The Dangers of an Anti-Muslim Backlash

Innocents are victimized by hate crimes after every major act of terrorism, and downplaying that risk is grossly irresponsible.

Jacqueline Larma / AP

As the terrorist attack against Paris unfolded Friday, a moment that Americans experienced in the strange semi-togetherness of social media, something prompted the prominent conservative commentator Erick Erickson to declare on Twitter, “If your biggest concern is anti-Muslim backlash you aren’t a serious person.”

88 people retweeted that thought, and over one hundred “liked” it.

My biggest concern that night was that the active shooters be stopped; that the wounded be saved; and that French security services mobilize to prevent any followup attacks. But for those of us thousands of miles away, powerless to help police or paramedics or French intelligence, an anti-Muslim backlash ought to have been among our biggest concerns, insofar as we could plausibly affect the likelihood of a backlash. So I don’t just want to persuade Erick Erickson to stop stigmatizing those who worry aloud that innocent members of a minority group might be victimized. I’d like him to join the chorus of voices declaring that a backlash would be abhorrent.

This is neither a call for political correctness nor an overblown fear.

After terrorist attacks perpetrated by Muslims, lots of individuals who are entirely innocent get attacked through no fault of their own. Hate crimes against American Muslims spiked tremendously after 9/11. Hate crimes against Sikhs increased too. In Britain, hate crimes soared after the London bombing. And after the attack on Charlie Hebdo earlier this year, The Independent reported that “twenty-six mosques around France have been subject to attack by firebombs, gunfire, pig heads, and grenades as Muslims are targeted with violence.”

I’d ask Erickson to indulge this thought experiment.

Imagine that you’re a Muslim man, or a man that many people in a Western country would mistake for being Muslim––a Sikh, a Syrian Christian, a Hindu from India. You live in London or Paris or Queens with a wife and a ten-year-old child. If you heard that Islamist radicals had just carried out an attack on your city, or your country, or even in another country, would you worry about a backlash?

Would you worry a bit putting your child on the bus to school the next day?

If you got to your place of worship the next weekend and hateful words were spray painted on the wall, might that make you feel less safe, or even a bit paranoid for awhile? Of course you would feel that way. One needn’t even ask actual Western Muslims to know that, though the overwhelming majority would tell you so if you did.

I think that when national leaders and prominent commentators publicly urge against a backlash, it has some marginal effect. I cannot prove it. I could be wrong. It may be that the kind of bigots who do these things are beyond anyone’s reach.

But experts believe there to be an effect.

“One thing that we did find in our polling,” Scott Keeter, Pew’s director of survey research, told the Justice Department, “is that there was a very clear sense in the data that President Bush’s statement to not blame all Muslims, to make distinctions and not lay upon the Muslim-American population for what happened on 9/11, seemed to actually make a difference.”

There’s no cost in trying to preempt a backlash.

And there’s something else too.

If you were a Muslim or a Sikh or a Christian of Syrian descent in Paris or London or Queens, sitting up at your computer after your wife and child had gone to bed, wouldn’t it make you feel a bit more safe, and experience a little bit less dread, if your Twitter stream and RSS feeds included a dozen people––a political leader, a few journalists, a blogger, six or seven everyday folks you follow––trying to inculcate the norm that it’s wrong and irrational and discrediting to harm or hate people like you?

That does help millions feel a little bit less dread.

I understand that conservatives are invested in the proposition that it is important to call radical Islam by its name and that any evasion on that point is political correctness run amok. But this is not that argument, and it should not be conflated with it.

Unfortunately, there will one day be another terrorist attack. When there is, no matter who perpetrates it, individuals who merely share an ethnic identity with them should not suffer. Public figures like Erickson can give comfort to these total innocents at a moment of understandable anxiety, and perhaps make it less likely that they will be targeted. Urging people against turning their anger against innocent people is not an unserious priority. It is a reasonable, pragmatic, decent act.

What’s unserious––or just plain wrong––is being rankled by it.