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Hijab Case: Why Bigoted Battery Makes For A Hate Crime

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The Fort Hood massacre committed by Major Nidal Hassan was a national tragedy that took us all by surprise. It was quickly and widely condemned by the American Muslim community who were as shell-shocked and dismayed as anybody else, and who were additionally concerned about a potential backlash against those who happen to share Hassan's faith, though not his crime.

It is no surprise that the usual culprits who have built careers out of inciting hysteria against Muslims saw this tragedy as an opportunity on a golden platter. The hate blogs and radio talk shows were quickly abuzz with familiar voices trying hard to extend Hassan's guilt to every Muslim and the faith they practice .

Unfortunately, there are always the vigilante Joes and Janes out there who consume this stuff with little critical scrutiny and, in some cases, act upon it.

Such was the case a few days ago at a local grocery store in Tinley Park, Illinois.

2009-11-23-valerie_kenney_amal_abusumayah.jpg

Amal Abusumayah, a 28-year-old American mother of four young girls, was going about her usual shopping when she was randomly treated to a dose of derogatory comments about her faith and ethnic heritage; the offending woman, later identified as 54-year-old Valerie Kenney, referenced Fort Hood.

Amal tried to ignore the comments and proceeded to check out at the counter when she felt a sharp pull on her hijab -- or headscarf.

Amal was "shaken up" and felt violated but did not know what to do. She followed the woman to the parking lot and called the police. She was not sure if she wanted to press charges that night, but later decided that it was something she owed to her daughters. They, like Amal, were born and would grow up in this country -- as American as anybody else.

The Tinley Park police department handled the incident admirably from the get-go, and after a thorough investigation, the Cook County State Attorney's Office charged Valerie Kenney with a hate crime.

"If you don't try to stop it, the behavior will continue," Tinley Park police chief Michael O'Connell said. But if people are charged for their crimes, he said, "they'll get the message they better not do it."

(The FBI was also closely monitoring the situation but usually only files charges if the state somehow fails to do so.)

CAIR-Chicago, per its mission of "defending civil rights, fighting bigotry, and promoting tolerance" had been assisting Amal on her quest for justice. We, along with many other Americans, applauded the charge. To my surprise however, I have come across a disturbing number of posts and comments on the blogosphere by individuals who took offense at Amal for standing up for herself, rather than at Valerie for violating her rights.

"This is what happens when you allow open and avowed enemies into your country, they are granted special privileges above and beyond what normal citizens are allowed ... the perp [sic] was reacting to the Fort Hood shooting, noting rightly that 'those people' were the cause of the problem," one blogger wrote.

"Chief Michael O Connel is a useful idiot- only too ready to charge those deemed enemies of the people in America's undefined and vaugue [sic] political correctness campaign," said another blogger playing on an increasingly popular theme on the far-right that treating Muslims equally is synonymous with the "Islamization" of America brought about by "political correctness."

Others, like Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times sympathized with Amal, but felt that what Valerie did does not constitute a hate crime.

Roeper argued that the "Headscarf pull is mean, but it's not a hate crime." I am not sure what sort of criteria Roeper and others use to determine what a hate crime is and what it is not, but they certainly do not seem to be too concerned with the established legal definition.

The law doesn't criminalize being "mean" (how on earth would that be defined anyway?) What the law does do, however, is define a battery. Battery is intentional, unpermitted contact causing harm or offense by one person against another. That is what Valerie Kenney did when she tried to pull off a Muslim woman's headscarf at a Jewel in Tinley Park. Moreover, when a person commits such an offense based on hatred towards the victim because of their race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, etc. it becomes a hate crime. In other words, according to the laws of our nation, battery is one thing; battery based on bigotry is another.

Hate crimes are their own class of crime for a very good reason: the enhanced classification and punishment deters people from criminally acting out on their bigotry. It is the government's obligation to its citizens to take a no tolerance position on such crimes.

Nipping such behavior in the bud is important because if it is tolerated, its frequency and intensity is hard to control. A zero tolerance policy towards bigoted battery is the only way to effectively prevent another tragedy -- like the brutal murder of Wyoming's Mathew Shepard or Germany's Marwa El Sherbini -- from happening again.

As for Kenney, the justice system will determine the appropriate punishment for her. Three years in jail and up to $25,000 is the maximum sentence, but it's not the only sentence option available. Judges and juries are generally fair. Either way, our system dictates that we entrust judgment to them.

Lastly, I would be remiss not to write a few words about the larger picture: the general phenomenon of anti-hijab prejudice.

Hijabis -- women who wear the hijab -- are de facto ambassadors of their faith because of their distinguishable physical appearance. They are proud to represent their faith, but also bear the burden of being readily singled out by those who harbor anti-Muslim sentiments.

Ironically, if those who are viscerally opposed to the sight of a hijabi actually took the time to look at the facts of her life, they may realize that hijabis make for a positive stereotype worthy of their admiration rather than a negative one they ought to fear.

In the United States, a young hijabi is more likely than the average person to go to college, excel in her studies, raise a successful family, and be active in her community.

She is more likely to pay her taxes, abide by the laws of our country, and vote.

She is much more likely to return your wallet to you if she finds it, report a crime if she witnesses one, and give an honest testimony if called upon.

She is much less likely to be in a gang, use or sell drugs, mug you at gun point -- or drink, drive and run over your kid. Your husband or boyfriend is less likely to cheat on you with her.

She is less likely to curse you in traffic or flash you the middle finger, and more likely to look the other way if you do so to her.

That is because, more likely than not, behind the hijab is a virtuous value system rooted in personal vows taken before God that make for a good citizen and a good human being. (The hijab itself is merely one consequence of these personal vows, intended as an exercise in sexual modesty while in public.)

This is not to say that Muslim women who do not wear the hijab do not share those values, it is only to say that the correlation between the hijab and good behavior is a positive -- not a negative -- one.

I hope that more people can take the time to know each other based on who they truly are, rather than on lazy stereotypes. But for those who simply wish to lash out and act upon their hateful prejudices, the law is capable of protecting its subjects.

For the rest of us, let's get the conversation started.