000 in a single night.
But, as the Portland killings demonstrated, it will take more than fundraisers and rallies to push back against the hate directed toward Muslims. Since Donald Trump's political ascendance, American Muslims have experienced a sharp uptick in hate-motivated violence and harassment. Numerous polls show that Muslims have become the most hated religious group in America, even more hated now than in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
Even liberal Seattle can't escape the hate.
Though Seattle and Washington State emerged as leaders in the resistance to the president and his anti-Muslim policies, the region has not been spared the bigoted and often violent consequences of Trump's rhetoric. Over the course of 2016, the CAIR Seattle office fielded more than 250 complaints of anti-Muslim incidents from across the state. Recorded incidents ranged from schoolyard bullying and street harassment to malicious beatings and vandalism of mosques.
In January, one week before Donald Trump was sworn in as our 45th president, an arson at a mosque in Bellevue—less than three miles from where the CAIR dinner was held—destroyed half of the building. Non-Muslims, too, have suffered the consequences of this rising tide of hatred, as evidenced by the March shooting of a 39-year-old Sikh man in Kent. The victim, who was wearing a turban, was working on his car in his own driveway when a white assailant yelled, "Go back to your own country," and pulled the trigger.
Flanked by three large American flags, Bukhari took a deep breath and greeted the audience: "My friends, you are here tonight because you know that we are in what might be the most consequential time of our lives."
On June 14, 2016—seven months after Donald Trump announced his plan "for a complete and total shutdown of Muslims coming into the United States," and five weeks before he accepted the Republican nomination for president—a 37-year-old Seattle man wrote a Facebook post threatening to go on a shooting spree at the Idris Mosque in Northgate. He claimed to possess an assault rifle and ammunition. The Seattle Police Department responded to the man's Greenwood Avenue home, where he barricaded himself inside. With more than a dozen police and SWAT vehicles surrounding his property, the man surrendered after a brief standoff.
Nearly one year later, congregants packed the Idris Mosque for the third night of Ramadan, a holy month when practicing Muslims abstain from food and water from dawn until dusk. Over the weekend, Jeremy Christian—a heavyset man who was known to local authorities and journalists as a racist extremist—boarded Portland's MAX light rail and allegedly began harassing two African American women, one of whom was wearing a hijab. Christian stabbed three men who attempted to intervene in the harassment. Two of them died.
The anxiety of the worshipers at the Idris Mosque in the wake of this harrowing episode became apparent even before I set foot on the property. As I took photos with my camera from across the street, two men nervously pointed at me from the mosque's parking lot. One of them eventually pulled out his phone and began recording. "With everything that's going on, you can't be too careful," he said after I explained my presence.
Inside the mosque, Mostafa Aly, an affable 40-year-old Egyptian man, broke his fast with a date in accordance with Islamic tradition. Aly has attended the Idris Mosque since he moved to Seattle to enroll in graduate school at the University of Washington 17 years ago. He came to Seattle with a background in programming and hoped to obtain a master's degree. But Aly's father, who financed his education, passed away before he completed the program. He was left with no choice but to start over.
Over the next few years, Aly developed a passion for cooking and spent many years working in restaurants across Seattle. "I taught myself, I took classes, I worked at all sorts of restaurants—American, Italian, Middle Eastern," he recalled. In 2010, he achieved his ultimate goal of starting his own place, opening Shawarma King on University Way, an establishment that would quickly become a neighborhood staple.
"This incident in Portland was shocking, of course," Aly said. "But these things have been getting worse for the past few years now." He feels the current animosity toward Muslims in America has surpassed post-9/11 levels.
The data seems to bear those feelings out. Just after Trump was elected in November, the FBI reported that 2015 saw the highest number of anti-Muslim hate crimes since 2001. Though the official 2016 hate crimes statistics won't be released until November, CAIR has just released a report showing a 57 percent increase in violence and harassment of Muslims and those perceived to be Muslims across the country in 2016.
Like many other Muslim Seattleites who were interviewed for this story, Aly offered a simple explanation: "It is all Trump," he explained. "He activated something terrible that was latent. And now there's no going back."
A Quinnipiac University Poll from December 2015, the month Trump announced his Muslim-travel-ban proposal, found that roughly half of all Republicans believe "mainstream Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims." Another poll at that time found that two-thirds of Republicans and half of all Americans believed Muslims living in the United States aren't doing enough to combat extremism in their own communities.
"Trump knew what he was doing," CAIR's Bukhari told me. "He was tapping into a fear that was already there, a fear that had been building up for more than a decade." Unlike many politicians, pundits, and American citizens who were dismissive of Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country, Bukhari and his colleagues believed Trump was serious. "We immediately began laying the groundwork for a legal challenge to this proposal," Bukhari asserted.
Though Trump isn't solely responsible for creating the atmosphere of anti-Muslim hatred that has proliferated throughout the country, he harnessed the toxic energy that had been building since 2001 and transformed it into something even more dangerous. At the height of the 2016 campaign, researchers at Georgetown University published a 72-page report titled "When Islamophobia Turns Violent: The 2016 US Presidential Elections," outlining a surge in anti-Muslim violence throughout the Republican nomination process and particularly after Trump's Muslim-travel-ban proposal.
Muslims in Washington State and Seattle have not been spared. Many of the state's 55 mosques and their respective communities have been targeted. Last spring, Peter Zieve, CEO of aerospace supplier Electroimpact, spearheaded a campaign to oppose the construction of a mosque in Mukilteo. On top of incidents at the Northgate and Bellevue mosques, a mosque in Redmond also reportedly faced repeated vandalism in the immediate aftermath of the election.
"My wife wears the hijab, and now strangers often treat us with racism and anger when they see it. It didn't used to be like this," said Aly, who is the father of three young children. Not unlike what the two African American women faced on Portland's MAX light rail, Aly recounted a series of incidents during which strangers harassed his family after they saw his wife's head scarf. These encounters ranged in severity from a routine but relatively benign middle finger pointed in his direction by passing motorists to a disturbing incident involving a man driving a large pickup truck, which he aggressively backed into Aly's vehicle during a traffic stop and then sped off.
Aly's wife participates in an online support group for Muslim women in the area, which has become an outlet for women wearing hijabs to share their experiences of being targeted. One woman wrote that a group of white women pulled off her hijab and yelled racial slurs while she was shopping with her daughter at the Walmart in Federal Way. Another recounted being spit on by a commuter while she was riding a bus from North Seattle to downtown.
Husam Rabi, a 57-year-old senior engineer at a major Seattle company has heard similar stories from women who attend his mosque. Rabi, who has served as a volunteer imam in Bellevue, Everett, and Kent, advised women who wear the hijab to take extra precautions, such as always carrying pepper spray to ward off would-be attackers and avoiding walking alone in public at night.
Maria Islam, a 28-year-old University of Washington medical student who has attended a number of mosques over the years that she's lived in Seattle, including some of those that were targeted, wasn't surprised that violent and hateful incidents were happening here. "To grow up as a Muslim in America is to be desensitized to these traumatizing incidents, because we've been experiencing them for almost two decades now," Islam said.
Despite living in a city where only 8 percent of voters chose Trump, where the embattled mayor delivered his most recent state of the city address from a mosque, and where thousands turned out to protest the administration's travel ban executive order—Seattle, like most progressive parts of the United States, is still a short drive away from Trump country.
Nonetheless, support for local Muslim communities from the general public and elected officials in the area has not gone unnoticed. Rabi found comfort in the response of the non-Muslim community and of local officials to hate incidents. "The mayor of Kent, the police chief, and Governor Jay Inslee have been incredibly helpful," he said. "I feel proud to live in Washington State, having open-minded, supportive government officials who have taken a stand on behalf of an embattled minority group."
Maria Islam, who is from Texas, "where most of the leadership openly espouses anti-Muslim views and policies," agreed: "What's been happening in Washington State at an institutional level is unfathomable to [my family back home]."
All the Muslim Americans interviewed for this story agreed that outreach to non-Muslims was the only antidote for the epidemic of hate that has consumed the country. For Rabi, these efforts include giving lectures at churches and community centers to foster understanding of Islam and Muslims. But he stressed that for those who are suspicious of Muslims, simple day-to-day interactions serve an important humanizing function.
"Our neighbors around here have been unbelievable," said Aly, pointing to a wall decorated with supportive postcards and letters steadily sent to the mosque since the election. But for Aly, who sold his restaurant in 2013, this may not be enough to make up for the threat of violence he and his family are living with. "I know some Muslim families in the area who have left the country because of this toxic environment," he said. "Honestly, it's not safe anymore."
Aly's wife and his three children are all natural-born American citizens. Since coming to the United States from Egypt, Aly had never given any consideration to leaving. "You are always home here," implores one of the signs posted on the fence surrounding the Idris Mosque.
"For the first time in my life," Aly said, "I'm not so sure."