Until Tuesday afternoon, Al Aqsa Fine Middle Eastern Cuisine had scarcely received a negative Yelp review, let alone comparisons of its staff to Saddam Hussein. That was, until an area man allegedly burst into the beloved Salem, Washington, restaurant and began striking an employee with a pipe while spewing racial epithets.
Salem police have arrested Jason Kendall, 52, in what they describe as a potential hate crime. Kendall was not a customer at the time of the attack, but allegedly charged the restaurant when he spotted an employee who appeared to be Middle Eastern in the window. After allegedly hurling an “evil totem” at the employee, Kendall accused him of having a weapon and beat him in the head with a pipe while calling the employee a terrorist, police say.
Al Aqsa is a small, family-run restaurant on a tree-lined street near the city center. But when Kendall walked by the restaurant on what he described as a “warrior’s path,” he saw malice behind its windows, a probable cause affidavit obtained by Salem’s Statesman Journal alleges.
Kendall spotted a woman in the restaurant. But rather than consider that she might have entered the popular restaurant of her own free will, Kendall allegedly assumed she was being held as a slave, due to the kind of shirt she was wearing. Kendall told police that the shirt was a “signal,” according to the affidavit, adding that “that is what Arabs do.”
He allegedly rushed the restaurant when he spotted a “Saddam Hussein-looking guy” inside and decided that he must have been responsible for the woman’s captivity, according to the affidavit. Kendall began shouting that the woman was “free to leave,” until employees asked that he see himself out, the affidavit claims. Kendall left.
But when he exited, he allegedly saw something that incensed him even more: an “evil totem” with Arabic writing outside the restaurant. It is unclear what the “totem” was; Al Aqsa’s storefront is papered with menus and colorful signs advertising the day’s specials. But the item was large enough, according to the affidavit, for Kendall to pick up, carry inside, and hurl at an employee’s head while screaming “get out of America” and “Arab, you need to leave, asshole.” Kendall allegedly began beating the employee’s head with a pipe, which he called the “horn of Gabriel,” in apparent reference to a horn blown on the Christian Judgment Day.
When police arrested him, Kendall allegedly accused the employee of having an ice pick. The employee had a lump on his head after allegedly being struck with the pipe.
Kendall has previously been convicted of menacing, burglary, criminal endangering, and disorderly conduct charges, records show.
Civil rights activists fear the attack is the latest in a surge of hate crimes aimed at people perceived as Muslim.
Arsalan Bukhari, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Washington state branch, said the Pacific Northwest has seen a steady uptick in bias crimes over the past decade and a half.
“2015 remains the year we had the highest number of hate crimes reported to CAIR offices in U.S. history. Not in ’01, ’02, ’03, or even in 2016,” Bukhari told The Daily Beast. CAIR does not have an Oregon office, and does not keep exact figures for the state’s hate crimes. But of the hate crimes reported in neighboring Washington, Bukhari cited a number of incidents occurring around the presidential election.
“We say ‘reported’ because we can only speak to the ones our office is contacted about,” he said. “I would even speculate and say that for every [hate crime] we hear about, there are 10 more out there that haven’t been reported to us.”
CAIR has yet to be contacted by the alleged victims in the Al Aqsa attack, whom police have not named.
As with the attack on Al Aqsa’s employees, whose religions are unclear, a number of these recent attacks have seen people targeted for their race. In Florida on Friday, a man allegedly attempted to burn down a convenience store owned by Indian-Americans, because he wanted to “run the Arabs out of our country,” the alleged arson told police. He had apparently visited the store early in the week, become incensed at the lack of his favorite orange juice, and decided that because of “what they are doing in the Middle East,” he was going to do “his part for America,” and burn their store, he told police. In Kansas last month, a man allegedly shot two Indian men and a bystander, believing the Indians to be Iranian. He was captured after he allegedly boasted to a bartender of the shooting, which killed one of his victims.
Bukhari attributed the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment to a decade’s worth of negative media portrayal, which he said has spiked in recent years, even before President Donald Trump made anti-Muslim rhetoric a campaign cornerstone.
“The decline in public opinion has been recent, but well before the presidential campaign started, and far removed from any event that might have spurred that decline. We know it’s anti-Muslim hate speech and promotion,” he said.
In this media environment, he said he is concerned that many, including the mentally handicapped might be spurred to violence against Muslims, although he noted that attackers thus far have come from “all walks of life.”
“We need to make sure people are making decisions based on facts and figures rather than what they’re seeing out there in terms of portrayal in entertainment and news media.”
Police say they investigating whether Kendall’s alleged attack was a hate crime. He is currently being held on a $65,000 bond on charges of assault, intimidation, and unlawful use of a weapon.