By Ann Sorkowitz and Julie N. Hays | ABC News
The Sept. 11 attacks, the Iraq war and suicide bombings worldwide have changed not only the way we live but the way we look at those around us, especially Muslims. “Islamophobia” has entered the American vernacular, and the anti-Muslim attitudes and prejudice it describes remain common.
But what if you witnessed “Islamophobia” in action and saw someone being victimized because of someone else’s prejudices? What would you do?
ABC’s production crew outfitted The Czech Stop, a bustling roadside bakery north of Waco, Texas, with hidden cameras and two actors. One played a female customer wearing a traditional Muslim head scarf, or hijab. The other acted as a sales clerk who refused to serve her and spouted common anti-Muslim and anti-Arab slurs.
The polarity of reactions was shocking, from support to seething disapproval. Never did we expect customers to be so passionate or candid.
His Place, His Right
Our actor, Sabina, walked into the bakery in search of apple strudel. When she reached the counter, an actor posing as a sales clerk was quick to greet her with hateful anti-Muslim language.
“Get back on the camel and go back to wherever you came from,” he said. “You got that towel on your head. I don’t know what’s underneath your dress. Just please take your business and go elsewhere with it.”
“Sir, I am an American, I was born and raised here,” she said.
The other customers seemed to hear the exchange but they barely looked toward our actors. When no one came to her defense, Sabina made a direct appeal to one customer.
“Sir, would you mind ordering me an apple strudel? That’s why I am here,” Sabina said.
Though visibly shaken by the hateful words, the man gave Sabina the cold shoulder, completed his purchase, and walked out of the bakery. “I really think that a person who owns his own business should be able to say who they sell to,” he said after we told him about the experiment.
In fact, it is illegal for public establishments to deny service based on someone’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, according to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Regardless, this man was not the only customer to defend our sales clerk’s “right” to discriminate.
A Narrowly Defined America
A little while later, Sabina again entered the bakery, and again our sales clerk refused to serve her. This time, one man spoke up, but not on behalf of the Muslim woman. He was adamant that our sales clerk did the right thing. “She wasn’t dressed right,” he said. “If I was running the place I’d do the same thing.” Once again, our sales clerk garnered customer support. After Sabina left the bakery seemingly frustrated and empty-handed, one man thanked the sales clerk for his discriminatory behavior. He then gave our actor a thumbs-up, not once, but twice. Jack Dovidio, a social psychologist at Yale University, said these men seemed to define “American” based on the way people look. They connected with the sales clerk and considered our female actor an outsider. “When we as Americans feel threatened from the outside, we’re going to define ourselves in very rigid fashions,” Dovidio said. “Either you’re with me, and if you’re not really one of me, then you must be somebody else who’s against me.”
A Very Different America
The young woman in our experiment was an actor, but many of the hateful words she heard were based on the experiences of Chicago-born Nohayia Javed, who was watching our experiment from the control van. Javed said she has continually suffered verbal abuse and said she has even been physically attacked by fellow Americans — just because she is Muslim. “They always start off with, ‘you’re a terrorist, Osama-lover, towel-head, camel jockey’ on and on,” Javed said. “If I tell them I’m American, they’re like, ‘No you’re not. Just because you were born here doesn’t make you American.’ And I’m like, ‘What makes you American?'”
Javed is not alone. The number of anti-Islamic hate crime incidents in the United States has more than quadrupled from 28 incidents in 2000 to 156 incidents in 2006, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most recent figures.
Back in the bakery, the next customers had a very different answer to the question of American identity. First we met a man who angrily refused to buy anything when the sales clerk refused to serve Sabina. When our actor chastised him for being a “bad American,” he begged to differ. “I believe I am a good American,” he said. “My son just came back from serving in the army for over a year in Iraq and that has nothing to do with her [Sabina’s] rights. I am deeply offended by this.”
When we told him about the experiment, he explained why he stood up for Sabina. “I believe that people who use dress, skin color, language, heritage, financial means, education level, any of those things to say one group is better than another are using empty excuses for bigotry and hatred, and there’s been enough hatred,” he said.
We also met two young women who refused to let our sales clerk’s hateful words go unchecked. “Sir, we are not buying our kolaches because you are really offensive and disgusting,” one said. “Just because she’s dressed like that doesn’t mean anything,” said the other, a Muslim-American woman herself. Rather than simply taking their business elsewhere, the young women demanded to speak to the manager, and they also challenged our sales clerk’s definition of “American.” “She’s American. She’s American. I’m American. You’re the one that’s anti-American right now,” one said to the sales clerk.
When he refused to budge and our actress turned to leave, the two women walked out with her in a show of support.
The Silent Majority
Even though people seemed to have strong opinions on either side, more than half of the bystanders did or said absolutely nothing. This is a familiar reaction for many Muslims such as Javed. “I was shocked because when these things happen to me in real life … I never see what happens after I walk out of that store,” she said. “I would try to justify … that they probably didn’t hear it … when I watched it, I realized, no, they hear it and they see it and they’re okay with it.”
For Javed, tears of fear were mixed with tears of thanks for those she saw come forward to support Sabina. “In my lifetime, I’ve never ever had anybody stand up for me,” Javed said. “It’s very touching to see that because that’s the right thing to do, I believe … as an American.”