A Towson woman whose photo was misidentified by the Sri Lankan government as a suspect in the Easter Day bombings said Friday that the mistake prompted death threats against her and distress for her family in Sri Lanka.
“I received so many death threats because of this horrible mistake, so many people just calling for me to be hanged and all of these horrible, horrible acts,” Amara Majeed said during a news conference at the office for the Maryland chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Catonsville.
She recounted learning about the error while in her dormitory room at Brown University, where she is a senior.
“In the midst of finals season, I woke up in my dorm room to 35 missed calls, all frantically informing me that I had been falsely identified as one of the terrorists involved in the recent Easter attacks in my beloved homeland of Sri Lanka,” she said.
Majeed said her family in Sri Lanka has been “bombarded with so many calls and questions,” and her family in the United States has been “terrified” because of the vitriol she’s received online.
Sri Lankan authorities used a photograph of Majeed, a 2015 graduate of Towson High School, to identify Abdul Cader Fathima Qadiya, one of six suspects in the bombings that killed over 250 people.
Both Majeed and Zainab Chaudry, CAIR’s Maryland outreach director, said they did not know how authorities found her picture. Majeed suspected that people in Sri Lanka knew about her prior work as as an activist and writer, and found her photo through those connections, but was not sure. The Embassy of Sri Lanka in Washington had said it was looking into the matter Thursday but could not be reached Friday for comment on how the government obtained the photo.
Sri Lankan police eventually admitted to the error and apologized. Both speakers said that the apology, while appreciated, has not erased the hurt it caused.
“The pictures and posts falsely implicating me have compromised my family’s peace of mind and endangered our extended family’s lives,” Majeed said. “We appreciate that authorities have issued a correction, although we are concerned that the correction will not receive nearly as much traction as the error.”
Added Chaudry: “In this era, where news travels in seconds, the misinformation has spread widely. Not everyone who read the initial posts will see the correction, and as religious tensions continue to grow in Sri Lanka, this incompetence in the aftermath of the devastating attack on Easter Sunday has placed Miss Majeed and her family in danger.”
Much of Majeed’s activism and writing focuses on empowering Muslim women and public narratives about them. In high school, she created The Hijab Project, a website aimed at countering the perception that Muslim women are oppressed into wearing hijabs. She also self-published a book profiling 17 Muslims from across the world and provided online commentary for both CNN and The Huffington Post.
This work, as well as an appearance on “Good Morning America,” made her a visible advocate for Muslim women’s agency before she even left Towson for Brown. She planned to pursue more of this work next year through graduate school at the University of Cambridge.
“Obviously, I was really excited to go to grad school, but this puts a really scary damper on everything,” she said.
Chaudry said that Majeed’s family, while currently not seeking legal redress, is working with CAIR to ensure their safety and “make sure the Sri Lankan government is taking every possible measure to undo as much of the damage that has been done.”
Both women also framed this experience in the broader context of Islamophobia, here and in Sri Lanka, where the attacks that killed more than 250 people inflamed existing sectarian tensions and scared people of various faiths from going to religious services.
“CAIR has extended our condolences to the families and loved ones of those killed in the senseless attacks,” Chaudry said. “We also condemn the habitual scapegoating of Muslim communities and individuals like [Majeed], who are constantly forced to apologize or account for the wrongful actions that they do not condone.”
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“It must be problematized that Muslim communities are faced with presumed guilt and criminality, and forced to condemn and apologize for acts of terror and perform their humanity,” Majeed said.