'Unprecedented' anti-Muslim backlash in post-Paris US

People protest the welcoming of refugees in Olympia, Washington on Nov 20, 2015.
People protest the welcoming of refugees in Olympia, Washington on Nov 20, 2015.AFP

NEW YORK (AFP) - Acts of vandalism against mosques, anti-Muslim threats and fear have reached an unprecedented level in America since the Paris attacks, fuelled by right-wing intolerance in the presidential campaign, activists say.

"In such a short period - it's what makes it unprecedented," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council of American-Islamic Relations (Cair), the country's largest Muslim civil liberties group.

Since Nov 13, Cair has documented dozens of anti-Muslim incidents, including shots fired at the Meriden mosque in Connecticut, vandalism at an Islamic centre in Pflugerville, Texas, where the door was smeared in excrement, and graffiti at an Islamic centre in Omaha, Nebraska.

In Texas alone, half a dozen infractions have been reported: the outside lights and door of a mosque in Lubbock were broken; in Corpus Christi, the Islamic centre received a threat calling on worshippers to convert to Christianity "before it was too late."

In Irving, Texas protesters gathered outside an Islamic centre to denounce "the Islamisation of America." And a man in military fatigues, carrying a large backpack and an American flag, barged into a mosque in San Antonio to berate worshippers.

That incident prompted a school attached to the mosque to cancel classes and revise its security measures.

Cair says shots were fired on the house of a Muslim couple in Orlando, Florida, a woman wearing a headscarf was called a "terrorist" in Cincinatti, Ohio, and a Christian Ethiopian taxi driver mistaken for a Muslim was beaten and threatened by a passenger in Charlotte, North Carolina.

"We had spikes in anti-Muslim hate crimes, but over longer periods, and not so concentrated," said Ibrahim.

After the 9/11 Al-Qaeda attacks, there were also "a lot, but there was also a lot of support for the Muslim community," he said. "We are not seeing that so much any more."

Just six days after the Sept 11 attacks, president George W. Bush visited a mosque, where he spoke against the harassment of US Muslims and Arabs, and called for respect of Islam.

"President Obama has never been to an American mosque," Ibrahim told AFP, recalling Bush's visit.

Activists say the anti-Muslim rhetoric, already high after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris in January, is being fuelled by extreme right discourse by Republicans in the election campaign.

"I think we are seeing the mainstreaming of anti-Muslim hate... that gives a false sense of legitimacy to those who would carry out hate crimes," Ibrahim told AFP.

He accused political leaders of not responding and of "not pushing back against this rise in anti-Muslim hate."

Donald Trump, the billionaire Republican frontrunner in the race for the White House, said at a recent rally that Arab people in Jersey City had celebrated the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11.

"Thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down," he alleged.

The comments sparked a furious backlash from Jersey City, rival presidential candidates and fact-checkers.

But Trump stuck to his guns. He prompted further outrage with a call for all Muslims to be registered in a government database.

Half the nation's governors have declared Syrian refugees persona non grata, and last week the House of Representatives voted to suspend Syrian and Iraqi refugee arrivals until a stricter vetting process is in place.

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, number two in the Republican race, has compared Syrian refugees to rabid dogs.

Imam Shamsi Ali, director of the Jamaica Muslim Centre in Queens, New York, said the Paris attacks had a "very negative impact" on the Muslim community, particularly in campaign season.

"Muslims are worried," he told AFP, saying the worry extended to the Muslim community across the border in Canada.

While there had been no incident, he said he asked the police for extra security at the Islamic center, and had been "very happy" with the way police had responded.

There are an estimated seven to 10 million Muslims in America.

"This kind of rhetoric is not American," Ali said. "This country respects the right of everybody to live and practice their religion. This country embraces immigrants," he said.

"Our loyalty to this country is not less than anybody else."