Halting anti-Muslim violence

Many of the recent attacks have taken place shortly after well-publicised anti-Muslim hate speeches, argues author.

Muslim Group Rallies Against Anti-Islam Sentiment In Los Angeles
Most of the anti-Muslim attacks have been dismissed as "the work of mentally ill individuals" [Getty Images]

There has been a sudden uptick in the number of violent hate crimes where the victims are thought to be Muslim or “Middle Eastern”. Sunando Sen, a Hindu man originally from India, was shoved in front of an oncoming subway train in New York City, where he died. Cameron Mohammed, a Catholic American man whose parents are from Trinidad, was shot in the face next to a Walmart near Tampa, Florida. The suspect in Florida was apparently offended by seeing Mohammed walking with a white woman. He asked his victim whether he was “from the Middle East”, and then fired a pellet gun. He later told police that he didn’t care that his victim wasn’t Muslim, saying, “They are all the same”. 

The New York and Florida attacks took place just days apart. They follow a shocking string of similar attacks in recent months: several Middle Eastern shopkeepers were murdered in New York City; a Muslim man was stabbed in the back in Queens; another man in Queens was brutally beaten after his assailants asked if he was “Hindu or Muslim”; there was a shooting at a mosque in Chicago and an acid bomb attack at a different Chicago-area mosque; two arson attacks destroyed a mosque in Joplin, Missouri; and there was the tragic mass shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin that killed six worshippers. 

Most of these attacks have been dismissed as the work of mentally ill individuals, rather than symptoms of larger social problems. The lack of equal access to health care in the United States, especially mental health care, could very well be part of the explanation for the increase in hate attacks. But there is all-too-clear evidence that people who “look Muslim” are under deliberate attack in the US. Hate speech and racial/ethnic profiling must be understood as contributing factors in explaining the persistence of violent hate attacks. 

Discriminatory policies

It’s too easy to dismiss any one hate crime as the work of a “crazy” individual. Racism is often disregarded as the work of a “few bad apples”, even though sociological research has shown time and again that racism exists within the structures of American society. While it’s true that some of the perpetrators in hate attacks suffer from mental illness, by itself that cannot explain the pattern of hate attacks. 

Official FBI statistics on hate crimes published last month found that the number of hate attacks on Muslims remained high after a spike in 2010 that correlated with nationally prominent fear-mongering over the construction of a mosque in Manhattan. Many of the recent attacks have taken place shortly after well-publicised anti-Muslim hate speeches, sometimes coming directly from public officials. 

Congresswoman Michelle Bachman (R-MN) even demanded a McCarthy-esque investigation of Muslim “infiltration” in the federal government, and she doubled-down on her comments after Republican leaders like Arizona Senator John McCain repudiated her. 

Former Congressman Joe Walsh (R-IL) whipped up Islamophobic fear when he said that “Muslims are here trying to kill Americans every day” and warned without evidence of an impending attack in Chicago that would “make 9/11 look like child’s play”. Shortly after these statements, two mosques in the Chicago area experienced violent hate attacks. 

Hate speech and discriminatory policies targeting Muslim Americans remain common in the US. A well-funded hate campaign is currently placing anti-Muslim billboard advertisements in prominent locations around the country, including in the New York City and Washington, DC, subway systems. Another sophisticated operation has promoted anti-Sharia hysteria all around the US, resulting in nearly half of the state legislatures taking up unnecessary “bans” on Sharia law

The New York Police Department engaged in clandestine profiling of Muslim Americans in restaurants, mosques and college campuses all across the northeastern US. The Transportation Security Administration was accused by one of its own agents of engaging in “rampant” racial profiling at Boston’s Logan Airport, and despite promising to investigate there have been no changes

The connection between this hateful rhetoric, discriminatory policies and the increasing number of violent hate crimes is easy to see. It is perhaps less easy to see the impact of long-term cutbacks in the mental health infrastructure. In 2011, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found massive budget cutbacks for public mental health services: over $1.6bn since 2009 alone. This is on top of continuous budget cuts over the past 10 years in most states. NAMI predicted that these cuts put “tens of thousands of citizens at great risk”. 

Mental health infrastructure

The Kaiser Family Foundation found a huge shift away from inpatient care and a massive shift toward prescription drugs from 1985 to 2005. The roots of this shift actually begin with a 1963 law that sought to move treatment away from state-run facilities and toward private settings, but instead the “sickest patients have begun turning up in jails and homeless shelters with a frequency that mirrors that of the late 1800s” according to a recent analysis in the New York Times

“Hate speech and racial/ethnic profiling must be understood as contributing factors in explaining the persistence of hate attacks.”

The good news is that the Obamacare programme places additional mental health requirements on health insurance providers, but much more work is needed to reverse the damage done to America’s mental health infrastructure. In looking for ways to prevent hate attacks, expanding access to mental health would be a tremendous step forward. 

In addition, more work is urgently needed to shore up civil rights protection in the US. It’s difficult to even know the extent of hate crimes targeting Arab, Muslim, Sikh and South Asian Americans, in large part due to inconsistent and outdated practices by the FBI. The law governing the FBI’s collection of hate crimes data has not been updated since 1990. 

One of the symptoms of the inadequate data is a lack of a category for hate crimes targeting Sikhs – so attacks like the shooting in Wisconsin are classified as “anti-other group” or perhaps even “anti-Muslim”. Federal hate crime statutes have been updated only twice since 1968, and the increased penalties for hate crimes apply only to federal cases. Additional protections and improved funding for educational and outreach efforts to prevent hate crimes should be urgently approved. 

Finally, perhaps the most promising avenue for change comes through holding elected officials and other public figures accountable for their hate speech and support of discriminatory policies. Several prominent anti-Muslim members of Congress lost their seats in the 2012 election, although Congresswoman Bachmann managed to win re-election by a slim margin. 

Efforts by civil rights advocates to “name and shame” hatemongers have stepped up in recent months, and the Council on American Islamic Relations in Chicago has begun a campaign to reclaim the word “jihad”. Muslim American political activists in Chicago have successfully run for public office in recent years. Building on successes like these should help to curtail hate speech, discriminatory policies and hate crimes.

Erik Love studies civil rights advocacy in the United States. He is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Dickinson College and a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

Follow him on Twitter: @ErikLove