Documenting hate against my Muslim community

This photo was taken at an unsanctioned camp north of Amman, Jordan, on February 11, 2017. Photo by Saeed Nassef, an Egyptian-Iranian photographer documenting the conditions of Syrian refugees. Find his work at www.saeednassef.com.

I was accustomed to seas of white prayer hats, smiling eyes peering through niqabs, heads covered in yards of beautiful silk and chiffon. This was my community — a Muslim community. I had grown up observing their warmth, their generosity as they fed the poor and housed the homeless. I had grown up not only accepting my Muslim neighbors in Sri Lanka, but cherishing them.

Upon boarding the plane to move to America, my parents and I had naively disregarded any fears of discrimination. Taking the nickname “melting pot” to heart, my father thought Americans would be welcoming, receptive, maybe even encouraging of our differences. They were hopeful to have a chance at being whomever they wanted to be — at being Muslim.

But every American news station we tuned in to pegged us as an abomination. The term Muslim became synonymous with terrorism and the community I had grown up with was cast as villains in television shows and movies, depicted as unintelligent and violent. Muslims in America not only had to denounce the radicalism they already disagreed with, but fight twice as hard to be accepted and to emphasize the peaceful nature of Islam they actually endorsed. And after years of struggling to regain a socially acceptable form of a Muslim identity, Trump’s presidency has resurfaced the ignorance the Muslim community had worked so hard to dispel.

In the wake of the election, Muslims were once again at the forefront of the news, suffering from bans that targeted Muslim-heavy countries. Sikhs were shot, mistaken for Muslims. Mosques were vandalized. I personally witnessed the harassment of members of my community.

Fortunately, I have an opportunity to do something about it. In my work with the Human Rights Center and its Human Rights Investigations Lab at UC Berkeley, I am conducting open source investigations — using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms — to find unreported incidents of potential hate crimes and bias against Muslims. I’m working with a team of Berkeley undergraduates, journalism students, and others to verify that the purported incidents actually happened — using social media and tech tools to corroborate the claims. Over the past year, we learned how to do this careful verification work from experts at Amnesty International as part of their Digital Verification Corps.

Like students at universities around the country, I am contributing to ProPublica’s Documenting Hate project to build a database for working journalists.

It’s my job to filter out the “fake news” that takes away from the real issues that deserve real attention, specifically focusing on a topic I’m closely tied to — Islamophobia. For example, if a slur against a Muslim is scrawled on a community center wall and reported with a photo on Twitter, students like me find that information, verify and corroborate it, and then submit it to the Documenting Hate database for journalists to potentially use in a story.

My social media networks are already filled with retellings of racist accounts against Muslims, curated by friends, allies, and strangers. I am unfortunately fortunate enough to be associated with those who are immediately affected within the community. With each like and share, my network digs up articles and accounts of discrimination that deserved more attention. But I know there is more.

I know there are mosques we aren’t aware of, families we don’t know and children we’ve never seen before who are also affected by the rise in Islamophobia.

It’s my turn to go hunting. To search for incidents of hate speech and hate crimes, I have to temporarily recalibrate my mind to think like the opposition. I have to recall hurtful phrases thrown at my friends, think of the ways my community has been harassed, and try to see why someone would want to target Muslims. I have to temporarily discard my biases to view it from their perspective so I can collect more accounts.

I thought reading accounts of discrimination would be the most difficult part of this job, but after hours on end with this project, the painful instances become less and less surprising. Rather, the most difficult part is trying to think like someone who would want to hurt innocent people — people who resemble my neighbors and friends.

I am forced to accept that others are out there with a radically different perspective than my own, who strongly believe that they are right in vandalizing sacred buildings, bullying children, and harming families. I can no longer pretend that this represents a small group of uneducated people. The numbers are staggering, the accounts mounting, and the problem much bigger than I ever anticipated.