An upsurge in anti-Muslim activities across the United States in recent years has tracked closely with changes in the political cycle, according to data released in a new report by the New America Foundation. The report, “Anti-Muslim Activities in the United States: Violence, Threats, and Discrimination at the Local Level,” tracks more than 650 separate anti-Muslim incidents across the country since 2012. These incidents include public denunciations of Islam and Muslims by elected officials, proposed laws targeting Muslim religious practice, mosque vandalism, and acts of violence.
According to the data, these incidents have markedly increased in recent years, with public attitudes toward Islam and Muslims darkening significantly. But it’s not clear that these attitudes are being driven solely by acts of terrorism committed by Muslims. Several major terrorist attacks that took place during the period of the study did not produce a surge in recorded anti-Muslim incidents. Those attacks that did coincide with increased anti-Muslim incidents came in particular political contexts. The largest spike in the incidents came after the November 2015 terrorist strike in Paris, but the attack at the Bataclan came as the 2016 presidential campaign was getting into full swing, with Donald Trump’s candidacy propelling anti-Muslim sentiment into the spotlight.
“Looking at the statistics, it is clear that the rise in these incidents are tied to the election cycle,” said Robert McKenzie, a senior fellow at New America and the author of the report. “If spikes in anti-Muslim activity only occurred due to terrorism, we would expect to see more incidents following high-profile attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing and Charlie Hebdo, but we didn’t. What we do have are folks running for elected office who are using megaphones to talk about how dangerous Muslims are.”
“What we do have are folks running for elected office who are using megaphones to talk about how dangerous Muslims are.”
The mix between political opportunism at home and instability abroad is potentially combustible. “There is a very dangerous interplay between global incidents, activities by national politicians like Trump, as well as state and local officials, who are saying and doing things to get people fired up,” McKenzie said. “All these factors are building upon one another.”
The New America tracker, which will be continually updated, breaks down incidents into five categories: “anti-Sharia” legislation; opposition to refugee resettlement; opposition to mosques, Muslim cemeteries, and schools; anti-Muslim actions and statements by elected and appointed officials; and media reports of anti-Muslim violence and crimes.
The April 2013 Boston marathon bombing, which came before the presidential election, provides an example of what happens after a sensational attack outside of a political environment like the 2016 presidential race. Eight anti-Muslim activities were reported following the attack, a relatively minor number compared to the surges after Muslim individuals carried out terrorist attacks during the 2016 election cycle. The data indicates that, after the Boston bombing, extremist anti-Muslim activists spurred attacks against Muslims, rather than politicians seeking to ride a wave of hysteria to benefit their campaigns.
The relatively small rise in anti-Muslim incidents after the Boston attack “suggests that this movement of violence and rights violation is a fringe, extremist movement that does not represent mainstream America,” said Dalia Mogahed, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a think tank whose research focuses on the American-Muslim community.
Mogahed’s research bolsters McKenzie’s analysis of the New America data: Negative sentiments about Islam in the U.S. are correlated to domestic politics, rather than international politics or acts of terrorism. By looking at Pew polling, Mogahed found that public opinion connecting Islam to violence spiked during the run-up to the Iraq war and during the 2008 and 2012 election cycles. Politicians regularly trafficked in anti-Muslim rhetoric during those time periods.
“That means that Islamophobia is a manufactured phenomenon,” Mogahed said last year. “It is not an organic regrettable outcome of bad Muslims doing bad things. It is something that is being deliberately created in the public, and there’s research that proves that there is an entire industry dedicated to manufacturing fear.”
On the other side of the country, Maine has the highest number of incidents per capita, with 16 anti-Muslim activities recorded since 2012. Those include several anti-immigrant statements by Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who was one of 31 governors across the country to protest the admission of refugees into their states following the 2015 Paris attacks. Several lawmakers across the state made explicitly anti-Muslim statements. In 2016, an Iraqi resident of the state found a typed note at their apartment that read, “All Muslims are Terrorists and should be killed.” The local police department investigated the incident as a hate crime but closed the investigation after failing to turn up any plausible leads.
Hate incidents in the U.S. are not only directed against Muslims. The FBI’s most recent hate crime statistics reveal a 5 percent increase in hate crimes between 2015 and 2016; the latter of those years saw 6,063 hate crimes with 7,509 victims reported to the FBI. Almost 60 percent of the victims were attacked because of their race or ethnicity, while 21.1 percent of attacks were based on religious identity.
For Muslims in today’s America, however, a few unique threats linger. Perhaps more worrying than the individual acts of violence is the growing boldness of elected officials, particularly at the state and local level, to express open hostility and even make genocidal threats against Muslims. While some of this anti-Muslim animus has been expressed through public rhetoric, it has also been expressed through proposed legislation aimed at banning Muslim religious practice under the guise of defending the U.S. judicial system.
Perhaps more worrying than the individual acts of violence is the growing boldness of elected officials.
While proponents of so-called anti-Sharia legislation often attempt to portray the bills as protection against foreign laws being implemented in the United States, legal experts say that the bills are mostly about spreading animosity against Muslims. Sharia refers to an all-encompassing system that governs a whole range of behaviors and religious practices. While such laws, if implemented, may succeed in circumscribing certain personal contracts such as Islamic marriages, U.S. public policy is already protected against foreign infiltration by the Constitution and does not need additional legislation for its defense.
Historic attempts to demonize Catholic and Jewish minorities in the United States also often employed tropes about unassimilable immigrants beholden to international religious networks and seeking to impose atavistic foreign laws, similar to the way Muslims are often described today.
“These anti-Sharia bills are ultimately aimed at preventing Muslims from practicing their faith, but in practice they are more about making a statement. They are introduced as an opportunity to trigger more Islamophobia by creating a platform in right-wing legislatures to discuss Muslims as fifth columnists and barbaric foreigners,” said Sahar Aziz, a law professor and national security expert at Rutgers University. “The proposed laws aimed at Muslims are symbolic, but they are also a tool to fuel continued hatred and fear of them.”
Trump has done much to fan the flames of bigotry in the United States in recent years — from declaring “Islam hates us” to blaming “many sides” after a white supremacist mowed down anti-racist activist Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August. Critics frequently attribute incidents of prejudice to Trump’s rhetoric, but those people, cautioned Mogahed, are confusing causation and correlation.
“The Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking an alarming spike in the number of hate groups, particularly white supremacist and anti-Muslim groups, since the election of Obama in 2008,” Mogahed said. “Trump’s rise is more the result of this phenomena, than its cause.”