Bilal Askaryar grew up like many kids in the United States. He played in a soccer league, was class president in high school, and celebrated July 4 at Lake Tahoe with fireworks and a family barbecue.
Askaryar, 32, is Muslim. His parents fled Afghanistan in 1990 as the country spiraled into civil war. Askaryar was 5.
“We didn’t know where we were going. We weren’t looking for a ‘better life,’ we were just looking for life,” he wrote in a first-person account for NPR.
They were granted asylum and became United States citizens in 2000. Askaryar said he identifies as an American Muslim, which may be why he said he was the only one to be arrested and charged in February while protesting Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ visit to a Washington, D.C., middle school.
“The first question the police officer asked me was, ‘Where were you born?’” he told Rewire. “I have no idea why that was relevant.”
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Askaryar pleaded not guilty to the trumped up charges of misdemeanor assault and failing to obey an officer. He maintains that he neither provoked nor disobeyed, that there were far more disruptive people there, unless his right to protest as a U.S. citizen constitutes a crime.
“I stand by my act of civil disobedience but it was a wake-up call for me and I got a small glimpse into the systematic discrimination that minorities, especially Black people, face,” he said.
Muslims are among the groups President Donald Trump has repeatedly singled out and targeted. He ran on a campaign promise to ban them and last week shared controversial anti-Muslim videos on social media. The U.S. Supreme Court this week handed his administration the power to execute his campaign promise, by allowing a travel ban affecting some Muslim-majority countries to take effect while legal appeals proceed.
This makes Muslim-Americans more vulnerable to discrimination in the Trump era. Despite the rights of equality and free speech guaranteed by the Constitution, some like Askaryar see their own existence as threatened.
Askaryar, who has a master’s degree in international development and works in D.C., looks back at being arrested at the protest against DeVos as “a spurious attempt by Metropolitan Police” to stifle his freedom of expression and to crack down on protesters.
The case was dismissed with prejudice (meaning that it was closed permanently and cannot be brought back to court) on November 30, he said. But the experience has left him deeply conscious that even though he thinks of himself as an American, many in the current climate do not.
“I choose to believe in the American ideals of freedom and equality for all, but it is becoming increasingly clear that if you are a Black or brown person speaking your mind and engaging in civil disobedience, white people have their case protected and minorities don’t,” he said.
He said there were several people being disruptive at the DeVos protest, including a white woman who had to be removed from the hood of a car, but he was the only one arrested.
Askaryar said he did nothing to provoke, other than peacefully protest. When a white police officer shoved his Black Lives Matter sign and locked eyes with him, Askaryar realized “he could charge me and take away my freedoms in an instant because of his animus.”
The disproportionate criminalization of marginalized groups, particularly Black people, is well documented in the United States. African Americans, for example, are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people, according to the NAACP. Askaryar said he believes he was pulled out because the white police officer was biased against Muslims and immigrants. He may not be wrong. Muslims have been particularly targeted since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, facing increased state scrutiny and controversial policies, being treated like criminals, and living in a climate of fear.
As a junior in high school during the attacks, Askaryar recalls writing a letter to the local newspaper asking the larger community to resist the temptation to associate all Muslim-Americans with “the actions of 11 madmen.”
“Islamophobia is not new. Orientalist attitudes have long portrayed Muslims as some unique religious other. It’s always been a part of this country in its darkest times,” he said.
Where former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked about diversity making the nation stronger, Trump has chosen to vilify all Muslims as terrorists and spread fear about them, as the Atlantic reported.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the Trump administration to temporarily implement the revised travel ban on eight countries, which will effectively ban millions of people in Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad, North Korea, and Venezuela from entering the United States.
The ban allows waivers, must be reviewed every 180 days, and is “not one-size-fits-all,” according to a Trump administration lawyer. A federal appeals court is set to hear arguments from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against it Friday.
“It’s unfortunate that the full ban can move forward for now, but this order does not address the merits of our claims. We continue to stand for freedom, equality, and for those who are unfairly being separated from their loved ones,” Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said in a statement.
Askaryar said he sees this as a continued effort to discriminate against and bar Muslims from coming to the United States and as a nod to the xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment prevalent among swaths of the country’s population.
“When Donald Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States, he swore an oath to protect the Constitution—the First Amendment of which unequivocally states that there shall be no establishment of a state religion in our country,” he said. “By calling for a ‘total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,’ and then enacting that ban, sharing anti-Muslim hate speech via Twitter, and spreading lies about Muslim-American communities, he is not only being unpresidential, he is violating the Constitution.”
While he failed to denounce white supremacy, the Ku Klux Klan, or the white gunmen after the attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Las Vegas, Trump has often made broad statements labeling all Muslims terrorists after a single terror attack by a fanatic, such as the events in Paris and London. With orders like the Muslim ban, he has made it a point to go after Muslims simply for being Muslim, as Slate reported.
Reports indicate that Islamophobia and hate crimes toward Muslims have spiked in the Trump era. A Pew Research Center analysis from November shows that assaults against Muslims in the United States “rose significantly” between 2015 and 2016, surpassing the peak reached in 2001, after the World Trade Center attacks on September 11.
A Pew survey earlier in 2017 found that 75 percent of Muslim-American adults polled reported “a lot” of discrimination against Muslims in the United States; 50 percent felt it has become more difficult to be a Muslim here in recent years and 48 percent say they have experienced at least one incident of discrimination in the past 12 months. Nearly a quarter think racism and discrimination is the biggest problem facing American Muslims today. Most of them feel Trump is unfriendly toward them. But a large majority say they are proud to be American and continue to believe in the American dream, the survey noted.
Hate crime data from the FBI shows a significant increase in incidents in 2016, with 21 percent of them being motivated by religious bias.
“There is no question that the degree and volume of hatred has increased under a man who promised to prevent Muslims and refugees from coming here and has followed up,” Askaryar said. “The fear mongering is so high that people’s lives and safety are at stake.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks hate groups nationwide, has documented a sharp increase in anti-Muslim hate groups.
Heidi Beirich, director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project, recently condemned Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets and executive orders as “harmful” and “dangerous.” She pointed out that anti-Muslim hate groups have nearly tripled and hate crimes against Muslims have doubled since Trump’s campaign.
She told Rewire that this administration is fanning the flames of Islamophobia in the United States with its rhetoric and policies.
“Now that the Muslim ban has gone through, it’s probably going to lead to more of unfortunately what we’ve seen so much of, which is anti-Muslim bias and the targeting of Muslims as somehow particularly prone to terror,” she said. “Once again, it’s the government and Trump acting as though the Muslim community as a whole is responsible for the bad acts of a few. It’s just more Islamophobia in our society and it’s very, very unfortunate.”
Recent incidents indicate that one is more likely to be killed in a mass shooting by a white man in the United States than by a Muslim immigrant. In fact, in the eight months since Trump took office, more Americans have been killed by white American men with no connection to Islam than by Muslim terrorists or foreigners, Vox reported.
Equal rights advocates continue to challenge the president’s travel ban. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has organized rallies in protest and Muslim Advocates and the MacArthur Justice Center filed an amicus brief in Washington state against the ban on Wednesday.
Recently visiting the Islamic Center of Fremont, Askaryar said he was disheartened to find intense security measures in place, from doors having to be shut at all times to security guards manning the prayer spaces.
Aware that his American accent, clothing, and lighter skin color often shields him from much of the bias other immigrants and people of color face, Askaryar said he will continue to fight for equal rights for all and that, “as someone who also identifies as a Muslim, it’s not an easy road ahead.”