Anti-Muslim Sentiment in the United States: My Two Cents

Tonight (April 5, 2016), I will participate in a panel discussion considering, primarily, anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. The other participants include a Catholic priest, a Rabbi, a historian of 20th century Germany, and former official for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). The panel includes a scholar of modern German history and a Rabbi because it considers, in a broader context, the “parallels” of historic anti-Semitism and modern anti-Muslim sentiment, seemingly suggesting that modern American Muslims are experiencing something similar to what German Jews experienced in the 1930s under Hitler. This seems like an odd framework for a panel discussion on anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S., as my initial thought is to instinctively dismiss the comparison. Nazi Germany and 21st century America? Nevertheless, the prospect of taking part in an important discussion on the topic of anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. with such an interesting and informed group makes it well worth enduring the framework for the discussion.

Let me consider (or think through) some related issues more fully below…

Is it surprising that many non-Muslim Americans have concerns about Islam and its teachings?

Not really. Media in all forms (online, print, television) bombards Americans with with nearly daily stories and examples of Islamic extremism. Whether the reporting covers tragic events in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Africa, Asia, or the Middle East, there are daily reports of Muslims committing acts of terrorism or other forms of extremism, whether by Muslim acting individually, as part of a group, or on behalf of Islamic governments. The one thing that connects such stories is that the various worldwide tragedies being reported in U.S. media all relate to how some Muslim somewhere interprets his faith to call for such actions. In light of such a media onslaught, it would be odd if Americans did not express some level of concern.

Consider, for example, that over the past two weeks alone there have been over thirty attacks resulting in thousands of casualties in fourteen countries, including Syria, Iraq, Thailand, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Yemen, Libya, Scotland, Bangladesh, Belgium, Egypt, and Turkey. Perhaps the most disturbing of these attacks from the point of view of many Americans, due to the historical and cultural affinity of the United States and Europe (e.g. both as part of the broader “West”), was the attack on March 22nd in Belgium where 35 were killed and 228 wounded. Another attack that provoked considerable outrage in the predominantly Christian west was the attack on Christians celebrating Easter in Lahore, Pakistan, on March 27th, resulting in 74 deaths and 362 wounded.

Again, all of this took place in only the last two weeks and many of these events were widely reported on in the West. Yet this level of intensity is not unique as similar levels of extremist activities can be registered by carefully analyzing data dating back many years. I know it is popular to sometimes highlight terrorism by other groups (e.g. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc…), but systematic studies, such as the Global Terrorism Index, which indexes thousands of attacks each year, have shown that other groups (even when all combined) pale in comparison to Muslims in the commission of worldwide acts of terrorism or violent religious extremism. Indeed, as I have previously noted, in the case of the United States, there have been about 62 Americans killed by Islamic extremists, for example, for every 1 American killed by right-wing extremists over the last fifteen years. Again, a ratio of 62 to 1.

With Americans being fed a steady diet of such attacks through various forms of media, it is not surprising that some, or even many, would feel concerns, or even fears, about Islam. Islamic extremists seek to create those fears for their own purposes and those fears would not exist if it were not for the actions of extremists claiming to act on behalf of Islam. Heightened security fears and responses in the U.S. and Europe, which are often criticized for contributing to discriminatory sentiments toward Muslims, are not (in the minds of many Americans) simply irrational knee-jerk responses. They are the product of very real threats and the failure of U.S. and European security services to protect their citizens. For this reason, if critics of “paranoia” about Muslims in the United States simply mock such concerns without really trying to understand them, referring to them only as irrational or the product of bigotry, not many Americans will listen. The stakes, as many Americans see them, are simply too high.

Certainly there are legitimate and nuanced counter arguments that can be made to argue that understandings of Islam among Muslims are not monolithic or uniform (and they aren’t). Indeed, many, or most, Muslims advocate peace and would never involve themselves in such activity. I know many Muslims personally (fellow scholars, colleagues, students, etc…) who condemn and are appalled by such attacks by extremists who do terrible things claiming to represent Islam. Also the religious rationale that Islamic terrorists or extremists often cite for their actions is often also connected to social and economic pressures that go beyond simply religious motivations. But the argument about social and economic pressures as a cause of extremism only goes so far. As Theodore Dalrymple has recently noted, “After all, impoverished and unemployed Christian Congolese, of whom there are many in Belgium, are not blowing themselves up in the airport and the metro.” Indeed, many poor non-Muslims the world over experience the same social and economic pressures and do not resort to this type of violence on anywhere near the same scale and scope on so many varying civilizational fronts (e.g. not just in the West or Middle East, but also Africa and Asia). With such overwhelming numbers of attacks worldwide the “nuance” of such counter-arguments claiming Islam is no different than any other religion on this issue, at least in terms of the current scale and quantity of attacks, will carry little weight in the minds of many Americans with whom I have discussed the issue.

Rather than arguing the problem of Islamic extremism is no different than similar problems found in the Christian, Jewish, or Buddhist faiths, which most Americans know to be false (based on the numbers and frequency of attacks by Islamic extremists), it seems a better and more accurate approach, one that would be better accepted by fair minded Americans, would be to acknowledge that the Muslim world is undergoing a severe and unique trial in dealing with extremism at this time in its history (whatever the causes), but that many Muslims reject extremism and are fighting for their more enlightened understandings of their faith.

But most of the attacks you mentioned above are overseas. Not a single attack you listed took place in the United States over the past two weeks, so isn’t it irrational for Americans to have concerns about Islam since they live relatively safe from Islamic extremism?

The idea that Americans are safe from Islamic terrorism, or that such fears are overblown and only the product of a fear mongering media, is not born out by the numbers. While no attacks have taken place over the past two weeks, around 10,000 Americans (yes, 10,000) have either been killed or wounded by Islamic extremists over the past fifteen years in the United States.

Although Islamic terrorism in the United States is sometimes dismissed as a significant threat for Americans, 10,000 domestic casualties is not an inconsequential number. To put this figure in perspective, the U.S. war in Afghanistan, involving open and direct warfare by U.S. forces over nearly the same time period, has resulted in about 20,000 casualties.

The total number of Americans killed in the United States over the last fifteen years is around 3,000, but thousands more have been wounded in such attacks and are often left out of considerations about the impact of Islamic extremism on Americans at home. The events of 9/11, of course, make up the bulk of these casualties, with close to 3,000 killed and over 6,000 hospitalized for various injuries, but there have been many other attacks. Among the better known include the Boston Marathon Bombing attack (4 dead and 264 injured), the San Bernardino attack (14 dead and 17 injured), the Chattanooga attack (5 dead and 2 injured), the Fort Hood attack (13 dead and 31 injured), and the Beltway Sniper Attacks resulting in at least 10 dead and an unknown number injured. This is by no means an exhaustive list, as there are many other less sensational and smaller scale attacks that did not receive much national media attention, but did receive considerable local media attention. All together, they add up to almost 10,000 total casualties on U.S. soil.

Consider that each of these 10,000 casualties represents a member of an extended American family, so their death or injury impacts their family members quite deeply. In my case, for example, were I to be injured or killed in a case of Islamic terrorism, my wife, my three children, my parents, my in-laws, my brother, my sister, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc… would all feel a significant (to greater and lesser degrees) impact as a result. This is not baggage that can be carried lightly or let go of quickly by surviving family members. In some cases, the same impact would also be felt by the friends, students, and co-workers of a victim. Based on my admittedly anecdotal observations, this inter-connected web of relationships has reached far and wide among the American population on the issue of terrorism. Those many Americans, perhaps millions, somehow connected to a victim of Islamic terrorism do not view it as a minor issue and generally tune out those who dismiss it as a concern.

Moreover, as government security officials and representatives of Islamic terrorist groups alike have noted, the number of casualties on U.S. soil due to Islamic extremism would be far higher if there were not extraordinary security measures put in place to prevent most of them.

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Unfortunately, they can’t get them all and there is a high likelihood we will witness more attacks on U.S. soil. To this point there have been 82 Islamic State related arrests in the United States over the last two years and that is just for those connected to the Islamic State and not other extremist organizations like al-Qaeda or unaffiliated individuals (e.g. “lone wolves”). There are also currently around 1000 investigations in all fifty U.S. states related to the Islamic State alone at various levels of law enforcement. Again, this is a legitimate reason for concern.

Okay, so Islamic terrorism is a real problem and statistically happens on a far greater scale than with members of other religious groups, but it is unfair to associate it with Islam as 99.9% of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims reject extremism.

I agree that is is wrong to associate Islamic terrorism with all Muslims. I certainly don’t. I base my view on my anecdotal observations and interactions with many Muslims whom I know to reject extremism and find peace, charity, and positive inspiration in their faith. Yet I also base it on something more concrete…the numbers. Polls show that a majority of Muslims typically reject most forms of extremism.

My worry is that such claims are also sometimes used to dismiss other very real concerns that are born out objectively by the same numbers. The 99.9% figure, cited by President Obama for example, has no basis on statistical analysis or any other evidence that I am aware of. Instead, as I have demonstrated elsewhere, the number of Muslims that explicitly reject and condemn groups like the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban, fall somewhere around 57% based on polling. So yes, it is still a majority of Muslims that explicitly and clearly reject this type of extremism, but not the overwhelming majority we often hear, which is a significant concern. Consider that even a minority of Muslims, out of a total worldwide population of 1.7 billion, potentially represents hundreds of millions of people. Moreover, concerning other forms of extremism (e.g. death for apostasy), the numbers of support among Muslims in some parts of the world is far higher. I realize scientific polls are not perfect and their statistical percentages cannot be precisely extrapolated to real numbers, but the reality is that they are probably our best opportunity for understanding (in a general sense) broader Muslim opinion on such issues when they are conducted by reputable polling agencies. Regardless of any concerns about the precision of polls, none of them support the 99% claim as mentioned above, which leaves one wondering about the basis for the claim in the first place. What is it?

There is other evidence to consider that also suggests levels of support for extremism within the Muslim world are far too high (even if still a minority). The powerful online presence of the Islamic State, and its ability to win support and draw recruits, has been well documented. There are, reportedly, around 200,000 supportive tweets, Facebook posts, and other types of online postings made on behalf of the Islamic State, reaching up to 100 million people per day (according to high end estimates). The success of their online efforts is reflected in the tens of thousands (estimates range from 30,000 to 80,000) of foreign Muslims that have fled to join the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, despite the efforts of the global community to prevent them. Each of them had a support network in their home countries, as well as the countries they traveled through, that made it possible. Moreover, the Islamic State now claims supporters in 20 countries, in some cases with thousands of supporters actively engaged in military or terrorism efforts on their behalf (e.g. Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan, etc…). All of this would be impossible if practically no Muslims supported them, as suggested by the 99.9% claim.

Frankly, I think that those Muslims combatting extremism in their faith, that unreservedly condemn the actions of groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, are best served in their efforts when we acknowledge the challenges and scope of extremism within Islam honestly. To downplay the problem, nearly suggesting that extremism doesn’t exist (e.g. “99.9% reject it”), only makes it tougher for those Muslims actively combatting it to get the urgent aid and support they need. Acknowledging there is a problem seems to be the first step non-Muslims and westerners can take in aiding those Muslims seeking to counter extremism in their ranks. I understand the fear is that one can paint with too broad a brush in acknowledging this problem openly and honestly, as then even peaceful Muslims who interpret their faith in a way that is compatible with western values can be wrongly impugned. But this simply calls for nuance and clarity in how the problem is acknowledged, rather than effectively denying the scope of its existence.

Getting back to the primary focus of this post, when Americans are told that practically no Muslims support extremism, but then witness the ongoing drumbeat of tens of thousands of attacks by Islamic extremists around the world over the last fifteen years, as well as witness reports of tens of thousands of foreign volunteers from nations across the globe feeding the growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as view poll after poll suggesting that significant minorities of the world’s Muslims do embrace extremist views on one topic or another, it makes them skeptical to hear that practically no Muslims (% .01) support extremism. Many simply feel misled and become less trusting of what their political leaders and elites will tell them in the future. So denial, effectively, is not a good strategy for fostering generally more positive views of Muslims by Americans. American politicians and other leaders should be upfront and open in acknowledging that extremism is a major problem in many parts of the Islamic world and that Muslims combatting such extremism need western support (in whatever form they think best according to their efforts) to win their ideological battles. Highlight the efforts of the good guys, so to speak, rather than pretending virtually no bad guys exist.  This will give Americans a much better understanding of what they are witnessing in the Islamic world and give them positive examples of Muslims combatting extremism in contrast to the negative ones.

But while there have been around 3,000 Americans killed in various attacks by extremists over the last fifteen years, as well as almost 7,000 additional casualties, many Muslims in the U.S. have experienced violence from bigoted Americans.

In the United States, there have been four Muslims that have been killed over the last fifteen years as a clear result of anti-Muslim bigotry or “Islamophobia.” Four deaths is a tragedy, of course, but the number seems low if as many Americans were as dead-set on causing harm to Muslims as some have suggested. Certainly there are some Americans that have wanted to do harm to U.S. Muslims, as beyond the four deaths there have also been many reports and prosecutions of threats, physical assaults, and even some additional attempted murders, but very few actual killings.

All four deaths are listed on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of anti-Muslim hate crimes and bias incidents collected by the SPLC from news reports from 9/11 until the list was submitted to the U.S. Senate on March 29, 2011. They include two murders that took place shortly after the events of 9/11, when on September 15th a Muslim Pakistani immigrant was killed in Dallas and again on September 29th when a Yemeni convenience store owner was shot outside his store after receiving anti-Arab threats. Both murders were a direct response to the events of 9/11. In 2002 a third murder of a Muslim as revenge for 9/11 took place in Detroit. Perhaps the most disturbing case involved the later 2008 murder of a Muslim mother of six from Afghanistan, who was killed because of her Muslim heritage.

Since the SPLC list was produced in March of 2011, three other Muslims were killed in a high profile case in Chapel Hill in 2015, where three young bright Muslim college students were killed by a man with a history anti-religious (not just anti-Islamic) views. Yet the only motive that Chapel Hill police have offered for the killings to date is that the attack may have happened as a result of a dispute over a parking space, a view hotly contested by various Muslim commentators who instead insist it was a hate crime.

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Above: The three young victims of the Chapel Hill shooting- Deah Barakat, 23, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and Razan Abus Salha, 19.

Beyond these murders, Muslims in the United States have suffered from many other types of crimes (ranging from physical assault and arson to verbal slurs or threats) inspired by fear or bigotry. But the overall level does not seem especially high in comparison to other groups, at least not based on recent FBI’s comprehensive hate crimes statistics from 2013 and 2014 (full stats for 2015 have not been released yet). According to statistics from 2013, with a variety of incidents falling under the broader category of “anti-religious hate crimes,” the FBI lists 1,223 such crimes. Attacks on U.S. Muslims accounted for 13.7% (168) of these crimes. American Jews, in contrast, suffered 60.3% (738) of these crimes. A similar pattern held in 2014, where overall hate crimes declined significantly to only 1092 offenses. Of the reduced number, Muslims suffered 16.3% (178) of the crimes while Jews suffered 58.2% (636) of the crimes.

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One may argue that Jews outnumber Muslims in the U.S. and perhaps this accounts for the disproportionately higher number of attacks on Jews over Muslims, but population statistics alone do not account for this. According to the Pew Research Center in 2014 Jews represented just under 2% of the U.S. population while Muslims represented just under 1%. So Jews outnumber Muslims in the U.S. by 2 to 1. Yet attacks on U.S. Jews in 2013 outnumbered attacks on U.S. Muslims by almost 5 to 1 and in 2014 by around 3.5 to 1. These numbers demonstrate how the anti-Muslim hate crimes of 2014 pale in comparison to anti-Jewish hate crimes during the same period. In terms of total numbers, they also pale in comparison to hate crimes carried out based on sexual orientation (1178 crimes in 2014), ethnicity (790 crimes in 2014), and racial bias (3081 crimes in 2014).

While all hate crimes directed toward Muslims are reprehensible, the somewhat limited numbers (at least in comparison with other groups) may suggest a degree of restraint on the part of the broader U.S. population in response to what some Americans see as the provocation of 9/11 (and other ongoing attacks by Islamic extremists since then). Consider, for example, how it was not Jews who carried out the attacks of 9/11, San Bernardino, Fort Hood, Boston, or any of the others that collectively have resulted in nearly 10,000 American casualties on U.S. soil. Israel is also considered a U.S. ally and Christian-Jewish relations have reached a high point over the last several years. Yet U.S. Jews have comparatively suffered from four to five times the number of attacks that have been carried out against Muslims. This may suggest some degree of deep seated anti-Semitism in parts of the U.S. population (including, I might add, among some U.S. Muslims who carry out some of these attacks), but it also suggests that the efforts of Presidents Bush and Obama and other leaders may have had a positive effect on this issue as a result of their dialogues with the American people. I know many who, in the wake of a bloody attack on Americans by Islamic extremists, are frustrated, even angry, by the efforts of U.S. leaders to so immediately call for tolerance and respect for U.S. Muslim communities in response to such tragedies. Critics charge that such leaders seem more worried about the welfare of U.S. Muslims than they do about the victims of Islamic extremism. But the fact that so comparatively few attacks have been directed against Muslims (at least in comparison to other groups) suggests that such rhetoric may be playing a part in limiting the appeal of violence directed against U.S. Muslim communities by angry non-Muslim Americans. It certainly does not prevent the violence entirely, unfortunately, but perhaps it has been a useful factor in restraining it.

In sum, it seems to me that anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States could be (in part) combatted in three ways.

  1. Acknowledge that American fears of Islamic extremism are legitimate. The impact of nearly 10,000 casualties on U.S. soil over the last fifteen years and over 1,000 current law enforcement investigations related to the Islamic State alone demonstrate this is so, as does the immense worldwide impact of Islamic extremism witnessed almost daily by Americans in various forms of media. Fear, or at least concern, about this problem is not an irrational response. Suggesting otherwise, or suggesting such concerns are simply the result of bigotry, will simply offend genuinely concerned Americans and make many of them tune you out. Acknowledging the legitimacy of such concerns as a starting point will likely make any further dialogue on the issue more fruitful.
  1. Drop the 99.9% argument that practically no Muslims support extremism. It flies in the face of any honest evaluation of current circumstances in the Islamic world and falsely ends discussion of a real problem. Instead, acknowledge that many Muslims (but certainly not all) around the world do embrace various forms of extremism as clearly reflected in disturbingly high levels of support for groups like the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, or others, or even in high levels of support for extreme laws like death for apostasy. The numbers (as highlighted in links provided above) are not inconsequential and represent a genuine worry for many Americans.
  1. Once the fears of Americans over Islamic extremism are acknowledged, as well the scale of the current problem in the Muslim world, then a more fruitful discussion can begin of Muslim efforts to combat extremism among their co-religionists (which many Americans seem ill-informed on) and how the West can aid in those efforts. As I mentioned earlier, emphasize the “good guys” in their efforts against the extremists to clearly demonstrate that Muslims are not monolithic in their views or ideology, but rather fall along a spectrum ranging from extremists (a minority) to more peaceful Muslims who reject extremism (a majority). It offers the multiple benefits of educating Americans more fully on the multiplicity of views in Islam, informing Americans on Muslim efforts to combat extremism within the Islamic world, and to build well deserved support and sympathy for the efforts of Muslim moderates (who themselves are usually the primary targets of the extremists).

This three-fold approach will provide a more honest and informative framework for effectively discussing the scourge of Islamic extremism in the modern era. Americans will no longer feel that their concerns are being dismissed and that they are being subjected to patronizing platitudes about Islam that contradict everything they have witnessed in the media, or even personally, on this topic over the past fifteen years. Then they will likely (in my experience) be more receptive to a more complex dialogue on these issues and possibly develop even greater sympathy and support for moderate Muslim communities trying to deal with this problem.

At this point, anyway, these are some of my thoughts going into tonight’s discussion. It should be interesting to see how the other panelists respond to similar issues and listen to their ideas. I am sure I will learn some things and think about new ways to consider some of these issues. I will report back with an update as much more on this topic can be considered in future posts (e.g. current  anti-Muslim political rhetoric in the U.S. during the presidential election, comparison of German Jews and American Muslims, an interview with an American Muslim learning their perspective on these issues, etc…).

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Addendum

Photos of the above mentioned forum on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia at Florida State College at Jacksonville on April 5, 2016. The panel included (from left to right in the first picture) myself, Dr. Parvez Ahmed, Dr. Charles Closmann, Monsignor Daniel Logan, and Rabbi Gary Perras. The participants held very diverse views on these issues, leading to an engaging and interesting (and at times tense) discussion. Around 75 people attended.

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