By Amer Taleb
The United States Attorney for the District of Arizona, Dennis K. Burke, spoke at the Islamic Center of Tucson on Friday 5/13 about the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
The “Matthew Shepard Act,” signed into law by President Barack Obama on Oct. 28, 2009, expands the 1969 federal hate crime law to, among other things, reaffirm the importance of American citizens’ ability to practice their religion comfortably and to severely prosecute those who interfere with that process, Burke said.
Burke, who advises Attorney General Eric Holder on management, policy and operational issues as a member of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee, told the crowd of more than 30 people that he wanted Muslim Americans to know “who we are, what we do and have a dialogue with us.”
The event was one of several that Burke’s office has held in Mosque’s around the state so that “you (Muslims) have the confidence to come forth with your concerns,” he said. Burke also said that initiating and maintaining a dialogue with the Muslim community “is part of our job” and that the “Islamaphobic statements that have unfortunately become acceptable in our society … personally bothers and concerns me very much.”
A report recently published by the Council on American-Islamic Relations cited a 2004 Pew Poll that said 4 in 10 Americans carry a negative view of Islam while nearly 50% believe “that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its believers.” A separate 2009 report from CAIR said that while Anti-Muslim hate crime complaints fell 14 percent from 2007 to 2008, it did report increases in incidents occurring at Muslim institutions and schools.
Along with the U.S. Attorney, members of the Department of Justice were also on hand for the event. Karen Rolley, a civil rights attorney, told the crowd that the Act would absolutely not tolerate any form of “interference of religious activity.”
One of the Acts most recognizable features, she said, is that a criminal can now be charged with a hate crime, even if the victim is not who the criminal intended them to be. “Perception is enough,” she said.
Rolley also said that local agencies have been provided with more funding so that criminals may be tried to the full extent of the law.
She went on to echo a reminder that was made frequently throughout the event: Contact the authorities if you suspect a problem. “Don’t worry about processing the whole event. … Just pick up the phone and call. It doesn’t hurt.”