No matter who is eventually found and brought to justice for the odious attack in Boston, the rush to blame “the Muslims” fits a longstanding and disturbing pattern after attacks like this one. Although there have been very few terrorist attacks in the US carried out by Muslims in recent years, already there has been a widespread speculation that Muslims must be to blame.
Since 9/11, Muslim American terrorism has killed 33 people, while politically motivated attacks from white supremacists and other right-wing extremists killed more than 200 people, according to a study from the Combating Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy. Since 2010, no one has been killed or injured by Muslim American terrorism. Why do so many Americans have the knee-jerk reaction that “it’s probably the Muslims?”
In part, the constant stream of fake terrorism plots created and then “heroically” stopped by the authorities must contribute to the assumption that any terrorist attack is likely to have been carried out by Muslims. As detailed in Trevor Aaronson’s new book The Terror Factory, the FBI has for years been “discovering” fake terrorists by paying shady confidential informants.
The fake terrorist attacks set up by the FBI, where no attack is actually possible, nearly always end with a “dramatic” arrest just in the nick of time. The news media then dutifully report the FBI’s breathless press conferences announcing that they have stopped yet another terrorist. The fake terrorists, whose photographs appear in news reports around the country, are nearly always young Muslim men.
Indeed, on the same day as the Boston attack, two young Muslim men were sentenced to 20 years in prison for their participation in a fake “conspiracy” to join al-Qaeda, this time in a sting operation arranged by the New York Police Department. This sequence, where Muslim men appear in the media connected to fake terrorism, has repeated over and over, dozens of times over the past several years. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that many Americans’ immediate reaction to the horrific news from Boston is to assume that “the Muslims” must be behind the attack.
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This rush to judgment is even more disturbing because it leads directly to hate crimes against not only Muslims, but anyone who “looks Muslim”. Many Arab, Muslim, Sikh and South Asian American advocates have already made statements condemning the Boston attack, emphasising that all Americans are united in shock and grief at times like these. If history is any guide, we now must prepare for a surge in violent hate crimes impacting anyone who fits the stereotypical image of a Muslim.
After the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, Sahar Al-Mawsawi, an Iraqi refugee, was attacked at her home by “persons provoked to anger by reports linking Muslims to the bombing”. The hate crime killed her unborn baby. In New York, bomb threats were phoned in to Arab-owned businesses. These hate crimes were motivated, in part, by frequent “expert” opinions aired in the immediate aftermath of the bombing on national television about the likelihood that the attack was the result of Muslim or Middle Eastern terrorism.
Just one year later, after the accidental explosion of TWA Flight 800 in New York in 1996, initial speculation flooded the news media that Muslim or Middle Eastern terrorists were likely to blame. Once again, there was a spike in harassment of Muslim Americans.
Unfortunately, the pattern does not seem to have changed much in recent years. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing in Boston, a fallacious report that a “Saudi national” had been detained by authorities spread rapidly through social media and on 24-hour cable news channels. The Boston police quickly repudiated that report, but that did not stop professional Islamophobes from trying to leverage the Boston tragedy for exposure.
With inflammatory, baseless accusations about “Jihad in Boston”, these pundits apparently believe that there is no such thing as “bad press”. Indeed, even elected officials like Congressman Peter King (R-NY) pressed the case that Muslims are likely to blame, saying that “we don’t know for certain, but… I think we have to be looking toward either al-Qaeda or an off shoot of al-Qaeda or a self-starter here in the United States, a home-grown terrorist”.
No matter who is eventually found responsible, this knee-jerk speculation about Muslim terrorism is unwarranted and unhelpful. As the investigation unfolds, I hope that the pattern is broken and only the individuals responsible for the attack are blamed. It should go without saying that the ethnic or religious identity of the individuals responsible for the Boston attack is irrelevant. Nevertheless, if the perpetrators in Boston are not white, expect the experts to declare them and the attack products of their culture. If the perpetrators are white, the experts will almost certainly declare them insane, clearly not representative of their communities.
The reality is that everyone is horrified by what happened in Boston. Any attack like this is an attack on all Americans. All of us are united in our grief, and in our desire for justice.
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