Trends we can’t ignore: 3) The recent rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes

My last post discussed post-9/11 hate crimes against American Sikhs, many of whom were targeted because they were thought to be Muslim.  It’s no surprise, then, that American Muslims too have experienced a wave of hate crimes directed at their own community.

The remains of a mosque in Joplin, Missouri that was destroyed by hate-motivated arson.

In the year after September 11, anti-Muslim hate crimes rose by a staggering 1,600 percent.  While they decreased and remained fairly low (but still disconcerting) between 2002 and 2009, they rose by a sharp 50% in 2010 (160 reported crimes up from 107.)

Sadly, the FBI statistics are almost certainly a low estimate of the total crimes, because many go unreported or unprosecuted.  Working in an Islamic civil rights and advocacy organization last summer, I combed through pages and pages of bias incident reports and read countless articles from small, local news outlets reporting on incidents ranging from vandalism, to threatening notes, to bullying in schools.

Some may find a jump in anti-Muslim crime in 2010, almost a full decade after September 11, puzzling. But it actually makes perfect sense. 2010 was “a year marked by the incendiary rhetoric of Islam-bashing politicians and activists, especially over the so-called ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ in New York City.”

This rhetoric hasn’t let up since 2010, a point I won’t elaborate on more here because I’ve written extensively on it before.  (See “Sharia: A Fabricated Threat,” “Thoughts on King’s ‘radicalization’ hearings,” and “The Oslo Opportunity: Parts 3 and 4.” If interested in reading a paper on anti-Muslim discourse that I wrote for a course at Georgetown, I’m happy to send it to you.)

As community members fought the construction of a new mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee using hateful rhetoric about Muslims, the site was vandalized and the construction equipment set on fire. The mosque finally opened a few weeks ago, after years of setback due to the Islamophobic campaign. (CNN did a good piece on this last year.)

Though statistics on anti-Muslim hate crimes for 2011 and 2012 are not yet available, the dozens and dozens of individual cases I’ve read about over the past two years indicate that the numbers will likely be just as grim as they were in 2010.

After the attack on the Sikh gurdwara on August 5th, a shooting likely motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment, anti-Muslim bias attacks skyrocketed. Over the course of eight days, 11 major attacks were reported across the country.  Mosques were sprayed with paint balls and rubber bullets, hit with lemons, eggs, and pigs’ legs.  The home of a Muslim family, and a mosque, were fire-bombed with Molotov cocktails.  The grave of a prominent Arab leader was desecrated with the words “raghaed” (sic) and “killer, and the headstones of other Muslims were also graffitied.  And a mosque in Joplin, Miss. was burned to the ground (and this was the second time in about a month it had been targeted in arson.)  And these are only incidents that have occurred in the last few weeks.

One of the many desecrated headstones in Chicago 

cemeteryDid perpetrators have some sort of sick notion that the success of one attack (in Wisconsin) legitimized more? Who knows.  Was the spike in attacks intentional, given that they occurred during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan? Maybe.

Quoted in a Salon article, Ahmad Rehab of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Chicago asks:

How long are we going to go pretending like there is no relationship between this acquiescence of hatred and politics and the inclination of violence on the ground? …You cannot demonize a community and then be surprised when they’re under attack.

Many of the aforementioned attacks took place in Illinois, shortly after a notoriously Islamophobic congressman, Joe Walsh, alleged at a town hall meeting:

that “radical Islam” had made a home in the suburbs of Chicago; that “it’s in Elk Grove, it’s in Addison, it’s in Elgin. It’s here”; and that radical Muslims are “trying to kill Americans every week.” Walsh’s warnings were met with applause. (Salon)

Sadly, Walsh is only one of many politicians, media personalities, and “activists” spewing this crap.  In many parts of America and in many sectors of the media, this kind of talk is mainstream and goes unchallenged.

But this wave of attacks—this trend sparked by “acceptable” anti-Muslim rhetoric—hardly ever gets media attention outside of local community where it takes place.  It’s a national problem that isn’t being treated as such.

Though it received attention among Muslim activists and some interfaith leaders, the arson at the mosque in Joplin, Miss. was not covered like the Sikh tragedy was.  Most Americans were probably unaware of it.  True, no one died as a result of the arson.  But it is one frightening example of anti-Muslim hate that, like the Sikh shooting, must be treated as an opportunity to illuminate and address the roots and implications of racism and xenophobia in our country.  I wish more human rights and faith organizations had stepped up, like they did with the shooting at the Sikh gurdwara, issuing press statements about the mosque attack (and this trend of hate crimes I’ve discussed,) not only to rightfully condemn it, but also to push the issue into the national spotlight.

In a New York Times op-ed entitled, “If the Sikh temple had been a mosque,” Samuel Freedman writes about how anti-Muslim hate is (disturbingly) more expected—and maybe even more acceptable—to many Americans.

The mistaken-identity narrative carries with it an unspoken, even unexamined premise. It implies that somehow the public would have — even should have — reacted differently had Mr. Page turned his gun on Muslims attending a mosque. It suggests that such a crime would be more explicable, more easily rationalized, less worthy of moral outrage.

“Islamophobia has become so mainstream in this country that Americans have been trained to expect violence against Muslims — not excuse it, but expect it,” said Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American writer and scholar on religion. “And that’s happened because you have an Islamophobia industry in this country devoted to making Americans think there’s an enemy within.”

Convinced by the media that Muslims are violent and threatening, some white Americans may see threats and violence committed against Muslims as a logical response.

A sad and sick example of this logic was illustrated by someone who commented on one of my YouTube videos.  Calling Muslims “scum” and claiming that “one day we will be throwing their muslim (sic) butts out of America,” he told me to stop “betraying” my “own people and country.”  I visited his YouTube account, where I found his public list of his “Favorite” videos.  One of them was called “Top ten mosques to bomb.”  It showed photos of large, beautiful mosques around the world, and then a big mushroom cloud would appear in their places. This man was advocating violence against Muslims, so (wrongly) convinced that they were a danger to him.  This man had become the barbarian that he claimed to be fighting.

The trend of rising anti-Muslim hate crimes in America is one that can’t be ignored.  When the public sees the concrete (and horrific) effects of anti-Muslim rhetoric, the Islamophobic language that is so mainstream will become quickly become unacceptable.

Tomorrow’s post, the final in the series, will discuss the threat of white supremacist hate groups in America.

Trends we can’t ignore: 1) Americans’ religious illiteracy

In recent years, numerous polls and reports have illustrated Americans’ ignorance about the basics of minority religions.  But the media’s coverage of the terrorist attack at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisc. showed us just how religiously illiterate Americans are.

During their breaking news coverage of the attack, CNN anchors, clueless about the Sikh faith and lacking sufficient sources, were relegated to fumbling through the Wikipedia page in describing the religion’s basic tenets.  According to a Philadelphia Inquirer commentary on the attack,

One Fox anchor asked a witness whether there had been previous acts of “anti-Semitism.” A Fox local report claimed Sikhs are “based in northern Italy.” And the host of CNN Newsroom, Don Lemon, struggled with the “murky detail” of whether Sikhs are Hindus, Muslims, or a different sect altogether; he later postulated that the killer “could be someone who has beef with the Sikhs.”

Heck, I don’t know details about the Sikh faith either—something I’m not proud of.  Before the attack, I knew the religion originated in India and I could identify turban-wearing men as Sikh believers, but I couldn’t confidently claim to know anything more about it.  I remember seeing a portrait of the founder on the mantle of the Sikh family in the movie, Bend It Like Beckham, but I couldn’t tell you his name, when he lived, or how many Sikhs currently practice the faith throughout the world.  I remember being uncomfortable with the portrayal of the Sikh family in the film (it was your stereotypical, Orientalist depiction of overly-strict South Asian parents with thick accents) and yet I was just as ignorant (if not more) than the moviemakers.

Most Americans don’t know Sikhs either.  They make up only .16% of the American population.  I only know one personally—a prominent interfaith leader in Indianapolis.

In order to fill the massive gap in Americans’ illiteracy about the Sikh faith, many news outlets, like The Huffington Post, have attempted to provide resources about the religion to educate American citizens.  Organizations like the NPR-affiliated Story Corp used the attack as an opportunity to share the stories of Sikhs, so other Americans can, in some way, get to know them.

But the media is in even greater need of resources about religion. Both major networks like CNN and small, local papers should have had materials about the Sikh faith—and all religions for that matter—at the ready.  That preparedness should be common sense in an era when everything from Chick-Fil-A to terrorism seems tied to religion.  Reporters and news anchors, who shape our understanding of faith-related issues subtly and over a period of time through their coverage, critically need a better understanding of religion.

When the media—and major politicians like Mitt Romney, who referred to Sikhs as “sheiks”* in his comments about the attack—demonstrate their own ignorance about religion, it legitimizes the American public’s religious illiteracy.

The assertion made in the following comment, which was shared by an anonymous commenter on the CNN website, was recycled throughout the media’s coverage of the attack:

“Sikh people… can be easily mistaken for Muslim or Taliban.”

The key phrase is “can be easily mistaken for.” It’s saying, “it’s ok to confuse Sikhs with Muslims and with the Taliban, because we don’t really know the difference either.  A turban is a turban, right?” Note: Many (maybe, most) Muslim men don’t wear turbans, and the Taliban wear ones distinct from Sikhs.  But do most Americans recognize this? No.  And do many Americans conflate Muslims and the Taliban?  Sadly, yes.

Click here to see different styles of Sikh turban wrapping.

The media coverage of the attack also implicitly argued that Muslims and their religion are more prone to violence.  The common way anchors distinguished between Muslims and Sikhs was by saying something to the effect of, “Sikhs are not Muslims.  The Sikh faith is one of peace.”  This “distinction” implied that Islam is a religion of violence.

The attack and its coverage showed us that ignorance about religion leads us to buy into untruths, and also reaffirms our misguided beliefs about minority religions like Islam.

Religious literacy is lacking in American society, and it is critical that we as a country make an effort to improve it among the young and old, if we hope to end the violence and mistreatment experienced by all people of faith. 

Tomorrow’s post will discuss hate crimes again Sikhs in America.

*Romney used the world “sheik” when referring to the Sikh people. The word “sheik” (pronounced “shake”) does not exist, but it sounds like the English pronunciation of an Arabic word, “sheikh,” which means a learned person and is often used to describe Islamic scholars. Though the Arabic word ends in a hard “h” sound, as denoted by the “kh,” it is commonly pronounced with a “k” sound (“shake.”) Romney’s slip, therefore, points to his ignorance about religion, and also conflates Muslims (whose religious scholars are called “sheikhs”) with Sikhs.

Trends we can’t ignore (Series introduction)

The shooting at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisc.—and the nationwide string of hate crimes against Muslims that went virtually unreported by the media—reveals a number of disturbing, yet ignored, trends about extremism and ignorance in America.

Sikh worshippers outside their gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisc. after the shooting on August 5, 2012.

Over the next few days, I’ll be posting about issues that are not new, but that have been re-illuminated by these recent hate crimes. They include religious illiteracy in America, post-9/11 attacks against Sikhs, the recent rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes, and the (intentionally covered-up) threat of white supremacist domestic terrorism.

For those who heard little about the shooting at the Sikh place of worship a few weeks ago, here’s a brief recap:

Wade Page, a prominent member of a white supremacist organization, opened fire at a Sikh gurdwara (house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisc. during a Sunday worship service. He entered the temple and he killed three, and then murdered three others outside, where he was shot in the stomach by police.  He then shot himself in the head. Four others, including a police officer, were wounded.

The hate crime is rightly being treated as a case of domestic terrorism by the FBI, given that Page appeared to have political motives.  He was an active member of the racist skinhead group, Hammerskin Nation, and was a musician in white supremacist bands.

The FBI defines terrorism in the following way: “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

But according to an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, “that designation seemed to baffle some media outlets. NBC News reported that ‘it was not immediately clear why local police were classifying the shooting with domestic terrorism.’ A Fox News analyst claimed the shooting was not terrorism because Page was a ‘nut job’ who mistook Sikhs for Muslims.”

Like NBC and FOX, most media outlets have been hesitant to refer to the attack as terrorism, however.  Is this surprising?  No, because since 9/11, the American media—and thus the American public—have only considered attacks committed by Muslims terrorism.

Tomorrow, I’ll begin posting about specific trends, starting with an essay about religious illiteracy in the U.S.  I’ll provide background on the string of attacks against Islamic places of worship in one of my later posts.