Applebee's attack victim: Minnesota must get tougher on hate crime

Asma Jama
Asma Jama says she's a shell of the person she was before an incident last fall when she was attacked for speaking Swahili at an Applebee's restaurant. Photographed at a forum Wednesday on Islamophobia in Minneapolis.
Doualy Xaykaothao | MPR News

A woman who says she was attacked for speaking a foreign language at a Coon Rapids Applebee's wants to make hate crimes a felony in Minnesota.

Asma Jama was dining last fall and chatting in Swahili with her family when an Applebee's patron confronted her, insisting she speak English. When Jama responded that she could speak whatever language she wanted, authorities say Jodie Burchard-Risch smashed Jama in the face with a glass mug, splitting Jama's lower lip and sending her to the hospital.

Prosecutors charged Burchard-Risch with felony third-degree assault in the attack but said they chose not to prosecute the case as a hate crime for fear it might lead to a conviction on a lesser charge.

On Wednesday, Jama fought back emotions as she told a Minneapolis forum on Islamophobia about her struggles since the attack. She urged lawmakers to get tougher on hate crime.

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"When I leave my house I have the worst anxiety," she said.

At Target recently, she said a shopper stared her down. "This guy was looking at me ... in a bad away. I guess maybe he was looking at whatever I was wearing or something ... but to me, I felt like, 'Oh my God, he recognizes my face, and he wants to do something bad to me.'"

A few days ago, a driver made an obscene gesture at her.

Walter Mondale, right, speaks to Esme Murphy.
Former vice president Walter Mondale talks to WCCO journalist Esme Murphy, who moderated the forum on islamophobia at the law firm Dorsey and Whitney on Wednesday.
Doualy Xaykaothao | MPR News

"I didn't do anything, why is he flipping me? And then all of a sudden, my brain goes back to ... maybe he recognized me from all the Facebook or the media," she said. "So, I live in fear every single day that somebody is going to retaliate ... and this time it won't be a beer mug, it's actually going to end my life."

Recent incidents like this show the ugly face of hatred and bigotry, former Vice President Walter Mondale told the gathering.

"We're going to be challenged with how we can make a whole community that works and thrives, by putting this issue behind us, and by accepting each other as human beings, in the fullest sense of the word," he said.

"Islamophobia is a lot of different things. It is dislike, it is prejudice," said U.S District Court Chief Judge John Tunheim. "It is fear, it is hatred, bigotry and those are things that we need to discuss. We see it, here in Minnesota and we experience it ... this is not Minnesota, it does not reflect our values. It does not reflect the great spirit of this state."

It's also important to spread the message to Muslims that they have legal rights under the U.S. Constitution, said Amran Farah with the North American Somali Bar Association. Her group co-sponsored the event with the Federal Bar Association, the law firm of Dorsey and Whitney and several other organizations.

"And I think this is something Mr. Luger in the U.S. Attorney's office has tried to do ... to say that, you know what, it's not that hate and intolerance is wrong. It is also illegal in a lot of senses," she said.

Three weeks ago, Luger, along with local law enforcement representatives and the FBI, met with Muslim community leaders to reassure the community that his office will investigate and prosecute hate crimes. He echoed that on Wednesday. He announced he's forming a new lawyers committee on Islamophobia to protect victims of unprovoked attacks.

"And we can reach out across aisles, across faith, across race, all the things that divide us, to come together, so I'd like for folks to think about joining this new group," he said. "We need to do everything that we can to turn this problem around. Islamophobia is going to destroy the fabric of our state, if we don't turn it around."

Jibril Afyare of the Somali Citizens League
Jibril Afyare, president of the Somali Citizens League and a spokesman for the Minneapolis Somali American Taskforce, attended the forum on Islamophobia in Minneapolis on Wednesday.
Doualy Xaykaothao | MPR News

Luger's words meant a lot to Jibril Afyare, president of the Minneapolis group Somali Citizens League, and a spokesperson for the Somali American Taskforce. His group currently partners with Luger's office on a federal pilot program that gives funding to Somali-led organizations for mentoring and job training of Muslim youth.

Forums like this one are important, especially after recent comments from presidential candidates about policing Muslim neighborhoods in Minnesota, Afyare said.

"We want to tell the American people that we are on the side of stability, on the side of peace of this country ... so the other side, the extremists, people who radicalize our youth, cannot take advantage of the hate speech that we're seeing right now," he said.