New York — The man came running out of nowhere. He was screaming and cursing at Mahwish, 16, who was about to meet her father at a parking lot in Queens, New York.
“F*** you, you Muslim!” the stranger cried.
Mahwish, now 20, no longer remembers the rest of his words, but she still feels the fear. The incident is one reason Mahwish no longer wears a hijab, the scarf many Muslim women use to cover their hair.
“That event really did impact me,” she said. “I was just, like, I don’t feel safe.”
Though the incident happened four years ago, Mahwish couldn’t hold back the tears as she recalled it. Her three Muslim girlfriends who surrounded her on a red couch at the Islamic Center at New York University nodded sympathetically.
In the wake of last year’s terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., hate crimes against American Muslims and mosques in the U.S. have increased. In December, The New York Times reported that anti-Islamic attacks in the U.S. tripled in the month after the terrorist attacks, with 38 attacks against American Muslims. According to New York State’s Criminal Justice Research Report, anti-Muslim hate crimes increased from 24 incidents in 2014 to 33 in 2015.
The development has affected the daily lives of Mahwish and her three friends. They avoid going out after sunset, and they are extra-aware of their surroundings. They make sure to smile at people so no one finds them frightening, they said. None of the four women wanted their last name disclosed in this article because they worried about the consequences of expressing their fear. Nowadays anyone could find them on Google, they said.
“I’m more paranoid when I’m in the subway,” said Shiza, a 20-year old Pakistan-born woman wearing a colorful hijab. “I just heard people saying, ‘Oh, don’t stand too close to the edge’, and I’m, like, ‘That’s a joke.’ But then when I get there, I take a step back, just in case. I’ve heard that people push you there.”
Shiza’s fear is real. In December 2012 a woman killed a Hindu man by pushing him off a subway platform in Queens as a train was entering the station because she believed he was a Muslim, she told the police. The woman was sentenced 24 years in prison.
“Now it’s not just verbally,” Shiza said. “Now it’s more physical, and that’s why I think it’s scarier.”
Two of the four friends were wearing hijabs at the Islamic Center. They all agreed that wearing a religious symbol in public made them feel less safe.
“If I have any visible signs, that’s when I get scared,” said Sadia, 20, whose roots are in Bangladesh. Her shoulder-length black hair was hanging loose. “I used to go to Arabic classes, and that’s when I used to have to wear a hijab,” she said. “When I stepped out of the classroom, I wouldn’t really care. I would just change when I got home. But now, I would take it off right away. Nowadays I wouldn’t comfortably walk out wearing a hijab.”
The four women say that the Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump’s rhetoric has made the situation worse for American Muslims. As a response to the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Trump suggested banning all Muslims from entering the U.S.
“Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life,” Donald Trump stated in a news release published on his website, Dec. 7.
The suggestion gained support from 46 percent of voters surveyed in a poll by Rasmussen Reports later that month.
“Now that he’s a presidential candidate, for me it’s like, it’s not just him who’s scary,” Sadia said. “It’s scary that so many people support these views. I feel that these people now have a stance on it, and they can come out and really say these views out loud.”
A recently published study by Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University suggested that there could be a relationship between hate crimes and politicians’ rhetoric. “We, also noted a moderate weekly rise in hate searches on Google like ‘kill all Muslims’ after Mr. Trump’s proposed Muslim ban,” the report stated.
“You could say it’s not because of Trump, but it’s obviously all been happening since Trump’s rhetoric started and since his campaign started,” Shiza said. Her friends nodded in agreement.
Trump’s campaign did not respond to a request for an interview for this article.