Islamophobic flyers target congressional candidate

  • Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, candidate for the 1st Congressional District, is shown in Northampton, July 25. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 8/6/2018 10:50:49 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Some households in western Massachusetts have received an anonymously written Islamophobic mailer attacking Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, who is running for Congress in the state’s 1st Congressional District.

Amatul-Wadud, a practicing Muslim from Springfield who as an attorney has a record of civil rights advocacy and fighting against Islamophobia, has spoken out against the flyers, which were reportedly mailed to voters in a handful of cities and towns in the district over the past 10 days.

“One of the messages I take from this type of attack is that Islamophobia is condemnable,” Amatul-Wadud said Monday evening. “Any introduction of bigotry into a campaign should be condemned by every candidate and every elected official in the area.”

Amatul-Wadud is running a progressive challenge to 30-year incumbent Richard Neal, the ranking Democrat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Democrats will go to the polls to decide between the two candidates on Sept. 4 in a district that includes Easthampton, South Hadley, Southampton and hilltowns in Hampshire County, along with all of Hampden and Berkshire counties and part of Franklin County.

Neal issued a statement on his website about the flyers.

“I was outraged to read that voters received an Islamophobic mailer,” Neal’s statement reads. “There is absolutely no room for hate speech in our district or across our country.”

The flyer makes convoluted and unsubstantiated claims about Amatul-Wadud’s religion on one side of the mailer, and questions her role on the board of the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The other side features a hand-drawn picture of Amatul-Wadud holding a sign that says “Islamophobe Racist Bigot” and “Islam has nothing to do with it,” with speech bubbles that say “rural high-speed internet” and “Elect me to represent you in Congress.”

She describes the flyers as having “really hateful content” and is concerned about their dissemination, noting many who have received them have no connections to her campaign. ​​​​Amatul-Wadud said neither she nor her campaign has been sent the flyer.

On the WHMP radio segment “Black in the Valley,”​​​​​ Amatul-Wadud said she began hearing about the flyers several weeks ago.

“Since 2013, I have sued Islamophobes in federal court who do this to people,” she said of her work as a lawyer. “I am not afraid of these boogeymen. I know what they do, I know how they impact the community, I know how they are the biggest threat to the United States of America.

“It has been sort of alarming and scary, bothersome and distracting — which is the goal,” she said.

Islamophobia appears to be on the rise in the United States. Assaults against U.S. Muslims, for example, spiked in 2015 and 2016, according to the Pew Research Center’s analysis of FBI hate crime statistics. In 2016, 127 assaults occurred, surpassing the 93 assaults against Muslims in 2001 — the year of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

That same FBI crime data showed that, in 2016, Massachusetts had the highest per-capita rate of reported total hate crimes in the country.

Amatul-Wadud’s legal work has included representing a Muslim community in upstate New York that was targeted by a Tennessee man who plotted to bomb their mosque.

As for anti-Muslim rhetoric, “It’s certainly something that is very common for any American Muslim who rises to any form of prominence,” said Shaun Kennedy, the executive director of Jetpac, an organization that has trained Amatul-Wadud and other American Muslim candidates running for office.

Kennedy said he has seen similar flyers in other races in past years, and that he has witnessed whisper campaigns meant to smear Muslim candidates based solely on their religion. He mentioned the ultimately unsuccessful campaign in Malden last year of Jetpac-supported candidate Nichole Mossalam, who ran to unseat an incumbent on the city’s School Committee. In that race, he said, Mossalam was the subject of rumors that she would implement Islamic prayer in schools.

Letters like the one about Amatul-Wadud try to tie Muslim candidates to extremist groups with no evidence, Kennedy said.

“It’s a really common tactic — it’s like 7 degrees of separation,” he said.

Debates not confirmed

As the election nears, Amatul-Wadud said she is accepting an invitation to the Berkshire County branch of the NAACP for a forum Aug. 15 at 6 p.m. at the Silvio O. Conte Community School in Pittsfield.

“I plan to be there,” she said.

Whether this will be a debate with Neal is uncertain.

Neal’s office issued a statement that Neal has always debated his political opponents and that details are being worked out for debates at WWLP Channel 22 as well as WGBY 57 in conjunction with the League of Women Voters and the Berkshire Eagle.

Amatul-Wadud said she wants to give voters the opportunity to interact with both her and Neal, and that a debate prerecorded in a television studio isn’t appropriate since many voters in the district only get channels from Albany and won’t be able to stream the video, either.

“I want a debate and I want it to happen in public and in the spirit of democracy,” Amatul-Wadud said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated when Richard Neal issued a statement about the flyers. 

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@ga
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