Israa Eldeiry is the president of the CSU Muslim Student Association. Coloradoan Muslim backlash in Fort Collins? Depends on who you askImage of

Muslim backlash in Fort Collins? Depends on who you ask

By Jason Pohl, as appearing in the Coloradoan

Israa Eldeiry was driving in east Fort Collins recently when a man pulled up next to her vehicle at the intersection of Drake and Timberline roads. He rolled down his window. And before the lights changed color, the man who she suspects was following her, began slinging epithets and profanity.

He told her to go back to her country. He said that she wasn’t welcome here.

“Things like that don’t happen a lot, but they do happen,” said Eldeiry, the Egyptian-born president of Colorado State University’s Muslim Student Association. ”People have guns. And people have words. And sometimes words are more harmful than anything.”

Eldeiry, 20, has lived in the U.S. for 17 years. She said Fort Collins is an overwhelmingly welcoming and supportive place, yet she sighs whenever she hears reporters talk about another act of “radical-Islamic terrorism.” Bit by bit, she is becoming more fearful of walking around as a Muslim-American in a society that increasingly interprets her faith as a message of hate as opposed to a way of peace.

The level of Islamophobia, xenophobia and backlash toward Muslim-Americans in Northern Colorado depends on who you ask.

Israa Eldeiry is the president of the CSU Muslim Student Association and says she's increasingly feeling afraid to wear her hijab in Fort Collins. She's been almost run off the road, shouted at, and every time a shooting happens elsewhere in the US, she says she gets a little more nervous. (Photo: Valerie Mosley/The Coloradoan)

Israa Eldeiry is the president of the CSU Muslim Student Association and says she’s increasingly feeling afraid to wear her hijab in Fort Collins. She’s been almost run off the road, shouted at, and every time a shooting happens elsewhere in the US, she says she gets a little more nervous. (Photo: Valerie Mosley/The Coloradoan)

But generally speaking, incidents of outward hate are few and far between.

Salah Abdelghany is a executive committee member with the Islamic Center of Fort Collins. In 20 years of living in the community, he said the number of negative interactions can be counted on one hand — they were almost exclusively in the days, weeks and months after 9/11, as was the case elsewhere in the U.S.

He lauded the overwhelming amount of support the community has extended. After 9/11, people anonymously left flowers at the mosque. More recently, people have anonymously left doughnuts on the steps, he said. And since the attacks in Paris and elsewhere in the world, Abdelghany said a few people call the center every day to show their support for the Muslim population in Northern Colorado.

“The community in Fort Collins is definitely much better than different places. It’s clearly shown,” he said.

The closest estimates suggest that 2,500 people comprise Fort Collins’ Muslim community, Abdelghany said.

There have been 11 bias-motivated crimes documented since Jan 1., 2011, Fort Collins police records show. Five of those have stemmed from derogatory comments that referenced Middle East descent, police said Friday.

FBI hate crime data show instances of anti-Islamic hate have continued to increase in the U.S. since 9/11. Even communities with relatively small Muslim populations have seen a surge in hate-related activity, said Lori Peek, an associate professor of sociology at CSU.

An arm of Peek’s research into disasters, risk and vulnerable populations hinges on challenges faced by Muslim-Americans in the wake of 9/11. She worked extensively with Muslim-American men and women to chronicle their experiences before and after the terrorist attack, and her book documents their accounts of violence, discrimination and exclusion across the U.S.

Lori Peek, Assistant Professor, Sociology

Lori Peek is an assistant professor of sociology at Colorado State University.

In addition to a climbing number of hate crime incidents, reports have spread geographically across the country, she said Friday.

“More places, and more people, are at risk to backlash violence. Overall, I think Fort Collins has been quite proactive in terms of trying to stem this form of violence,” Peek said. ”But hate crime can occur anywhere, and I think it is especially important to reach out to and connect with communities vulnerable to bias attacks.”

Eldeiry’s pride far outweighs that unease, and she wakes up every morning, puts on her hijab, and goes on with her life as a third-year social work student at CSU. She’s not sure what she wants to do for work. Recognizing that it’s the cliche response, Eldeiry said she just wants to help people.

Some media portrayals frustrate her. Assertions that she should apologize or be punished for others’ acts of violence are maddening.

“You never know the religion of any other shooter or any other terrorist unless he or she or they are Muslim,” Eldeiry said. “It makes me afraid. I don’t want people to think this is who I am and this is what I represent. It sucks.”

Rather than defend her faith, she’d much rather spend that time having a conversation with people — even strangers on the street. Dialogue is the goal of the student group on campus.Though some people might feel awkward about asking someone such personal questions she, like many Muslim-Americans, is happy to share.

She’s fielded questions from students in class. And conversations around town sometimes start with, “I have a question for you.”

Sometimes, Eldeiry said, people ask about whether she is oppressed. She’s not.

Sometimes, people ask if she showers with her head scarf. She doesn’t.

“I’d rather someone come up and ask me a question that may be out of this world rather than living their life with a misconception.”

Peek serves on Pohl’s graduate school committee degree at Colorado State University. 

Reporter Jason Pohl covers breaking news for the Coloradoan. Follow him on Twitter: @pohl_jason.