By Hannah Eason and Sravan Gannavarapu (VCU Capital News Service)
Days after Virginia’s legislative elections, anti-Muslim comments flooded news stories about Ghazala Hashmi becoming the first Muslim to serve in the state Senate, with hundreds of Facebook users linking her to terrorism and saying it was a “sad day” for Virginia.
Hashmi, 55, D-Midlothian, defeated incumbent Republican Glen Sturtevant by 8 percentage points, 54-46. Sturtevant won Chesterfield, 51-48, and Powhatan, 77-23, but lost Richmond, 25-75.
The state House has two Muslim men: Sam Rasoul, 38, D-Roanoke, who was born in Warren, Ohio, and Ibraheem Samireh, 27, D-Herndon. Samireh, who was born in Chicago and is of Palestinian descent, was elected in a special election in February after apologizing for anti-Semitic and anti-Israel Facebook posts.
Reactions about Hashmi’s election ranged from “amazing news” to “why did we let this happen,” according to an analysis of about 3,000 comments posted to five news articles on Facebook.
More than 40 comments said Virginians “forgot” about the 9/11 attacks, while many others used anti-Muslim slurs referring to Hashmi. However, many people posted objections to such remarks and celebrated Hashmi’s election.
Hashmi’s win in District 10 helped Democrats flip the Senate in the Nov. 5 election. For the first time in more than 25 years, Democrats will control the General Assembly and the governor’s office.
Some news outlets in the Richmond area — CBS 6 (WTVR), ABC8 (WRIC), NBC12 (WBBT) and the Richmond Times-Dispatch — posted stories on Facebook about Hashmi’s victory. Within moments, those articles attracted comments, many of them disparaging.
At least two people called Hashmi a “towel head,” referring to the headscarf many Muslim women wear. “Where is her rag on her head,” one person posted.
“I think a whole lot of people need a dose of 9/11 history,” a woman wrote. “What this country has forgotten or not been taught is disgraceful.”
Another comment questioned whether Hashmi, who was born in India and was brought to the U.S. as a child, could take the oath of office.
Richmond resident Mallory Shepard rebuked the man who posted that: “‘One nation under god’ doesn’t specify which god, you pillock.”
In an interview on Facebook, Shepard said, “The specific comment I replied to was focusing on her religion being an issue, which showed the unfortunate reality that Islamophobia is still alive and well in my home state.”
Shepard was among many Facebook users who called out offensive comments and expressed support for Hashmi.
“Y’all really call us snowflakes but can’t handle when someone who isn’t white is elected because somehow anyone brown is responsible for 9/11?” a woman wrote. “Its 2019 but ok boomer.”
A man who posted 10 times told one Facebook user, “I’d rather have a million Muslims in my country than garbage like you. If I were the owner of a business I would never speak about politics like that and come out racist.”
Capital News Service downloaded and perused the comments on five Facebook articles posted Tuesday night and Wednesday. About 1,660 people had posted approximately 2,980 comments.
One man posted comments critical of Hashmi on all five stories. “Be prepared to defend your right to bear arms, friends,” he wrote in reply to WTVR’s story.
Commenting on the ABC8 story about Hashmi, another multiple commenter wrote, “No such thing as a muslim-AMERICAN. Either you are a muslim, or you are an AMERICAN.”
Several people suggested that Hashmi was part of a plot to “destroy America from within.”
“Dumbasses this is how they get foot into our country,” a woman posted on WTVR’s Facebook page. “You who voted her in you just doomed us way to go.”
“Sad day for Virginia. Yet not unexpected,” a man added. “My lovely state of Virginia has become so liberal it makes me want to puke. Did anybody forget who tried to destroy us on 9/11? Pretty sure it was the Muslims … just saying. Trump 2020!”
Other people expressed dismay at the bigotry they were reading on Facebook.
“It is truly, truly sad so many people feel compelled to write such bitter and hateful statements on the basis of religion and ethnicity,” one man posted.
Dozens of comments mentioned guns.
“Get prepared Va — buy your gun now,” a woman posted on WTVR. “Because before its over with we are all going to need to protect ourselves.”
On WTVR’s video of Hashmi’s acceptance speech, a man warned government officials not to try to take his weapons. “You have no idea how pissed off the right is.”
Another man posted 23 comments — more than anyone else — on both WTVR and ABC8. He adamantly defended Hashmi.
“So many people posting Negative comments about this woman’s faith, so many of you posting about 9/11 and about the Enemy Within,” the man wrote. “The only Terrorist that I’ve read about in the last year are the ones in this picture.”
He attached to his comment an image showing the faces of 18 white men who have carried out mass killings. The photo was titled, “Still Scared of Muslims? You Must Be Trying To Be Stupid.”