More News:

October 27, 2023

'It feels like 9/11 all over again': Harassment against local Muslims and Arabs on rise amid Israel-Hamas war

A Northeast High teacher describes being confronted about her keffiyeh, a mosque in South Philly was vandalized and others have been call 'bombers' and 'terrorists'

Religion Harassment
Anti Muslim hate crimes keffiyeh Mandi Wright/USA TODAY NETWORK

The keffiyeh, shown on a woman above, is traditionally worn around the head or neck, and is a symbol of Palestine. Northeast High teacher Keziah Ridgeway says she was wearing one when she was harassed outside a Starbucks.

Keziah Ridgeway was on her lunch break between teaching classes at Northeast High School when she decided to run to Starbucks.

Ridgeway had been to the coffeeshop at Cottman and Bustleton avenues, just a 4-minute drive from the school campus, before. But when she parked her car outside on Oct. 18, something unexpected and upsetting happened. As she approached the entrance, a keffiyeh wrapped around her neck, she said a man exiting the store started yelling at her. He was not speaking in English, but Ridgeway said she recognized the language as Hebrew.

The encounter only lasted "maybe a minute" before the man got in his car and drove off, she said. But Ridgeway, who is Muslim, was so shaken that she has not returned to that Starbucks since, and has warned her Arab and Muslim students to watch out for the man.

"He was just so angry," she recalled. "He did get in his car and he pulled away. And I'm thankful for that. So I didn't get physically hurt. But I think about the fact that my kids, my students, they walk up the street and they walk past that Starbucks every day. And many of my students wear keffiyeh. And my worry is that they will encounter him or someone else who will see that they're a kid and maybe feel emboldened to do more than just yell."

An employee at the Starbucks at Bustleton and Cottman avenues said on Tuesday the staff was unaware of the encounter Ridgeway described, but that anti-Muslim incidents had occurred at the store before. A woman in a hijab was harassed at the location last year. On Friday, Philadelphia police said they had no reports of anti-Muslim incidents at that location in 2022 or 2023.

Ridgeway's story is one of several that Muslims in Philadelphia have been sharing in the weeks since Hamas attacked Israel, and and Israel retaliated with airstrikes in Gaza. The Philly chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said Monday it is investigating multiple cases of Muslim people being harassed at schools and helping several mosques apply for state grants to increase their security.

Police are investigating an act of vandalism at the United Muslim Islamic Center in Point Breeze that occurred last week, which CAIR leader said should be treated as a hate crime. The building and a neighboring senior care center, which is not affiliated with the mosque, were covered in graffiti reading, "Muslim Men are stupid and dumb" and other Islamophobic statements.

Police on Friday said the investigation into the mosque vandalism is ongoing and provided no other details.

Ahmet Tekelioglu, the executive director of CAIR Philadelphia, said there has been particular demand for the group's "Know Your Rights" materials, which lay out legal protections and guidance for responding to potential hate crimes.

"We are hearing from community members who are saying that they are afraid to put on a headscarf," he said. "Students (are) being called names — bomber, terrorist. 

"The overall aura of bias and of not feeling safe is now commonly shared in our community."

In an Oct. 18 statement, the FBI noted an "an increase in reports of threats against Jewish, Muslim, and Arab communities and institutions." This came just days after the bureau released its 2022 report on crime in the U.S., which detailed a 7% increase in hate crimes. Jewish communities in Philadelphia also have experienced antisemitism, including vandalism at a Jewish fraternity house on the University of Pennsylvania campus.

Both Tekelioglu and Ridgeway compared the current climate to the hostility Muslim and Arab Americans faced after the 9/11 attacks. The Human Rights Watch characterized the backlash after 9/11 as unique in its "ferocity and extent," resulting in an array of assaults, arsons, threats and killings. Brown University later found that the percentage of hate crimes against Muslims increased by 500% between 2000 and 2009.

"It feels like 9/11 all over again," Ridgeway said. "That was a really scary time where a lot of women ended up taking off their hijab because they were afraid that they would be attacked or they would be held responsible for the actions of a few."

Tekelioglu said part of the problem lies with "one-sided" and "dehumanizing" media coverage and statements from U.S. politicians. CAIR's chapters in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were particularly upset by Gov. Josh Shapiro's statements following the first wave of attacks in Israel and Gaza, which began Oct. 7, and released an open letter criticizing his comments. Shapiro, who is Jewish, tweeted several times in support of Israel between Oct. 7 and 11, condemning the attacks on Israeli civilians and saying, "Israel has a right to defend itself." He did not mention Palestinian civilians killed in Gaza, a choice that CAIR called a failure "to represent, recognize, and respect all Pennsylvanians."

"In the first five days of the incident, he never once recognized that there were Palestinian civilians, that there were family members of his own constituents being killed, civilians being killed," Tekelioglu said.

"Obviously multiple communities are going through trauma in response to what's happening and processing grief, processing anger, processing anxiety. But that is also real for the Palestinian, for the Arab, for the Muslim communities as we continue to see people being killed right and left."

CAIR did speak with Shapiro after he posted his initial comments to X, formerly known as Twitter, and leadership is hopeful about continuing conversations. But Tekelioglu says the Muslim and Arab communities currently feel "apathy" from local politicians and "deep anger and deep disappointment" at state and federal leaders like Shapiro and President Joe Biden for not calling for a ceasefire.

"Is there a hierarchy of traumas and grief that needs to be recognized?" he said.

Follow Kristin & PhillyVoice on Twitter: @kristin_hunt | @thePhillyVoice
Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice
Have a news tip? Let us know.