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Pittsburgh-area religious leaders fear Trump remarks fan intolerance

Natasha Lindstrom
| Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015, 11:04 p.m.

Western Pennsylvania religious leaders spanning Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist faiths convened an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss the latest incendiary remarks by a man they wish got less time in the national spotlight: Donald Trump.

The Monroeville Interfaith Ministerium met to develop a plan of action in response to the Republican presidential front-runner's statement Monday demanding a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Despite heavy criticism, even within his own party, Trump hasn't backed down and has garnered support on social media and elsewhere from his supporters.

“We're very concerned,” said Dr. Salah Almoukamal, president of the Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, a member of the interfaith group and a family doctor in Monroeville. “The more that kind of hate message is out there, the more people are listening to it and they want to act on it.”

The group of religious leaders joins supporters of the Muslim community in the region alarmed by several recent racially and ethnically charged attacks on Muslims and immigrants.

On Sunday night in Philadelphia, someone tossed a pig's head outside the door of the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society mosque. Gov. Tom Wolf released a video and statement Wednesday condemning the incident, saying it is “a direct affront to Muslims and is a direct affront to every Pennsylvanian.”

Wolf said, “The commonwealth stands ready to assist the city of Philadelphia in any way it can to get to the heart of what happened ... and to bring the perpetrator of this terrible injustice to justice.”

In Pittsburgh's Brookline neighborhood, a vandal Tuesday sprayed graffiti across Las Palmas, a Mexican grocery store and taco stand: “Go back to Mexico.”

“I think candidates like Trump are provoking people,” said Las Palmas manager Carlos Martinez.

Martinez said he has not had too many problems with discriminatory customers since arriving in the United States from Michoacan, Mexico, in 2005. Mayor Bill Peduto visited Las Palmas at lunchtime Wednesday to have tacos, express his support for the business and celebrate the uptick of Hispanics in Pittsburgh, a spokesman said.

Police are still trying to determine whether a Muslim taxi driver shot in Hazelwood on Thanksgiving was the victim of a hate crime.

Trump — who will headline a Pennsylvania Society event in New York this weekend — is appealing to some people's fears and xenophobia, and some perceive his remarks as a presidential candidate as a sort of “permission to discriminate,” said Meg Mott, politics professor at Marlboro College in Vermont.

“When someone like Donald Trump said that all immigrants with ‘Muslim' names should be entered into a database, he is saying that, ‘When I am in power, people with Muslim-sounding names will not have the same rights as ordinary Americans,' ” Mott said. “Like white sheriffs under Jim Crow laws, these claims of providing protection for the general public is actually a barely veiled threat against a subject population.

“ ‘Feel free to rough them up,' is what the candidate is actually doing,” Mott said.

Alihan Hanoglu, a Muslim from Turkey who owns two Downtown restaurants, said he worries like others that existing prejudices are being fanned by anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail.

“It's going to cause problems because there's a lot of losers around here looking for action under the claim of being a patriot and loving America,” said Hanoglu, 40, owner of Giovanni's Pizza and Pasta and Alihan's Mediterranean Cuisine on opposite sides of Sixth Street.

Hanoglu, who has been in the United States for 13 years, said he fears that blanket statements targeting Muslims, Mexicans and Syrian refugees could embolden people to act out of prejudice or hate.

“Racism is getting worse and worse,” Hanoglu said. “You can feel it on the street.”

He said he recently opened his Facebook feed to find a post saying in regard to Muslims, “They should kill them all.”

“I feel like Trump wants America to be just white people,” said Sonya Barber, 39, a server at Alihan's who lives in Coraopolis. “It's unbelievable to me that a person like that can even come close to winning a presidential election — not in 2015.”

Nationally, hate-crime offenses against Muslims are on the rise — from 165 in 2013 to 178 last year — even as the total number of hate crimes is down by 8 percent from the prior year, FBI data show. There were 1,092 hate crimes motivated by religious bias in 2014 — 16.3 percent were anti-Muslim and 58.2 percent were anti-Jewish.

Nearly half of 5,462 single-bias incidents of hate crimes in 2014 stemmed from racial bias, the FBI said.

Law enforcement officials in the Pittsburgh region say they have not observed significant upticks in incidents tied to ethnic discrimination but could not immediately provide figures.

Complaints levied for ethnic intimidation have been few and far between since 2000 in Indiana, Washington and Westmoreland counties, according to Uniform Crime Statistics tallied annually by Pennsylvania State Police.

Washington County had 8 incidents with 9 victims investigated during that 15-year span; Westmoreland had five incidents involving 9 victims; and Indiana had six incidents involving 7 victims, according to the report. No such complaints were investigated in Fayette or Somerset counties.

Numerous public figures have warned against discrimination this week.

State Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Upper Merion, introduced a resolution to condemn religious discrimination.

Indiana University of Pennsylvania President Mike Driscoll issued a notice citing “too many examples at IUP” in recent months of people “under stress succumbing to the worst of human nature.”

“Some have resorted to name-calling and blaming groups of people for the actions of individuals,” Driscoll wrote. “Some have responded to insults, intentional or unintentional, with threats and with violence. None of this is acceptable. We can do better.”

The Monroeville interfaith group decided to do a public educational blitz stressing that “Islam rejects all extremism in any way,” using media advertising as well as the platforms of each representative's home place of worship.

“ISIS is not Muslim at all,” Hanoglu said. “We hate them. We hate them, period.”

Staff writers Paul Peirce and Megan Guza contributed to this report. Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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