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Muslim Advocates Rally After Subway Pushing Death To Fight 'Climate Of Hostility'

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Fahd Ahmed of the South Asian advocacy group Desis Rising Up and Moving speaks at a rally in Queens against hate crimes. | Matt Sledge

NEW YORK -- A coalition of advocacy groups and political leaders held a rally on Tuesday linking the subway pushing death of a South Asian man to a broader anti-Muslim environment in New York City -- inflamed, they said, by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the New York City Police Department.

"When our own government, our own police, our own institutions, our own media continue to engage in racial profiling or painting communities as suspect, we cannot expect the results to be any different than what they are right now," said Fahd Ahmed, legal and policy director for the South Asian advocacy group Desis Rising Up and Moving.

The Queens rally centered around the death of Sunando Sen, a Hindu immigrant from India who was crushed to his death by a subway train after 31-year-old Erika Menendez allegedly pushed him on Dec. 27. Menendez, who has a history of mental problems, told investigators she shoved Sen because she thought he was Muslim and "I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers," police said.

As deranged as his killer may have been, Ahmed said, Sen's death was not an isolated incident. In November a devout Muslim was stabbed outside a Queens mosque because of his religion. The same month, police arrested a man they accused of the serial killings of three Brooklyn shopkeepers with Middle Eastern backgrounds. In Wisconsin, in August, a white supremacist killed six Sikhs in a temple.

New York City Council members Daniel Dromm and Jimmy Van Bramer, both gay Democrats from Queens, spoke at the rally, saying their own experiences fighting hate crimes made them take a stand against anti-Muslim and anti-South Asian violence.

Ranjit De Roy, who has lived in Sen's apartment building in Elmhurst, Queens, for the last four years and counted him as a friend, also spoke. Sen, he said, was a kind man who often said that "religion makes the division of the human beings … humanity is the good thing."

De Roy said he is haunted by his last image of Sen leaving his apartment, giving a cheerful greeting as he went off to a shift at work. These days, De Roy said, he can't get on the train without feeling scared and looking around to see if anyone is following him.

"We are feeling insecure from that day," De Roy said.

A general "climate of hostility" against Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians is to blame for that fear, said Muneer Awad, executive director of the New York Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He pointed to the anti-Islam subway ads the MTA allowed to run underground, along with the NYPD's controversial surveillance of Muslim communities in and around New York, as "reinforcing" that climate.

"Our elected officials and NYPD come out and say, 'Well, we are not for demonizing American Muslims, or demonizing these communities,'" said Awad. "We're trying to help them acknowledge that their policies are actually reinforcing that hostility."

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