On Backlashes and Avoiding Them

by Conor Friedersdorf

Jonah Goldberg writes:

...there’s one point that I haven’t seen made that I think is really worth reminding people of. Simply: This is an incredibly tolerant country and, it has shown remarkable tolerance since 9/11. There has been no “anti-Muslim” backlash.

It's actually an oft-made argument, but never mind that. In my estimation, the American people have behaved better to its Muslim minority than the citizens of a lot of countries would've after an attack like what we suffered on September 11, 2001, but it is demonstrably inaccurate to say that there has been "no backlash."

Several reports have found an increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes post 9/11. Here's a 2002 brief from the New York Times, reporting from California:

A wave of anti-Arab hate crimes after the Sept. 11 attacks drove hate crimes up 15 percent last year, reversing an otherwise downward trend, a report from the state attorney general's office showed. Hate crimes would have dropped 5 percent if not for assaults and threats against Muslims or those who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent. Crimes against Middle Easterners quintupled to 501 last year from 99 in 2000. Reports of hate crimes rose to 2,261, up from 1,957.

Here's a longer piece from the San Francisco Chronicle that reports a similar conclusion, citing an FBI report.

Of course, the backlash wasn't limited to full blown hate crimes. Surely Mr. Goldberg remembers Ann Coulter professing a desire to invade Muslim countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity. It seems fair to count that as an anti-Muslim backlash to 9/11. I won't bother to link a bunch of other anti-Islamic rhetoric that specifically cites the 9/11 attacks and didn't exist prior to them -- we all know it's out there and it's ugly.

When an angry crowd mistook this Coptic Christian man for a Muslim, did that count as a backlash? What else explains the Koran burning event this Florida church is planning (guess what day the event is scheduled). Or consider the Temecula, California mosque project that is also apparently too close to Ground Zero.These are all very recent news items. So what can this assertion that "there has been no “anti-Muslim” backlash actually mean? That it hasn't been as bad as some people feared? If that is what Mr. Goldberg means he should say it.

The closest he comes is this later line:

Whatever excesses, real or alleged, that have come from the justice system or from main street, are by any historical standard -- including any previous analogous period in American history -- trivial.

Perhaps he has forgotten the anti-Muslim backlash at the Abu Ghraib prison, or the Muslims held for years on end as enemy combatants only to be cleared of wrongdoing by our government, or the innocent Muslims tortured by the CIA. Were none of these non-trivial excesses explained at least partly by an anti-Muslim backlash after 9/11?

Later in the same post, Mr. Goldberg writes:

...listening to all of this talk about “crowd” politics from liberals these days, you get the distinct impression that there are a lot of 20-something liberal bloggers, MSNBC talk-show hosts, and newspaper editorial writers who honestly believe that they are not only better than the American public but that they are in fact the duly anointed conscience of this, our embarrassingly backward and bigoted nation. They must stand ever vigilant, lest America's deep reservoirs of hatred and bigotry burst their levees and spill out through the sluices of the Republican Party.

How does this river of hate manifest itself? The supposedly anti-Muslim 70 percent of Americans who don’t like the idea of building the Cordoba House near Ground Zero mostly also believe the owners have the right to do it if they can’t be persuaded otherwise. Wow, that’s some crackdown on Muslims.

As one representative of writers who believe that vigilance against an anti-Muslim backlash is necessary, let me congratulate Mr. Goldberg for demolishing the weakest argument of his least defensible adversaries. Having done so, it's only fair that he get a shot at a stronger contender. It's 5 am as I write this, and being the only one awake, I'll enter the ring: Expressing concern that a religious group might suffer a backlash during an ongoing war against its radical coreligionists isn't tantamount to asserting that America is a backward and bigoted nation. The vast majority of concerned journalists, like President Bush and many others, know that most Americans are going to refrain from outright violence, and are nevertheless prudently aware that within our borders is a fringe of excitable bigots that exist, and will always exist, in every country on earth.

One thing that radicalizes these people is when, for example, magazines with a reputation for good judgment publish credulous articles alleging that the President of the United States himself is allied with Islamist radicals in their grand jihad to destroy America. Mightn't you take extreme action were that actually true?

One needn't be holier-than-thou to observe that sort of scare-mongering hyperbole, or the array of egregiously incendiary propaganda directed at a minority group, and conclude that people of conscience should object (as Mr. Goldberg admirably does on certain occasions himself). Calling on fellow media professionals to exercise more restraint than the average member of the American public doesn't imply that we're better than them, or believe ourselves to be -- it merely recognizes that our words are amplified by virtue of the platforms where we write, and that privilege comes with an attendant responsibility that isn't shared by a guy who performs heart surgery or a woman who does TV-DVD repair or death-defying acrobatics for a living.

Moreover, it is possible to assert that 70 percent of Americans wrongly hold a wrongheaded view grounded partly in prejudice without saying that the United States is a bigoted country, or that all the people who hold that view are themselves bigots. I happen to think that there are many opponents of the Burlington Coat Factory mosque who aren't bigots. But all be damned if I'm going to apologize for being overcautious in warning against -- and trying to prevent -- further backlash against Muslims because some conservatives are aggrieved by the very idea that it is a possibility.