Skip to Content

‘Every move I make, I second guess’: These Muslim and Arab Americans say the surge in hate has made them more vigilant

By Christina Zdanowicz, CNN

(CNN) — Nicole was walking through an affluent part of Alexandria, Virginia, with a friend last month, when a man approached her and began screaming.

He railed about the hijab she wore, saying she looked Muslim, and made comments about Hamas raping Israeli women, she said. Her friend corroborated the account.

It was just days after the start of the Israel-Hamas war and the encounter left Nicole feeling rattled, worried and frightened. So much so, that she asked CNN to use only her first name, out of fear for her family’s safety.

“I haven’t stopped wearing hijab. I didn’t after 9/11 either,” she told CNN. “If I have one more person scream at me in public and certainly if someone were to threaten me, I think all bets are off.”

Nicole, who is in her 40s, said she’s been wearing a hijab for more than half of her life. And while she’s grown used to stares and occasional comments about her headscarf, Nicole said she fears the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the US could escalate into violence.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said the US is experiencing an “unprecedented” increase in reported anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bias incidents in the weeks since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

A week after the Hamas attack, a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy was stabbed to death outside of Chicago. His family’s landlord was charged in what police are calling a hate crime. He’s pleaded not guilty to charges including murder.

A Muslim postal worker was attacked while wearing a hijab, and many Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian Americans leaders have told CNN they are experiencing post-9/11 levels Islamophobia – or worse. They’ve called on the Biden administration to do more to combat anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias.

CNN recently asked Arabs, Muslims and Jews in America how they are facing the new reality of hate-motivated attacks against their communities. Nearly 800 people responded from across the country.

Some, citing safety concerns, are changing how they go about their daily lives. Others have become defiant and more vocal about their identity. These are their stories.

He’s tired of hiding to stay safe

Although Abdallah Jwayyed has been a registered gun owner for years, he said his gun remained locked away in a safe – until now.

As reports of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab attacks rose across the country, Jwayyed said he began carrying his concealed weapon when he goes out around his Cleveland, Ohio, home and when he’s shopping with his wife.

He’s also removed the Palestinian flag hanging from his rear-view mirror and peeled the Allah bumper stickers off his car. He doesn’t want anyone to slash his tires or break his windows, he said.

The Palestinian American is proud of his heritage, but he said he is doing everything he can to protect his wife and three children.

“We’re tired of having to hide the fact that we’re Muslim or to hide the fact that we’re Palestinian,” Jwayyed said. “We have to hide who we are to live safely in America.”

As a father, Jwayyed said he was crushed by the news that a 6-year-old boy was stabbed to death near Chicago. Officials have said Wadea Al-Fayoume was killed because he was Muslim.

“I have a 7-year-old son, I have a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old daughter. Of course, that affects me,” Jwayyed said. “As a parent, it scares me.”

Since the war, the 34-year-old said he has stopped taking his children on weekly excursions to the movies and local parks. Now, Jwayyed said they only go to school or to a relative’s house.

“Baba, why don’t you take us out this week?” he said his children have asked.

“I don’t want to tell them, ‘I fear for your life. It’s dangerous outside,’” Jwayyed said. “They don’t need to know that.”

Jwayyed lives in the Little Arabia neighborhood, which is full of Middle Eastern stores and restaurants, but he said he is no longer shopping at stores that carry Israeli products, like his wife’s favorite brand of chips. Instead, he said, the family agreed to stop buying the snacks after the war started and now they only shop at an Arab grocery store.

“Anything Israeli made, I will boycott it,” Jwayyed said. “And not just any Israeli company, any company that’s sympathizing with Israel will not get my money.”

She’s second guessing every move

Since October 7, Mona said daily activities she used to enjoy have become anxiety-inducing. She’s now limiting her trips to the grocery store, taking her kids to the park and driving alone out of fear of being targeted for being a Muslim woman who wears a hijab and dresses modestly.

“As a visibly Muslim woman, I’m fearful that I will be targeted,” she said. “Every move I make, I second guess it.”

Mona, who is in her 30s, asked CNN not to use her last name out of fear for her family’s safety.

She said she traces her fear and anxiety to the outset of the war and the spike in hate crimes against the Muslim community. As a health care worker near Houston, Texas, she said she was especially heartbroken over the October 28 fatal stabbing of Houston-area Muslim pediatrician Dr. Talat Jehan Khan.

While local police have said they have not yet found evidence linking Khan’s death to a hate crime, Mona said the attack on Khan has left her shaken.

“That also makes you think, ‘What, am I going to be next?’”

She is avoiding social gatherings and meeting in public with her friends who are also visibly Muslim, so they are “not a target collectively.” She’s also not publicly showing empathy and solidarity toward Gaza, out of concern, she said, of being targeted or attacked.

Instead, Mona now wears a necklace in the shape of the Palestinian territory underneath her clothing – close to her heart – in quiet solidarity.

She vows to be more vigilant

Yasmeen Abou-Sayed said she refuses to change the way she lives.

Instead, since the war began, she said she’s become more civically engaged and has been calling out anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment when she sees it.

When her children’s school district posted a statement condemning antisemitism but neglected to mention Islamophobia, the 41-year-old from suburban Washington, D.C., and other parents reached out to the superintendent and the board of education.

She asked us not to name the school district out of fear for the safety of her children, who have a different last name.

“Being an afterthought … we had to, as parents, mobilize, reach out to the superintendent and the board of education and point out that their statement completely excluded the experiences of our Muslim and Arab students in the schools,” Abou-Sayed said.

The next day, the superintendent posted an updated statement acknowledging that Islamophobia should also have been included, according to two statements reviewed by CNN.

“I will always advocate for myself. I will always advocate for my kids,” Abou-Sayed said. “But it’s just kind of tiring that you always have to take those extra steps to be seen.”

While anti-Muslim sentiment is nothing new in America, Abou-Sayed said her perspective has shifted since the war began. She said she will now talk to her sons about how some people might view them as they become Muslim men.

“I never thought about preparing them a little bit more for how the world is going to treat them until now,” she said.

“I do wear hijab,” she said. “I won’t change the way I live my life because the second you compromise your own values and principles, what are you living for?”

Abou-Sayed said she remains proud and unwavering about her identity.

“I will continue in my day-to-day activities, taking my kids to soccer and their clubs at school and doing the things that we do,” Abou-Sayed said. “We’re not going to change our lives because of this, but I will be more vigilant.”

This story has been updated with additional details.

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

Article Topic Follows: CNN – National

Jump to comments ↓

Author Profile Photo

CNN Newsource


News Channel 3-12 is committed to providing a forum for civil and constructive conversation.

Please keep your comments respectful and relevant. You can review our Community Guidelines by clicking here

If you would like to share a story idea, please submit it here.

Skip to content