Hours after the Boston Marathon bombing suspects were identified as Muslims, the Islamic community there began to fear the worst. But instead of the violence that happened after September 11th, Muslims in Boston say – for the most part – they didn’t experience backlash.
“As a limousine driver, I meet too many different peoples,” says El-Sir Sinousi. “And I talk to too many different peoples.”
Inside the soaring mosque in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, Sinousi tells stories about the people he meets on the job. Like this one from a couple of months after the marathon bombings:
“One day I have a Pakistani brother, he’s in the back of my car, he’s a customer,” Sinousi says. “He talk, ‘How things goes after the marathon?’” He’s from New Jersey, I remember. And I said, ‘Oh, it’s okay.’ And he says, ‘Did you experience any racial profiling or anything?’ And I said, ‘no.’ And he says, “Come on, man. That day, when I heard the news…I start praying to Allah: don’t let it be a Muslim.’
“So I said, ‘Why you saying that?’ And he said, ‘Because we’ve had enough.’ And I said, ‘We never experienced those things here.’”
In this city that’s certainly experienced its share of racial strife, Sinousi says his neighbors went out of their way to be kind.
When his friend’s wife was scared to go outside, because she thought her head-scarf would make her a target, a neighbor offered to take her shopping, and even began picking up and dropping off her kids from school.
“People were really committed to the Golden Rule,” says Sohaib William Webb, the imam at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, the largest mosque in New England. “It was really powerful.”
At first, Webb was really worried about what the bombing meant.
“There was a concern of: Was it any of our community members? Were they involved? If so, could we have been more preventive?” Webb remembers.
It turns out bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev wasn’t a congregant. But he occasionally attended a mosque in Cambridge that is affiliated with Webb’s. Tsarnaev was reportedly thrown out after he stood up during services and shouted at the imam.
Webb says he would have handled the situation differently.
“If that was here, I would have met with him after the prayer, talked with him, tried to assess where his head is at,” Webb says.
Looking back, a year after the bombings, Webb says he’s impressed with the way Boston handled itself.
“At all levels, at a policy level, the lawmakers, law enforcement, citizens, institutions – it’s a model,” he says.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations monitors hate crimes against Muslims. The group’s Ibrahim Hooper says there’s been no significant increase in reports of harassment, assaults or damage to mosques since the marathon bombings.
“Right after it occurred, we had two or three scattered reports of people being accosted in the streets, harassed, that kind of thing,” Hooper says. “But I wouldn’t say it was by any means a widespread phenomenon.”
In the media, there was some some hostility towards Muslims. Commentators and activists who have spouted anti-Islamic views before took to Twitter and the airwaves.
One example: On MSNBC, former Republican Congressman Joe Walsh of Illinois, argued that in the wake of the bombing, law enforcement should racially profile young Muslim men as part of the immigration process.
“We’re at war,” Walsh said. “And this country got a stark reminder last week again that we are at war, and not only should we take a pause mark when it comes to our immigration, we need to begin profiling who our enemy is this war: young Muslim men.”
But American Muslim leaders say, overall, politicians and the media have behaved responsibly.
“So I think that we learned a lot in the years since 9-11, so that by the time we come to the Boston bombing, we are very much more sophisticated,” says Farah Pandith, the former representative to Muslim communities for the U.S. State Department. She’s now at Harvard.
“We are having conversations about hate speech,” she says. “We’re having conversations about discrimination and bigotry. We’re having conversations about how we think about security – all wrapped up in a post 9-11 ecosystem.”
Pandith says she also sees American Muslim communities trying to build relationships with other Americans instead of being insular.
Yusufi Vali is the executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston. He credits those relationships for the decrease in prejudice.
“This community for the last 13 years ever since 9-11 has opened its center, invited people in, went out to know our neighbors, get to know people from other faiths, gotten to know political leaders. And off of those relationship that have been built, people have realized that we’re just one of them,” Vali says.
Vali says that what happened in Boston last year was a tragedy, but it also tested how much things had changed.