It Could Happen Here

At what point will Americans widely acknowledge that white supremacy can be as big a threat to Americans as Islamism?

People take part in a demonstration against the Christchurch attack following Friday prayers in Istanbul, Turkey. The banners read "Say No to Global Terror!"
People take part in a demonstration against the Christchurch attack following Friday prayers in Istanbul, Turkey. The banners read "Say No to Global Terror!" (Murad Sezer / Reuters)

About the author: Talal Ansari is a reporter based in New York, specializing in immigration, hate crimes, and national security.

In the summer of 2017, I found myself in a mosque in suburban Minneapolis where a bomb had exploded not long before. It had already been a busy year for my beat, reporting on Muslim Americans, which had become synonymous with writing about suspected hate crimes, the destruction of mosques, and a constant parade of anti-Muslim rhetoric—from anonymous online trolls to prominent politicians.

I thought back to that morning in Minneapolis when I heard the news that at least one terrorist had murdered 49 people in Christchurch, New Zealand, at two different mosques. The attack was horrifying but also deeply familiar. If I was surprised, it was mostly by the location—a country with little experience of mass shootings.

Eight months before the Minnesota mosque bombing, a white man walked into a mosque in Quebec City and began firing on worshippers, killing six and injuring 19 others. The New York Times reported that he was “fixated on President Trump, the far right and Muslims.” About a month after that, another white man shot and killed two Indian immigrants in a bar in Kansas, believing they were “Iranians.” According to witnesses, he shouted, “Get out of my country,” before opening fire.

For every atrocity, it seems there’s a close call. In 2016, three men plotted to bomb a mosque and apartment complex in Wichita, Kansas, because of its high concentration of Muslims from Somalia. One of them referred to Muslims as “cockroaches.” That plot was foiled.

One militia member involved in the Minnesota mosque bombing, according to the affidavit, said he wanted to “scare them out of the country,” referring to Muslims, “because they push their beliefs on everyone else.” He also said he went through with the bombing to “show them, ‘Hey, you’re not welcome here. Get the fuck out.”

The imam of the mosque pondered in my presence why President Donald Trump was so quick to condemn acts of terror allegedly committed by Muslims and oddly restrained and absent when acts of violence were allegedly committed against Muslims.

“He is the president of this country, and this happened to us. He has to come here and at least express his feelings and say this is bad,” the imam told me.

But the president seems incapable of denouncing violence against Muslims with energy or sincerity. In this way, he is profoundly American.

Muslims here are regularly dehumanized. Even their religion is delegitimized as not a religion, and some have gone so far as to state that adherence to the Muslim faith may be incompatible with the U.S. Constitution.

In 2018, a former colleague and I marveled at how often elected officials seemed to make disparaging statements about Muslims and just get away with it. Similar statements about any other religious minority wouldn’t stand, we thought. We challenged ourselves to find at least one instance in every state. Our analysis revealed that since 2015, Republican officials in 49 states have openly denigrated Muslims and proposed anti-Muslim legislation, typically with impunity. (The exception was Utah, but if we’d extended the time frame from five years to seven, it would have made the list too.)

These facts become all the more alarming when one realizes that Muslim Americans, for all the negative attention they receive, account for an estimated 1 percent of the U.S. population.

The Washington Post reported last year that “over the past decade, attackers motivated by right-wing political ideologies have committed dozens of shootings, bombings and other acts of violence, far more than any other category of domestic extremist.” At what point will Americans widely acknowledge that white supremacy can be as big a threat to Americans as Islamism? That point seems far off; right now, many Americans don’t acknowledge that anti-Muslim bigotry is a problem at all.

This is a country where a politician can say Islam is “a cancer in our nation that needs to be cut out” and remain in office. A nation where people proudly held “anti-Sharia” rallies in 28 cities in 21 states, in 2017.

In 2016, I wrote a story about the shooting death of an imam and his associate in Queens, New York. At first, the police said it might have been a robbery gone wrong. But surveillance footage made the shooting appear more like a targeted assassination than a failed robbery. In response to my story, someone on Twitter sent me an image of Pepe the Frogs (a right-wing meme) in Nazi outfits with blood on their bayonets. The caption: “Did someone say RIGHT WING DEATH SQUADS?” I was mildly alarmed at the time, but laughed it off. I would not have the same response today.

It pains me to write this: There are obvious signs to anyone paying attention that right here at home, Muslims could suffer the same fate as those in New Zealand. But it is more important to realize that, on a smaller scale, Muslims have already suffered that fate.