By Lori Peek and Elke Weesjes
Images: (L) American Protester. Public Domain (R) Mr Donald Trump New Hampshire Town Hall on August 19th, 2015 at Pinkerton Academy, Derry, NH © by Michael Vadon
Imam Siraj Wahhaj, the religious leader of the Masjid at-Taqwa in Brooklyn, said in his first sermon after the Paris attacks—that killed 130 people and injured many hundreds more—that such horrific events: “must be condemned not only with your tongue but even with your heart. You have to say: ‘Man, this is not anything to do with Islam! There is no justification—period!’” He then warned of an impending backlash: “Muslims all around the world will pay a price for what happened in France. We had nothing to do with it. We hate it. But we still pay the price” (Semple 2015).
Wahhaj was right. As the events in Paris unfolded, and as it became clear that jihadists affiliated with ISIS were responsible, Muslim Americans1 once again became the target of a shocked and angry public. Soon after the coordinated assaults in Paris, vandals spray painted an image of the Eiffel Tower inside a peace symbol on the side of a mosque in Omaha, Nebraska. Angry protesters stood outside a mosque in an affluent suburb near Kansas City, Kansas, chanting anti-Islamic slogans and encouraging their Muslim neighbors to go home. An unidentified gunman fired shots into the home of a Muslim family in Orlando, Florida. In Pflugerville, Texas, someone left a torn, feces-covered copy of the Qur’an in front of the local mosque. Four bullets were fired into the walls of the Baitul Aman mosque in Meriden, Connecticut.
As the anti-Muslim incidents continued unabated, yet another unspeakable act of collective violence was perpetrated. Just over two weeks after the tragedies in Paris, a radicalized Muslim couple carried out a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. They killed 14 innocent people and seriously injured 22 others before they were killed by authorities. The FBI labeled the pair “homegrown violent extremists,” and President Obama declared the mass shooting a terrorist attack.
In terms of a backlash, the mass shooting was like pouring gasoline on an already raging fire. After the Paris attacks, Americans were scared, angry, and repulsed. The San Bernardino tragedy, however, was different. It was an attack, committed on U.S. soil, against U.S. citizens. This was personal.
In terms of a backlash, the mass shooting was like pouring gasoline on an already raging fire.
The media soon began comparing the most recent wave of backlash violence that began after Paris and San Bernardino and the dramatic surge in anti-Islamic hostility that followed the 9/11 attacks. Journalists wanted to know which was “worse” in terms of the severity and scope. We argue, however, that rather than thinking about these moments of backlash as somehow separate, that it is more meaningful to conceptualize them as continual waves of discriminatory actions, violent incidents, and publically inflammatory statements that have ebbed and flowed in the post-9/11 period, but have certainly never receded. In fact, if we were to take a much longer view, it is important to recognize that the pre-9/11 social and political context was characterized by excessive levels of hostility, prejudice, and mistrust directed toward Muslims and Islam. The 9/11 attacks then solidified the pre-existing image of Muslims as dangerous and threatening outsiders. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and various attacks in countries around the world committed by armed Islamic insurgents have escalated many Americans’ sense of fear and bigotry.
We think it is important to put bigotry against Muslims in historical and social context because treating each incident as somehow discrete serves to ignore the compounded and cumulative nature of the attacks against this particular religious minority group. Anti-Islamic incidents surged after 9/11 and have remained elevated over pre-9/11 levels (see Peek and Meyer 2016). This indicates a “new normal” of risk for Muslim Americans. Moreover, Muslims around the world have repeatedly spoken out, have apologized after events that are not of their own making, and have ultimately suffered many emotional and physical ramifications of prior waves of backlash violence. Each time a new event occurs on a national or global scale, Muslims brace for what is coming next.
Preparing for the worst
It is not news to Muslim Americans that anti-Islamic sentiment has never fully dissipated in the post-9/11 era. In fact, Muslim American advocacy and civil rights groups, as well as Islamic religious and community leaders across the nation, have become adept at responding to the backlash that inevitably follows egregious acts of violence committed in the name of Islam. Now, more than a decade after 9/11, Muslims also have more tools and technologies available to them than ever before to try to stem the tides of anti-Islamic rhetoric and action.
Within days of the Paris attacks, for instance, Muslim leaders took to websites and to social media to condemn the attacks through the #notinmyname social media campaign (Pratt 2015).2 These same leaders also offered tips for Muslim women and men, including: be aware of your surroundings, travel in groups, change the route you normally travel by, wear a hoodie or a beanie to cover up your hijab, stand away from the subway platforms and hold on to pillars if necessary, lock your car door while driving, and always keep your phone charged.
Muslims were also concerned about attacks on their places of worship. Immediately after the Paris assaults, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) distributed a pamphlet with guidance for how to protect a mosque. What to do in the event of a fire bomb being thrown at a mosque? The pamphlet notes: “Thick wire screens do offer some protection.” What if an armed gunman approaches your place of worship? “It is also recommended that at least one, possibly two, strong sliding bolts that can be closed from the inside be installed at the main entrances for use during services if an usher spots a possible armed intruder approaching the building” (Semple 2015). The advice in this pamphlet is as startling in its content as in its matter-of-fact tone. This is just one more indicator of how Muslim Americans’ responses to backlash have become patterned, largely because waves of violence and bigotry have also become routine, even normalized, in the post-9/11 sphere (also see Orsborn 2015).
A resurgence of Islamophobia
In addition to the post-Paris and post-San Bernardino retaliatory attacks on mosques and Islamic households, Muslims were discriminated against in their places of work, on public transportation, and in other public spaces. Sometimes this hostility took the form of angry shouts; other times it escalated to physical acts of violence. Reports of verbal and physical assaults on Muslim children and youth have been reported across the nation as well. For example, a seventh grader in Vandalia, Ohio, threatened to shoot a Muslim boy on the bus ride home from school, calling him a "towel head," a "terrorist," and "the son of ISIS" while a sixth-grade girl wearing a hijab in the Bronx was reportedly punched by three boys who called her "ISIS" (Mathias 2015).
Images: (L) © David Shankbone/ Wikimedia Commons (R) © Financial Express
The above represent a few examples of the 38 hate crimes against Muslim Americans that were reported by news media in the one-month period after the Paris attacks.3 Prior to the attacks, there was an average of 12.6 such crimes each month, according to the FBI, the government entity tasked with compiling and publishing data on hate crimes. These early reports after Paris and San Bernardino indicate that the number has tripled; however, only time will tell, as these figures are based on analyses of media coverage rather than official crime report data.4
To contextualize what we know so far about the post-Paris and post-San Bernardino surge in hate crime, consider what happened after 9/11. According to the FBI, there were 350 recorded hate crimes in the one-month period from September 11, 2001 to October 11, 2001. The total number of hate crimes targeted at Muslims in the month following 9/11 was 58 times the number reported in the month leading up to the disaster (see Peek and Meyer 2016 for a full discussion of this data). This elevation in hate crime continued for the remainder of 2001 and through the first anniversary of the attacks with 14 times as many anti-Islamic hate crimes in the year following 9/11 compared to the year before (Peek 2011).
If one were only to compare what we know so far about the month following San Bernardino (38 recorded acts of backlash violence, as according to media sources) and the month after 9/11 (350 hate crimes, according to the FBI database), it seems clear that 9/11 backlash was much worse in terms of its ferocity. But as we note above, comparing only these numbers may obscure the cumulative impact of marginalization. It also certainly does not fully capture the ratcheting up of anti-Islamic rhetoric in the public sphere over these past several months.
Political backlash, the refugee crisis, and public sentiment
Political leaders have contributed to the latest surge in Islamophobia. Donald J. Trump, one of the Republican front-runners for President, has been particularly incendiary. Just five days after the San Bernardino shootings, he called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on” (Trump 2015). Trump has also said that were he to become commander-in-chief, he would institute a database to track all Muslims and would consider shutting down U.S. mosques in response to the threat posed by ISIS.
Although Trump has been one of the loudest voices, he is certainly not singing alone. Another Republican front-runner for president, Ted Cruz, joined the chorus in his repeated call for carpet bombing of Muslim-majority countries. GOP presidential hopeful Ben Carson said that he believes Islam is inconsistent with the Constitution and therefore that he would not support a Muslim candidate for president (DelReal 2015). Bobby Jindal, the Republican Governor of Louisiana took a slightly different approach when he said he could only support a Muslim candidate “who will respect the Judeo-Christian heritage of America” (Farias, 2015).
These and other politicians use national security concerns to excuse and validate anti-Muslim sentiment. Nowhere is this more apparent than in their vocal opposition to accepting Muslim refugees from Syria. On November 17, 2015, Eric Crawford (R-AR) initiated a vote in the House of Representatives to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States. The vote was 289-137, with 242 Republicans and 47 Democrats voting in favor of the bill. In addition, more than half of the country’s governors (29 Republicans and 1 Democrat) opposed President Obama’s plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees into the United States in 2016. Even though the final decision falls on the federal government, individual states can make the acceptance process difficult. In fact, most of the governors who do not agree with the President’s plans have pledged to actively prevent Syrian refugees from entering their respective states.
Regardless of the actual levels of violence perpetrated by Syrian refugees – or by Muslims, for that matter – “terrorism” and “Islam” have become intimately interlinked in the American imagination
Even when ignoring the extreme bigotry involved with demonizing entire groups of people, the assertion that refugees, who undergo a more rigorous screening than anyone else who enters the United States, pose a threat to national security is unfounded. In fact, a State Department spokesperson recently confirmed that the number refugees suspected of or charged with terrorism is negligible: “Of the nearly 785,000 refugees admitted through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program since 9/11 only about a dozen—a tiny fraction of one percent of admitted refugees—have been arrested or removed from the U.S. due to terrorism concerns that existed prior to their resettlement in the U.S. None of them were Syrian” (Ye Hee Lee 2015).
Regardless of the actual levels of violence perpetrated by Syrian refugees—or by Muslims, for that matter—“terrorism” and “Islam” have become intimately interlinked in the American imagination (Peek 2011). And that interlinkage has real consequences in terms of public opinion. A December 2015 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 46% of Americans say that Islam is more likely than other religious faiths to encourage violence among its believers (PEW Research Center 2015). A YouGov poll that was carried out in March 2015 found that 55 percent of surveyed Americans had an unfavorable opinion of Islam. Yet, the majority of respondents to that survey also stated that they do not understand the religion, do not work with anyone who is Muslim, and do not have any Muslim friends (YouGov 2015).
The lines that divide Muslim and non-Muslim Americans are sharp, and the gulf between the groups seems to be growing larger by the day. So what is the answer to this issue?
More public education regarding the origins and tenets of Islam and the diversity of its followers is often put forth as one possible solution to the growing problem of Islamophobia in the U.S. and abroad. But as Orsborn (2015) argues convincingly elsewhere, education is simply not enough. Interfaith leaders have engaged in many efforts to educate the public regarding Islam and Muslims, especially in the post-9/11 era. But even as there are more campaigns, facts, and evidence available than ever before, intolerance continues to rise. We do not mean to suggest that education does not matter – of course it does – but it alone cannot solve this crisis.
Public leadership and powerful voices also have an important role to play in closing the divide. President Obama, in his address to the nation on December 6, 2015, said in reference to overcoming the threat from terrorism: “Our success won’t depend on tough talk, or abandoning our values, or giving in to fear.” On February 3, 2016, the president visited a mosque in Baltimore where he spoke out again: “You’ve seen too often people conflating the horrific acts of terrorism with the beliefs of an entire faith. Of course recently we’ve heard inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslim Americans that has no place in our country. No surprise then that threats and harassment of Muslim Americans have surged.” He also said: “Here’s another fact: Islam has always been part of America. Starting in colonial times, many of the slaves brought here from Africa were Muslim. And even in their bondage, some kept their faith alive. A few even won their freedom and became known to many Americans. And when enshrining the freedom of religion in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, our Founders meant what they said when they said it applied to all religions” (The White House 2016).
Muslims themselves have also been active in their response to these latest terrorist atrocities. Every leading Islamic advocacy group in the United States spoke out after Paris and San Bernardino to condemn the attacks and apologize to the victims of those horrific acts. American Muslims also raised $215,515 for families of the victims of the San Bernardino shootings.
Moments of goodness and kindness always follow even the most horrific acts. The question, as we move forward and think carefully about the nature of the backlash and bigotry that Muslims continue to endure, is how else can we combat these trends and turn the tide toward justice and equality for all?
We wish to thank Israa Eldeiry for her careful review and thoughtful feedback.
CAIR. 2016. “CAIR Welcomes President Obama’s Remarks at First Visit to American Mosque” Februay 5, 2016 http://www.cair.com/press-center/press-releases/13369-cair-welcomes-president-obama-s-remarks-at-first-visit-to-american-mosque.html (accessed on February 12, 2016).
DelReal, Jose A., 2015. “Ben Carson says he would not support a Muslim for president” The Washington Post September 20, 2015 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/09/20/ben-carson-says-he-would-not-support-a-muslim-for-president/?tid=a_inl (accessed on February 12, 2016).
Farias, Cristian. 2015. “Bobby Jindal Would Vote For A Muslim Candidate If He Strongly Resembled A Christian” Huffington Post November 21, 2015 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/bobby-jindal-vote-for-muslim_us_56002233e4b00310edf7c308 (accessed on February 12, 2016).
Mathias, Christopher. 2015. “A Running List of Shameful Islamophbic Acts Since The Paris Attacks” Huffington Post November, 11, 2015 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/all-the-islamophobic-acts-in-us-canada-since-paris_us_564cee09e4b031745cef9dda (accessed on February 12, 2016).
Orsborn, Catherine. 2015. “Let’s Stop Calling Anti-Muslim Bigotry ‘Backlash’” Huffington Post December 2, 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/catherine-orsborn/lets-stop-calling-anti-muslim-bigotry-backlash_b_8687728.html (accessed on February, 15, 2016).
Peek, Lori. 2011. Behind the Backlash: Muslim Americans after 9/11. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.
Peek, Lori and Michelle Meyer. 2016 (in press). “When Hate is a Crime: Temporal and Geographic Patterns of Anti-Islamic Hate Crime after 9/11.” Crime and Criminal Justice in Disaster, 3rd ed., edited by D. W. Harper and K. Frailing, pp. 247-270. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.
Pew Research Center. 2015. Views of Government’s Handling of Terrorism Fall to Post-9/11 Low. December 15, 2015. http://www.people-press.org/2015/12/15/views-of-governments-handling-of-terrorism-fall-to-post-911-low/ (accessed on February 15, 2015).
Pratt, Savannah. 2015. “#NotInMyName: Muslims condemn attacks in Paris” CNN November, 17, 2015 http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/16/world/not-in-my-name-muslims-speak-out/ (accessed on February 12, 2016).
Semple, Kirk. 2015. “’I’m Frightened’: After Attacks in Paris, New York Muslims Cope With a Backlash” The New York Times November 25, 2015 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/26/nyregion/im-frightened-after-paris-terrorist-attacks-new-york-city-muslims-cope-with-a-backlash.html?_r=2 (accessed on February 12, 2016).
The White House. 2015. Remarks by the President at Islamic Society of Baltimore. February 3, 2016. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/02/03/remarks-president-islamic-society-baltimore (accessed on February 14, 2016)
Trump, Donald J. 2015. “Donald J. Trump Statement on Preventing Muslim Immigration” December 7, 2015 https://www.donaldjtrump.com/press-releases/donald-j.-trump-statement-on-preventing-muslim-immigration (accessed on February 12, 2016).
Ye Hee Lee, Michelle. 2015. “The viral claim that ‘not one’ refugee resettled since 9/11 has been ‘arrested on domestic terrorism charges’” The Washington Post November 19, 2015 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/11/19/the-viral-claim-that-not-one-refugee-resettled-since-911-has-been-arrested-on-domestic-terrorism-charges/ (accessed on February 12, 2016).
YouGov. 2015. Poll Islam. March 2015. http://cdn.yougov.com/cumulus_uploads/document/q2ibnn2wzp/tabs_HP_islam_20150309.pdf (accessed on February 12, 2016).
About three-quarters of all Muslims in the U.S. are native-born or naturalized citizens. We refer to “Muslim Americans” and “Muslims” throughout the article; our primary focus, regardless of citizenship status, is Muslims living in the United States. ↩
This #notinmyname hashtag emerged in response to the widely shared verse from the Qu’ran: “Whoever kills an innocent person, it is as though he has killed all of mankind.” ↩
These numbers were compiled and analyzed by a hate-crimes research group at California State University, San Bernardino. This group drew on news reports and documented a surge in assaults on hijab-wearing women; arsons and vandalism at mosques; and shootings and death threats at Islamic-owned businesses (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/18/us/politics/crimes-against-muslim-americans-and-mosques-rise-sharply.html?smid=tw-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=2). ↩
Although FBI hate crime data is considered the most reliable source for counting incidents, it is worth pausing to note that a special report by the U.S. Department of Justice, which analyzed National Crime Victimization surveys, found that the actual level of hate crime activity in the U.S. is probably 20 to 30 times higher than the numbers reported each year by the FBI. Underreporting is obviously a substantial problem, and this is especially true for immigrant and other heavily marginalized communities (Peek 2011). ↩