Farhan Memon, state chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, stood with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal to denounce President Trump’s travel ban Thursday as evidence of anti-Muslim bigotry. Then he hurried across the Legislative Office Building atrium to join state legislators in their call for an expanded hate crime law in Connecticut.
In its most recent report, the FBI says hate crimes against Muslims jumped 67 percent in 2015, the beginning of a presidential campaign season in which immigration, especially by Muslims, eventually became a central issue, including Trump’s call on Dec. 7, 2015, for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of Connecticut says incidents of bias directed against Jewish institutions, including vandalism at cemeteries and bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers and schools in West Hartford, Woodbridge and elsewhere, rose sharply during 2016 and have continued into the New Year.
People like Memon, Steve Ginsburg of the ADL and Imam Abdul-Shadid Muhammad Ansari of the Greater Hartford NAACP find themselves frequently invited to press conferences, twice in one week for Ginsburg and Ansari and twice in one day for Memon, to talk about what they say is a general atmosphere of intolerance.
The Trump factor has injected a degree of partisanship into anti-bigotry efforts, even as some activists have tried to lower the political temperature. Ginsburg said he looked forward to “unanimous, bipartisan support” for an expanded hate crimes law. But both press conferences were organized by Democrats, with Trump’s policies as a target.
“If we have a chief executive, the highest elected official in the country, who is going to be creating animus against American Muslims, we need everybody else, whatever level of office they hold, to say the exact opposite every time, every day, continuously,” Memon said after leaving his second press conference at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.
Islamaphobia is not new. The terrorist attacks carried out on Sept. 11, 2001, made Muslims defensive and suspect, despite the pleas of a Republican president, George W. Bush, for Americans to narrowly focus their ire on adherents to terrorist causes, not one of the world’s major religions.
“Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah,” Bush said not long after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon with hijacked planes. “The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends.”
Anti-bigotry activists in the Trump era face a more difficult political terrain: They are playing off against the statements and policies of a presidential administration, not the more amorphous target of ignorance in elements of the general public.
Memon said he does not see anti-bigotry efforts as partisan, but it is impossible to discuss anti-Muslim bigotry without confronting the statements and policies espoused by Trump and two of his top advisers, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller.
“I want to stay out of playing the Democrat vs. Republican partisan game,” he said. But he added, “We need to hear from more Republicans. Why are they silent?”
Ginsburg, who has worked with Republicans on anti-hate issues, talked about the rise of intolerance without directly mentioning Trump. He also noted the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bipartisan resolution condemning the wave of bomb threats against Jewish institutions.
On Thursday, the hate crimes press conference organized by state Senate Democrats was a partisan exercise. Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, asked if he had invited Republicans, said that would have been premature. (One House Republican, Mitch Bolinsky of Newtown, attended on his own.) Sen. Len Fasano of North Haven, the GOP leader in the evenly divided state Senate complained of the exclusion.
“The best way to combat hate is to show unity,” Fasano said. “That’s why it’s so disappointing that Connecticut Democrats from the beginning chose to turn a certainly bipartisan issue into a completely partisan press conference today. Instead of working with Republicans to show a united front against hate crimes in our state, Democrats chose political theater.”
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, telegraphed the political point she intends to make if the Democratic bill comes to a debate in the House, noting she has her own ideas about expanding the state’s hate crime laws: She would extend them to acts of bias against a police officer or other first responder.
Looney outlined a proposal to amend Connecticut’s hate crime laws with stiffer penalties for threats against religious institutions and to expand the laws’ reach to include crimes motivated by gender bias.
“We will have zero tolerance and punish these crimes to the fullest extent in Connecticut,” Looney said.
Memon said he did not know the thinking of the Senate Democrats in not inviting the Republicans, but he invited them to speak out against Trump’s travel ban.
“They don’t need a press conference to say banning Muslims from the country is a bad thing,” he said.
The week after Trump called for a complete ban on Muslims, Fasano spoke at a Muslim solidarity event. “Hate speech has no place in America,” Fasano said then. “When we have leaders preaching hate, there’s just no place in America, Republican or Democrat, it doesn’t matter. So, I’m proud to stand here in support.”
Memon said he would love to hear others make similar statements.
Blumenthal’s press conference was prompted by President Trump’s most recent attempt to temporarily ban travel from a handful of predominantly Muslim nations, backing away from his campaign promise of “a total and complete shutdown.”
Each time, federal courts have blocked his orders, using the president’s campaign rhetoric against him. U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang wrote that the goal of Trump’s latest order appeared to be “the effectuation of the proposed Muslim ban.”
Blumenthal was joined by Memon, David McGuire of the ACLU of Connecticut, Chris George of the immigrant-aid group IRIS, and two refugees, Mohamad Chaghlil of Syria and Hewad Hemat of Afghanistan.
Chaghlil, who says he went through extensive vetting before the U.S. granted him asylum, said the blanket ban means his 72-year-old mother, cannot seek asylum or even visit him, which he says puzzles him. Background investigations make sense, but banning travel from a half-dozen countries seems arbitrary and counterproductive, he said.
“Fear will not make America safe or great,” he said.
Blumenthal said Trump could find bipartisan support for security measures that actually assessed and addressed risk, something that security experts say indiscriminate travel bans do not do.
“My hope is the administration will rethink its approach,” Blumenthal said. “For all the bluster and theatrics that we see in these executive orders, they make us less safe. They are constitutionally defective and morally disruptive and just plain wrong, because a Muslim ban betrays American values and that diminishes us as a nation.”
On Monday, Blumenthal had another press conference in Hartford to announce plans to file the NO HATE Act of 2017, a bill intended to increase data collection on hate crimes, provide a private right of action for victims to sue and encourage judges in criminal cases to consider requiring those convicted to work with the communities they targeted.
He said he hoped for Republican co-sponsors, but he had not yet approached anyone.