Was There Really a Post-9/11 Backlash Against Muslims?

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Several conservative writers are heavily invested in arguing otherwise, but they don't have the facts on their side.

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Over at Commentary, Jonathan Tobin complains that "most of the mainstream media still takes it as a given that there is an ongoing and brutal post-9/11 backlash against Muslims in America that fuels discrimination against followers of Islam." I don't know that I've ever seen the backlash characterized as "brutal" in the mainstream media, or that anyone has bothered to actually quantify media coverage on the subject. It would be helpful to have links to the specific coverage Tobin is complaining about. But I am among those who thinks that Muslims face both informal prejudice and are discriminated against by the state, while Tobin says "there is virtually no evidence for this assertion and much empirical data to argue for the opposite conclusion."

He goes on to cite census data showing that the number of Muslims in America is growing, up 1.6 million in the 10-year period that ended in 2010. "Is it possible or even likely that Islam would be thriving in the United States if it were not a society that is welcoming Muslims with open arms and providing a safe environment for people to openly practice this faith?" he asks. "The answer is an obvious no." Before concluding he offers three additional arguments to consider:

  • "Every new survey about American society continues to show there are no obstacles to Muslim advancement or systematic ill treatment."
  • "Those who make these false claims argue that law enforcement activities seeking to root out Islamist support for terrorism either abroad or at home constitutes a form of discrimination. But such actions, such as the New York Police Department's surveillance of mosques or community centers where Islamists have congregated, are reasonable reactions to a real threat that deserves the attention of the authorities, not the product of arbitrary bias. Nor do they threaten the vast majority of Muslims who are hard working, law-abiding citizens."
  • "America is not perfect, but it is a far safer place to practice Islam, or any other faith, than almost all Muslim countries, where religious-based discrimination is commonplace and dissent is ruthlessly wiped out. The backlash myth may die hard, but it remains a myth."

It's useful to have all these arguments in one place, for Tobin is hardly the only one going out of his way to insist that there has been no anti-Muslim backlash in the United States since September 11.

Let's take his claims in reverse order.

It's true that it's safer to practice Islam in the United States than in many authoritarian or war-torn countries. If we're willing to set ourselves a bar as low as, "Muslims are better off here than in places where they're being slaughtered in sectarian warfare" or "Muslims are better off in America than in the torture cells of Arab dictators," we can all be very proud of ourselves for succeeding.

Personally, I feel no pride in merely doing better than abusive tyrannies, and think we ought to hold ourselves to a much higher standard. I see Tobin argues elsewhere that American Catholics are "under siege" and notes the "insidious manner various government orders and legislation has sought to abridge religious rights." Would he stop being concerned about the rights of Catholics if I pointed out that the ones in America are treated substantially better than in Pakistan or Iran or Yemen or Somalia? It's somehow only Muslims whose comparatively awful treatment abroad is used to minimize discrimination that their coreligionists face in the United States.

That brings us to the NYPD. It's useful to get a sense of what sorts of police behavior we're  talking about.

An example:

One autumn morning in Buffalo, N.Y., a college student named Adeela Khan logged into her email and found a message announcing an upcoming Islamic conference in Toronto. Khan clicked "forward," sent it to a group of fellow Muslims at the University at Buffalo, and promptly forgot about it. But that simple act on Nov. 9, 2006, was enough to arouse the suspicion of an intelligence analyst at the New York Police Department, 300 miles away, who combed through her post and put her name in an official report. Marked "SECRET" in large red letters, the document went all the way to Commissioner Raymond Kelly's office.

The report, along with other documents obtained by The Associated Press, reveals how the NYPD's intelligence division focused far beyond New York City as part of a surveillance program targeting Muslims. Police trawled daily through student websites run by Muslim student groups at Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers and 13 other colleges in the Northeast. They talked with local authorities about professors in Buffalo and even sent an undercover agent on a whitewater rafting trip, where he recorded students' names and noted in police intelligence files how many times they prayed.
Tobin complains that critics of such practices say they're a form of discrimination, whereas he thinks they're "reasonable reactions to a real threat," not "the product of arbitrary bias." But to say that this type of surveillance is "reasonable" or justified by a "real threat" doesn't actually address the charge that it's discriminatory. That is supposed to be the subject of Tobin's column, and there's no escaping that the NYPD was targeting Muslims due to their religion. For some reason,Tobin tacks on the observation that these policies don't affect "the vast majority of Muslims who are hard working, law-abiding citizens." But the fact is that the vast majority of the Muslims targeted, if not all of them, were law-abiding people and presumably as hard-working as anyone. 

Take the City College of New York students who were spied upon during a whitewater-rafting trip they took. "There is no indication that, in the nearly four years since the report, the NYPD brought charges connecting City College students to terrorism," The Associated Press reports.

Were those students unaffected by police behavior? What about their friends and families?

That brings us to what must be Tobin's strangest argument: that there obviously wasn't a backlash or discrimination against Muslim Americans between 2000 and 2010 because the number of Muslims in the nation was growing quickly. Here are some archival U.S. Census Bureau figures for America's black population:

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By Tobin's logic, this chart shows us that there couldn't possibly have been terrible discrimination against blacks in the 1940s and 1950s. After all, their numbers were steadily growing!

Now set aside Tobin's unpersuasive arguments. Elsewhere he posits that there is "hysteria" over the notion of Islamophobia. I wish he'd present evidence to support the notion that the United States is hysterical over this problem. I do my utmost to write soberly about the subject because I don't want to alarm Muslims any more than is justified by reality. I don't think Muslim Americans should be cowering in their homes or unduly paranoid. There is, however, more specific evidence that Muslim Americans have faced an observable backlash and discrimination since 9/11.
  • As noted, law enforcement agencies target Muslims for special surveillance.
  • In communities including Staten Island; Brooklyn; Temecula, Calif.; Murfreesboro, Tenn.; and Lower Manhattan, there have been street protests organized in opposition to permitting Muslims to build mosques. And multiple Republican presidential candidates spoke out against the so-called Ground Zero mosque. Here is a map the ACLU has put together of anti-mosque incidents.
  • In hate crimes based on religion, Muslims are the second most-victimized group, and every year since 9/11 they've been victimized at rates higher than before the attacks. Is that a coincidence? 
  • President Obama is accused by some of his political enemies of being "a secret Muslim," as if Islamic faith itself is a slur.
  • Said Gallup in 2010, "More than 4 in 10 Americans (43%) admit to feeling at least 'a little' prejudice toward Muslims -- more than twice the number who say the same about Christians (18%), Jews (15%) and Buddhists (14%)."
  • "A decade after Sept. 11, 2001, the survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, shows that a majority of Muslims say the terrorist attacks made it more difficult to be a Muslim in the United States. Many said that they had been singled out by airport security officers and that people had acted suspicious of them or called them offensive names. But half also said Americans had been friendly toward them, and three-quarters expressed faith that with hard work, they could get ahead." There is bad news and good news in those numbers. I am not sure why Tobin is so insistent on pretending the bad news isn't there.
Says Tobin, summing up, "Because the far greater number of attacks on Jews is not viewed (even by those groups dedicated to monitoring anti-Semitism such as the Anti-Defamation League) as proof the country is boiling with hatred for Jews, how can anyone rationally argue that the far fewer number of assaults on Muslims can justify the conclusion that Islamophobia is rampant?"

I don't know that I've seen anyone claim that America is "boiling with hatred" for Muslims. My claims are that they face more prejudice than most groups in America, that they're informally discriminated against in highly visible ways, and that the state itself is sometimes complicit in discriminating against them. The insistence on denying this is bizarre. Here's Jonah Goldberg back in 2010:

According to the FBI, hate crimes against Muslims increased by a staggering 1,600% in 2001. That sounds serious! But wait, the increase is a math mirage. There were 28 anti-Islamic incidents in 2000. That number climbed to 481 the year a bunch of Muslim terrorists murdered 3,000 Americans in the name of Islam on Sept. 11.

Now, that was a hate crime. Regardless, 2001 was the zenith or, looked at through the prism of our national shame, the nadir of the much-discussed anti-Muslim backlash in the United States. The following year, the number of anti-Islamic hate-crime incidents (overwhelmingly, nonviolent vandalism and nasty words) dropped to 155. In 2003, there were 149 such incidents. And the number has hovered around the mid-100s or lower ever since. Sure, even one hate crime is too many. But does that sound like a anti-Muslim backlash to you?

Yes, it does.

It sounds to me like there was a significant backlash in 2001, and that even after that, hate crimes against Muslims stayed from three to five times more likely than they were before the terrorist attacks. And, of course, hate-crime statistics are hardly the only valid measure of discrimination.

I don't understand why Tobin and others write as though anti-Muslim discrimination and sentiment should only be deemed problematic if Muslim Americans are worse off here than abroad, or suffer from more hate crimes than Jews, or if the clear uptick in hate crimes against them surpasses some unnamed threshold, or if their population is shrinking, or if they're unable to advance professionally. Conservatives complain about all sorts of other treatment that they regard as unfair in the most hyperbolic language. The Persecution of Sarah Palin. "Obama declares war on Christians." The war on stay-at-home moms. The War on Christmas. Obama's class warfare. Why can't they accept that American Muslims have had to deal with a backlash, some discrimination, and some abrogations of their civil liberties? And that's to say nothing of our behavior abroad.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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