A new report published by Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding has documented an upsurge in violence against Muslims in the United States coinciding with the 2016 election campaign.
The major uptick in hate crimes dates back toward the end of 2015, which corresponds with Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States — but also with other possibly inciting factors such as the San Bernardino shooting and intensified political debate over the Syrian refugee crisis.
“Our data suggests that acts and threats of anti-Muslim violence increased in 2015, and that it has escalated further during the presidential election season,” said Engy Abdelkader, a member of the U.S. State Department Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group and the author of the report.
The FBI has not released its own figures for anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2015. But in recent months a number of government officials and civil society leaders have raised the possibility that the incendiary tone of the election could lead to violence. In President Barack Obama’s first visit to a mosque earlier this year, he too cited the potential dangers posed by statements and proposals being made by many GOP presidential candidates. Referring to the “inexcusable political rhetoric” that has characterized the campaign, Obama said that it was no surprise that “threats and harassment of Muslim Americans have surged.”
The report cites 180 reported incidents of anti-Muslim violence during the period between March 2015 and March 2016. Among these were 12 murders; 34 physical assaults; 56 acts of vandalisms or destruction of property; nine arsons; and eight shootings and bombings. Among the incidents noted were the murders of three university students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the murder of an Iranian-American in California by a white supremacist, and a road-rage incident in Houston in which a Palestinian-American man was killed by a man who told him to “go back to Islam.”
“Many thought that last year’s execution-style murders of three American Muslim youth in North Carolina was exceptional in nature, but there have been a spate of similar murders this past year, many of which have escaped the public’s attention,” Abdelkader said. “They speak directly to the increasingly violent nature of Islamophobia – it’s not just employment discrimination, it’s not just bullying in schools. Islamophobia now has lethal effects.”
Trump has only grown more comfortable engaging in anti-Muslim rhetoric as his popular support has risen. In a speech last week, he repeated a mythical anecdote about American soldiers executing Muslim prisoners using bullets dipped in pig’s blood during the Philippine-American War. The fictional war crime, which Trump cited as an example of effective counterterrorism policy, has become one of the presidential hopeful’s favorite talking points.
While Trump’s rhetoric has appalled many, his supporters have responded to it with enthusiasm. Polls have shown that large majorities of Republican primary voters endorse his plan to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States. His success also emboldened former rivals like Ted Cruz to put forth their own anti-Muslim policies.
“This report throws into sharper relief the relationship between anti-Muslim rhetoric and acts or threats of violence targeting the American Muslim community,” said Nathan Lean, a researcher on the report and author of the book The Islamophobia Industry. “It’s important to note, of course, that correlation does not necessarily equal causation. But in an election climate such as this, we must acknowledge the potential wide-ranging consequences of stigmatizing and politicizing an already-vulnerable minority group.”
Critics say Trump’s proposals to ban Muslims, deport undocumented immigrants, and build a wall along the border with Mexico are also laying the groundwork for eroding American democracy more broadly.
“This kind of rhetoric makes us all less safe and less free, because it feeds us fear,” said Dalia Mogahed, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a think tank. “Fear of imagined enemies within makes us more accepting of authoritarianism, conformity, and prejudice, and poses a real threat to our democracy in the long term.”
Some have also grown frustrated at the lack of attention paid to the violence that anti-Muslim rhetoric is fomenting in the United States. “I don’t see what the problem is. It’s not like Islam is a race,” Haroon Moghul, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy noted caustically. “Attacking people for the color of their skin — now that would be a problem. It’s a good thing we don’t have any of that in America.”
The report, titled “When Islamophobia Turns Violent: The 2016 Election Campaign,” was conducted by the Bridge Initiative, an academic research project at Georgetown focusing on Islamophobia.
Correction: Engy Abdelkader is the sole author of the report, Nathan Lean, who was previously indicated as a co-author, provided research assistance.
Top photo: Protesters gather outside of the Grand Hyatt Hotel during a demonstration against Donald Trump.