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What's Changed and What Hasn't Since Matthew Shepard's Murder

Wyoming Fence

It's easy to think the world has completely evolved since 1998; the truth is more nuanced.

Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson robbed, pistol-whipped, tortured, and left Matthew Shepard to die on a wooden ranch fence in Laramie, Wyo. A cyclist passing by -- who first mistook Shepard for a scarecrow -- discovered him in a coma 18 hours after the attack. Twenty years ago yesterday, Matthew Shepard died.

The murder of Matthew Shepard didn't happen in a vacuum. McKinney and Henderson grew up in a culture permeated with hate crimes targeting minorities. Crimes motivated by bias don't just affect the victims, but everyone who shares their identity. Minority groups must contend not only with finding their place in a society that looks, believes, and prays differently from them but also with the lingering threat of violence in the back of their mind.

In the years since Shepard's death though, the LGBT community has organized and made significant gains in securing legal protections. One of the most significant advances -- hate crimes legislation that expanded the federal definition to include sexual orientation and gender identity -- was even named after Matthew Shepard. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, which I am a part of, supported the legislation that was signed into law by President Obama in 2009.

Regardless of our religious, political, ethnic, social, economic, or moral differences, we can all agree that violence expressed as a result of these differences can never be tolerated.

The law also removed a prerequisite that hate crimes related to the race, religion, or national origin involve the victim engaging in a federally protected activity like voting or going to school.

Out of a traumatic event, the movement against hate crimes achieved remarkable progress.

We're now seeing a rise in hate again, from President Trump's rampant Islamophobia, numerous synagogues defaced with swastikas, to white supremacists openly marching in Charlottesville are just a few examples of rising hate in our country.

But just like after Shepard's murder, hate is not the totality of the story.

In the midst of the Trump's administration attacks on minorities, we are currently witnessing a record number of minority candidates running for office and standing strong against hate. Over 90 Muslim-Americans are running in this election cycle. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, the Democratic nominees for the House of Representatives in their respective districts, could be the first Muslim women in Congress.

These candidates proudly stand strong against hate targeting all minorities and are disturbing the cycle of hate in hopes of ensuring victims like Matthew Shepard did not lose their lives in vain. Violence against one person is violence against us all. As the Holy Quran teaches, "Whoever kills a soul, it is as though they have killed all humanity. And whoever saves a soul, it is as though they have saved all humanity."

Our communities would rather be protagonists in the story of an inclusive America, rather than resign ourselves to live in fear of hate crimes.

We will also not be divided by politicians and pundits who seek to divide and conquer minority groups. We saw then-candidate Trump attempt to do this after the Pulse nightclub shooting. Yet what saw on the ground here in Florida is communities of all backgrounds coming together across our differences to stand united against all forms violence.

When black and brown Americans, the LGBT community, women, and religious minorities -- as well as white, straight, men of goodwill -- stand together for civil rights, we can't be ignored. That's why our opponents try so hard to divide us.

Twenty years after Matthew Shepard's murder, my heart continues to break for victims of hate crimes. But I also know that they, along with Muslim-Americans and all others who face the brunt of white supremacy, see a better future for our country. We intend to make the founders' commitment to equality real and are actively working across targeted communities to do just that.

HASSAN SHIBLY is the chief executive director of CAIR-Florida. He holds a law degree from the University at Buffalo School of Law, and lectures regularly on issues relating to Islam, American Muslims, and Civil Rights.

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