April 23, 2013
The Islamophobia Myth
This past week, three of Robin Abcarian's Perspective columns in the Los Angeles Times concerned the "new worries" of some American Muslims that the "torrent of post-9/11 harassment and hysteria will be repeated." Abcarian started writing about these "worries" even before the suspected Boston Marathon bombers were identified as, in fact, Muslim Americans.
The not-too-subtle subtext of Abcarian's pieces is that Americans harbor hostility toward Muslims that will well to the surface again in the wake of the Boston bombings. After all, as she pointed out, hate crimes against Muslim Americans spiked 1,600% in the months after 9/11 (from 28 in 2000 to 481 in 2001). In her piece on Friday, Abcarian basically hinges her analysis on an isolated anecdote in Ohio that suggests that some Americans are so mean-spirited and vengeful toward Muslims that they took out their "hysteria" on a 10-year-old kid.
It is a dangerous strategy to extrapolate from an anomalous incident to reach grandiose conclusions, especially in an era of polling and focus groups. There are far more reliable sources -- namely, survey data -- than a mother describing her kid in rural Ohio.
In fact, the evidence shows that American attitudes toward Muslims are the polar opposite of what Abcarian would have you believe. Between 100 and 200 anti-Muslim hate crimes have been committed against Muslims per year since 2002, according to the FBI -- this, in a nation of about 315 million people and thousands upon thousands of crimes. Those crimes occurred over a period in which there was the Times Square bomber, the attempted "underwear bombing" of a passenger place, the Ft. Hood massacre and numerous other dreadful acts and planned acts linked in some way to radical Islam. Just this week Canadian authorities announced they had stopped a planned terrorist attack on a busy passenger train.
This isn't to minimize violence committed against Muslims, but as a point of reference, FBI statistics show that anti-Jewish hate crimes in 2011 numbered 771; that same year, hate crimes against Muslims totaled 157 incidents. (There are between 5 million and 6 million Muslims in the U.S., according to various estimates, and there are about 6.5 million Jews.) Anti-Jewish crimes outnumbered those committed against Muslims by nearly a 5-to-1 margin, yet no rational person would imply that there is a wave of anti-Semitic harassment and hysteria in America. There were more than 2,000 incidents directed at blacks in 2011 (there are about 39 million African Americans in the U.S.). There would have to be nearly seven times as many incidents against Muslim Americans for the hate crimes to equal, on a per-capita basis, the rate of hate crimes against African Americans. So much for our anti-Muslim hysteria.
In August 2011, the Pew Center published a study that belies the notion that Muslims in America are, as Abcarian quoted one person, "treated like crap." The study revealed:
To be absolutely clear, a majority of Muslim Americans evidence greater satisfaction at the way things are going in the United States than the general public by more than a 2-to-1 margin -- hardly an attitude that would survive pervasive harassment.
Americans should be applauded for their continuing resistance to stereotyping and Islamophobia. We get that it is wrong to generalize from an individual to the group. Religious leaders and civil rights activists have successfully imparted that message to several generations of Americans, and it seems to have stuck.
Our broadcast and print media over the last week have made discernible efforts (even in the now-infamous CNN gaffe about an arrest of a "dark-skinned" man) to avoid inflammatory rhetoric or generalizing from individuals to a broader group. Most mainstream reporters seem to be aware of the sensitive work they are involved in and that emotions can run high. Commentators appear to balance the transparently obvious fact of repeated incidents carried out by adherents of militant Islam with not indicting an entire religious group for the sins of the few.
Rather than citing "bad memories and new worries," we should recognize and praise the tolerance that Americans have continued to demonstrate in the face of repeated outrages.*
* A version of this article appeared on the Los Angeles Times Blowback page.