The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) held a press conference last week, the day after President Obama’s announcement of Osama bin Laden’s dispatch. The briefing seemed to deliver a hopeful message: Now that bin Laden is dead, perhaps there will be the “dawn of a new era” in the relationship of American Muslims to their fellow Americans. MPAC’s leadership was joined by a bevy of local pols who echoed the theme of “can’t we all just get along?”
However, beyond the aspirational message of hope for a new era, the subtext of MPAC’s post-bin Laden messaging was that Muslim Americans have suffered a 10-year span of nasty, irrational anti-Muslim attitudes and actions in this country resulting in “alienation and psychological ghettoization” (MPAC’s words), and that bin Laden was an outlier in the Muslim world, who was “met with moral outrage … at every turn.” Both premises are wrong, though the organization’s admirable goal isn’t.
The facts are that, other than a brief up-tick immediately following the 9/11 attacks, the nation’s hate-crime data simply have not reflected significant or disproportionate increases in violence directed against Muslim Americans. The FBI’s most recent hate crime report, for 2009, revealed that, nationally, there were 1,303 religiously based hate crimes, of which 107 were directed against Muslims. Clearly a matter of concern, but, put in context — there were 931 hate crimes directed against Jews (a numerically comparable cohort nationally) that year — hardly a reason for a feeling of “psychological alienation.” Locally, the most recent hate crime report issued by the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations showed that, nationwide, 88 percent of all religiously based hate crimes in the county were directed not at Muslims, but at Jews.
In fact, hate crimes that targeted Muslims (3 percent) in Los Angeles County ranked slightly above those directed at Scientologists (1 percent). To put a finer point on things, the Commission discovered that attacks animated by an animus toward Christians (8 percent) outnumbered hate crimes against Muslims.
Of course, hate crimes are not the dispositive measure of Americans’ attitudes; they are but one bit of evidence of how Americans treat each other. Attitudinally, the majority’s view of Muslims in America is more complex.
A 2010 Pew study found that “favorable” attitudes toward Islam have, in fact, declined among Americans over the past five years (from 41 percent favorable to 30 percent). But to be fair to our fellow citizens, those attitudinal changes have occurred against the backdrop of a decade that began with 9/11 and includes a tragic list of attacks and terrorist incidents, both domestically and overseas, that will inevitably affect attitudes — unless someone lives in a hermetically “news-free” environment.
From Richard Reid’s attempt to bring down an airliner on a flight from Paris to Miami; to Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s rampage at Fort Hood, Texas; to Faisal Shahzad’s attempt to explode a car packed with explosives in Times Square; to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian underwear bomber; to the Midwestern youths who traveled to Somali to train and fight with local extremists: These incidents — both tragedies and tragedies averted — would make anyone’s head spin and challenge almost anyone’s commitment to tolerance.
A 2009 Pew poll found that Americans were concerned about domestic Islamic extremism (the poll was conducted in the wake of the deadly Fort Hood Army base murders) — 79 percent of the public was “very or somewhat concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism in the United States.” If four-fifths of the public is troubled by the rise of American-based Islamic extremism, and there are headline-making incidents to support that concern, one doesn’t have to be George Gallup to conclude that, like it or not, it will impact attitudes toward Islam and, likely, American Muslims.
Nothing justifies extrapolating from individuals to the larger group in terms of stereotyping and bigotry, but the events of the past decade have clearly put Americans’ tolerance to the test and attitudinal shifts — if not actions — can be the result; the death of bin Laden is but one step in the right direction. Fewer American Muslims heeding the siren call of religious martyrdom would help as well.
MPAC’s president, Salam Al-Marayati, in a post-bin Laden statement buttressed his hopeful message of a “new era” dawning with an analysis that concluded that bin Laden was essentially an outlier in the Muslim world: “His acts of senseless terror have been met with moral outrage by Muslims worldwide at every turn in the past decade.” The logic presumably being that if the outlier is gone, saner heads will prevail in the Muslim world.
If only that were true. The sad reality is that bin Laden had, and likely still has, a sympathetic audience for his fanaticism in large swaths of the Muslim world.
A largely ignored Pew poll that came out last week confirmed this fear. Despite its rosy headline — “Osama Bin Laden Largely Discredited Among Muslim Publics in Recent Years” — the numbers in the study belie the title’s optimism. While “confidence in Osama bin Laden” has declined in recent years in Indonesia (from 60 to 26 percent), Pakistan (52 to 18 percent), Egypt (27 to 22 percent) and the Palestinian territories (72 to 34 percent). The actual number of those with “confidence in bin Laden to do the right thing in world affairs” in just those four population centers totals 183 million Muslims. That means that nearly 200 million people in the world have “confidence” in an avowed mass murderer who advocated religious war and genocide.
As one reads that fact, it is important to keep in mind that in recent history there haven’t been many mass murderers who explicitly boasted of their gory exploits; few preened about killing innocent men, women and children. They might use code words and metaphors, but open blood lust hasn’t been common practice. Bin Laden was an exception — there was no ambiguity in his goals. Nevertheless, he had/has hundreds of millions of admirers. Hardly the “moral outrage of the Muslim world” that MPAC described.
MPAC and its leadership have expressed admirable goals, to “turn the page on a decade of terror led by bin Laden and al-Qaeda … (whose) pro-violence messages have been exposed as bankrupt and misguided.” But turning that page is not advanced by reflexively claiming victim status, by decrying Americans’ response to terror and plots of terror, and by candy-coating what is clearly a serious problem in the Islamic world that won’t likely disappear with bin Laden’s demise.
David A. Lehrer is president and Joe R. Hicks vice president of Community Advocates Inc. (cai-la.org), a Los Angeles-based human relations organization headed by former mayor Richard J. Riordan.