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Isolated Incidents: A Hijab, a Hoodie, and an Iraqi American’s Death

As reporters clamored for breaking news about the vicious attack on Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi American mother of five in El Cajon, California, her teenage daughter Fatima turned to the interviewer with a question of her own:

“‘Why did you take my mother away from me? You took my best friend away from me,’ she said, choking with tears, in an interview with CNN affiliate KUSI. ‘Why? Why did you do it? I want to know. Answer me that.’”

So far, neither the grieving family’s pleas, nor CNN, nor the police have been able to provide any answers. Issuing the standard platitude about the ongoing investigation, the authorities described it as evidently “an isolated incident.” The grim circumstances of Alwadi’s death, however, point to a pattern of hate crime that’s devastatingly familiar to many Muslim and Arab communities.(Image: KUSI/Jezebel.com)

The 32 year-old Alwadi died of wounds inflicted in a brutal beating in her home, which had, according to her daughter, been preceded by a racial threat.  “A week ago they left a letter saying, ‘This is our country, not yours, you terrorists,” she recalled when speaking to the media. “So my mom ignored that, thinking (it was) kids playing around, pranking. And so the day they hurt her, they left it again and it said the same thing.”

That such racial invective could be dismissed as a childish prank exposes how deeply racist and anti-immigrant sentiment have seeped into public culture. And if the emerging evidence ultimately confirms the community’s fears, then we’ll have yet another example of the deadly, yet sadly predictable and preventable, consequences of this entrenched racism.

Despite the growing anxieties about post-9/11 racist hysteria, the attack was a deep trauma to both the family and the surrounding community, which includes an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 immigrants from the Middle East. Hanif Mohebi, executive director of the San Diego chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told the Los Angeles Times, “We’ve had some stuff in the past — insults mostly — but nothing physical. This is shocking to the community, the state and even the country.”

The back story also suggests the ramifications of tensions between Muslim, South Asian and Arab communities and law enforcement since 9/11. Police noted the family had not come forward about the earlier threat.

JOS at Feministing says that apparent reluctance to report the threat “is not surprising. When your community has been the target of intense racial profiling and been portrayed in the media as criminals, especially since 9/11, it makes sense you wouldn’t trust law enforcement. ”

So what can communities do and who can they trust? With the killing of Trayvon Martin, we’ve seen people rallying around the country to raise awareness not only about the pervasive bias and hostility that besieges communities of color--but also about the harm that is perpetuated and abetted by police indifference and institutional racism.

While grassroots campaigns and social media alone couldn’t bring justice for victims of racist and anti-immigrant hatred, it can raise people’s consciousness about what communities will, and will not, stand for.

CNN reported:

“social media users quickly compared Alawadi’s death to that of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, calling both hate crimes, and drawing a parallel between a hijab and a hoodie… On Sunday morning, the authors of the parenting blog, Momstrology, tweeted: ‘A teen murdered for wearing hooded sweater. An Iraqi woman beaten to death for wearing a head scarf. Our hearts ache for you.’”

The next time community members are told it’s an isolated incident, at least they can reach out in solidarity and know they’re not alone in trying to connect the dots.

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