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Anti-Islamic hate-crime rate differs greatly among states

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Click on image to enlarge or download: Data source: FBIClick on image to enlarge or download: Data source: FBIWASHINGTON – Anti-Islamic hate crimes have increased significantly nationwide since 2009, but the trend is complicated to decipher at the state level.

An analysis by the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire found that states with the largest Muslim populations have broad disparities in anti-Islamic, hate-crime incidents.

For example, Texas has three times as many Muslims (421,972) as Michigan (120,351), yet Michigan had more than triple the number of anti-Islamic hate crimes (19) as Texas did in 2011 (six), according to the states’ law enforcement agencies and demographic data from the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.

Collectively, crimes targeting Muslims spiked from 107 in 2009 to 160 in 2010, a 49.5 percent increase and the largest since 2001, according to the FBI. There were 157 incidents in 2011, the last year for which federal hate-crime data is available.

The 2010 surge was stimulated by opposition to construction of the Park51 Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York, efforts like Oklahoma’s to ban the supposed threat of Sharia Law being used in state courtrooms and the cacophonous political rhetoric that the issues spawned, said Corey Saylor, legislative director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil liberties group.

“There is a network in this country that was slowly gaining steam over the last decade to heighten fear of Muslims,” Saylor said. “Whenever you have people who are afraid, some within that group are going to lash out.”

A high concentration of Muslims in a state was not an automatic indicator that they encountered more discrimination there. Nor was the presence of hate groups in the area.

No anti-Muslim hate groups existed in 2009, but there were 30 by 2011, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.

Anti-Islamic hate crimes rose in eight of the 10 states with the most Muslims from 2009 to 2011, although growth was not always statistically significant. Crimes against Muslims decreased in Georgia from 2009 to 2011, and Illinois’ data was only available up to 2009.  

In 2012, New York had the most anti-Muslim hate groups (nine), according to the SPLC. Texas, Michigan, New Jersey and Illinois had none, and the other five states with the most Muslims had at least one.

Experts posited a number of theories to explain the asymmetry of anti-Islamic hate crimes among states with similar Muslim populations.

Some states, like California, are more effective than others at identifying and recording hate crimes, Mark Potok, an SPLC senior fellow, said.

Another hypothesis is visibility, Potok said. Michigan has fewer Muslims than Texas, but the Muslim community is better known in Michigan and therefore easier to target.

From a prosecutor’s perspective, pursuing a hate-crime charge when it wouldn’t heighten the criminal’s punishment is discouraging, Bill Turner, a former district attorney in Brazos County, Texas, said.

Even if prosecutors do pursue the charge, it’s very difficult to prove bias motivation, Turner said.   

The American Muslim community is made up of people from all over the world. Someone’s ethnic background can be indicative of how comfortable he or she is in dealing with the authorities, Mark Bishop, who works in the community relations division of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, said.

Muslims in Michigan, which has one of the highest concentrations of Arabs in the country, may have dramatically different experiences of interacting with and trusting police officers compared to an Islamic community of a different ethnicity, Bishop said.

More recent immigrants may be less trusting of authority, he said.

“It can be hard enough to come forward to say you’re a victim,” Bishop said. “But the on top of it, to say, ‘I’m a victim of because of something I am and something I cannot change,’ it makes it even more difficult from a victimology side of the coin.”

By conservative estimates, 2.6 million Muslims live in the United States, a number that is expected to double by 2030, and 157 hate-crimes incidents targeting them is statistically insignificant. The highest rate of anti-Islamic hate-crime incidents in 2011 was 0.19 per 100,000 people in New Jersey and Michigan. But Potok, citing a new Bureau of Justice Statistics report, said the FBI’s data is understated and that the real number of anti-Islamic hate crimes is probably between 3,500 and 5,000.

The report, which is based on a national survey, estimated there was an average of 260,000 hate crimes, religious or otherwise, annually from 2009 to 2011. The FBI places the number at 6,480.

The discrepancy is rooted in how the agencies define hate crimes, Lynn Langton, a statistician who co-wrote the BJS report, said. Muslims who feel  they have been victimized because of their religion count as hate-crime victims by BJS standards. The FBI’s data is based on police records, she said. The BJS report also includes crimes not reported to the police.

“We’re not saying that we’re right, and the FBI is wrong,” Langton said. “It’s just that we cast a broader net.”

She could not confirm the accuracy of Potok’s estimate but agreed that the number of anti-Islamic hate crimes is probably much higher than the FBI’s statistics. The FBI does not comment on the data it compiles, spokesman Christopher M. Allen said.

High-profile, anti-Islamic hate crimes, such as a film student charged with slashing the throat of a Muslim taxi driver in 2010, have raised awareness of crimes targeting Muslims. But sometimes, other religious groups pay the cost  when an anti-Islamic hate crime is attempted.  

Erika Menendez was charged with murdering a man last year by pushing him in front of an oncoming subway train in New York because she mistakenly thought he was Muslim. There is also speculation that the 2012 Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin occurred because the killer thought he was targeting a mosque.

Before the September 11 attacks, there were very few anti-Islamic hate crimes, according to the FBI. The number of incidents skyrocketed by more than 1,600 percent from 28 in 2000 to 481 in 2001 and has remained above 100 every year since.

The number of hate crimes plummeted by 68 percent from 481 in 2001 to 155 in 2002, which Potok attributed largely to President George W. Bush’s speeches in the aftermath of 9/11, emphasizing that Muslim Americans were not the enemy.

“There are many things one could criticize Bush for… but he really did have the effect of calming the country down and pouring water on a major backlash,” Potok said. “Words have consequences, especially from leading public figures.”

Anti-Jewish hate crimes decreased nationally by 17 percent from 931 incidents in 2009 to 771 in 2011, but Jews were still the most targeted religious group by far. Anti-Catholic hate crimes rose from 51 to 67, and anti-Protestant incidents grew from 38 to 44.

Pre-emption is a key aspect of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights’ approach to combating hate crimes, Leslee Fritz, the institution’s public affairs director, said.

The department has partnerships with law enforcement agencies, religious organizations and advocacy groups to raise awareness about bias-motivated offenses and reduce them.

“A hate crime against one is a hate crime against all,” Fritz said.

The names and struggles of the victims are often drowned in the sea of hate-crime numbers, Saylor said. Digits replace faces, and the real-world implications of the crimes that were committed and the lives they ruined are forgotten.

“To ignore it is to potentially allow the floodgates of hate crimes to open. Every action has to be taken to make sure those numbers go down again,” Saylor said. “Because if you’re the person targeted by a hate crime, one case is entirely too many.”

Reach reporter Amer Taleb at Amer.Taleb@SHNS.COM or 202-326-9867. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.

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