Controversy over a proposed Islamic cultural center in New York City appears to have stoked an increase in hate crimes and other bias incidents directed at Muslims in America, according to congressional testimony submitted today by Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen.
In written testimony, Cohen told the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights that political leaders should condemn hate speech directed at Muslims in America. He added that schools must combat prejudice by fostering an understanding of Islamic culture.
"Today’s political leaders have an important role in speaking out against anti-Muslim hate and bigotry," Cohen said. "They must follow the example set by President Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and remind the American public we are not at war with Muslims. At the same time, the government must ensure that hate crimes are vigorously prosecuted so that the Muslim community knows the government is on their side."
The FBI has yet to release hate crime statistics for 2010, but news reports suggest there has been a recent spike in such crimes. The last such spike occurred in 2001.
Of the 156 hate crimes and bias incidents collected by the SPLC from news reports since 9/11, about one-third occurred within a year of those attacks. But nearly one-fifth have occurred since May 2010, when controversy over the Islamic center in New York City erupted.
The testimony was submitted as Sen. Dick Durbin today began a series of hearings on the civil rights of Muslims in response to recent Koran burnings, restrictions on mosque construction, hate crimes, hate speech and other forms of discrimination.
Cohen said anti-Muslim hate groups, including Stop Islamization of America, played a major role in creating a toxic atmosphere surrounding the planned Islamic center near the site of the 9/11 attacks.
Testimony of J. Richard Cohen
President, Southern Poverty Law Center
Before the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights
Committee on the Judiciary
March 29, 2011
My name is Richard Cohen. I am the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama. In addition to handling civil rights cases, we monitor the activities of hate groups, antigovernment militias and other extremists in the United States through our Intelligence Project. We also work to reduce prejudice and bigotry among the nation's youth by providing educators across the country with free anti-bias resources through our Teaching Tolerance project.
Anti-Muslim bigotry – and the hate crime it inspires – is a serious problem in our country. Hate crimes spike during periods of controversy involving Muslims. We are once again seeing this phenomenon. To stem this rising tide, our political leaders must speak out forcefully against it. And in our schools, teachers must combat this prejudice by fostering understanding of Islamic culture.
The first spike in anti-Muslim hate crime followed the 9/11 attacks. In 2001, Department of Justice statistics showed a 1,600 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crime incidents in the United States – 481 incidents reported to the FBI, compared to 28 reported a year before. Because of limitations in the collection of data, these numbers vastly understate the problem; more than half of all hate crimes are never reported to police and many others are incorrectly categorized. An extensive 2005 Department of Justice study concluded that the real level of hate crime is between 20 and 30 times higher than the FBI statistics suggest.
The FBI has not released statistics for 2010 or 2011, but our own compilation of news reports suggest that anti-Muslim incidents are again on the rise. We have compiled news reports on 156 anti-Muslim incidents since the terrorist attacks. Fifty-one of those incidents – approximately one-third – occurred within one year of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
But since May 2010 – when a controversy erupted over the opening of an Islamic cultural center near the site of the World Trade Center attacks – we have documented 29 anti-Muslim incidents. That means nearly one-fifth of the incidents spanning 10 years occurred within one 10-month period.
In 2010, Muslims have been harassed, threatened, attacked and stabbed. For example, in August a taxi driver was slashed in the neck and face after his fare discovered he was Muslim. That same month, a piece of construction equipment was set afire and gasoline poured over other pieces of equipment at the future site of an Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tenn. These attacks touch more than their victims. They tear at the fabric of our society and instill fear in entire communities.
The toxic atmosphere has also entered our schools, manifesting itself in the harassment of Muslim students and teachers as well as in attempts to limit how the history and culture of Islam is taught. Our Teaching Tolerance program, which reaches 400,000 teachers across the country, has seen the effects. This past October, four high school students in Staten Island, New York, were charged with a hate crime after spending more than a year bullying a Muslim classmate, occasionally beating him and calling him a terrorist. A teacher in Arizona contacted us after an angry caller complained that she had invited a representative from the Islamic Speakers Bureau to speak to students about Islam. There are other incidents:
Sikhs in Queens, New York, have complained about harassment and bullying of their children in schools. Sikh boys are often threatened with having their turbans pulled off, in addition to being called "terrorists."
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, when a store burned down, Muslim high school students were asked by classmates if they bombed the store.
In St. Cloud, Minnesota, Somali refugees have experienced a spate of incidents. In March 2010, for example, a high school student created a short-lived Facebook group called "I hate the Somalians at Tech High."
Educators also must contend with organizations such as the American Textbook Council, which has criticized textbooks and complained that textbooks don't highlight "Islamic challenges to global security." In September 2010, the Texas Board of Education approved a resolution that would require its textbooks to pass an American Textbook Council litmus test and not cast Islam in a favorable light.
A Pennsylvania educator told us that a history program had come under attack by several parents because they believed the text was "advocating a positive 'indoctrination' of Islam." This type of scrutiny makes teachers extremely wary of teaching about Islam at all, thus perpetuating the fear and myths that are percolating throughout society and creating this anti-Muslim atmosphere.
We must examine what is helping to fuel this toxic atmosphere. The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented a number of anti-Muslim hate groups operating in the United States. They portray Muslims as fundamentally alien and attribute to its followers an inherent set of negative traits. Muslims are depicted as irrational, intolerant and violent, and their faith is frequently depicted as sanctioning pedophilia, marital rape and child marriage.
These groups also typically hold conspiratorial views regarding the inherent danger to America posed by its Muslim-American community. Muslims are depicted as a fifth column intent on undermining and eventually replacing American democracy and Western civilization with Islamic despotism. Anti-Muslim hate groups allege that Muslims are trying to subvert the rule of law by imposing on Americans their own Islamic legal system, Shariah law. They also broadly defame Islam, which they tend to treat as a monolithic and evil religion. These groups generally hold that Islam has no values in common with other cultures, is inferior to the West and is a violent political ideology rather than a religion.
One of the most prominent anti-Muslim hate groups is Stop Islamization of America, the New York City-based group run by Pam Geller and Robert Spencer. It was instrumental in creating national anger over the so-called Ground Zero mosque. Geller has written that the 9/11 terrorists practiced "pure Islam, original Islam"; described Islam as "the most anti-Semitic, genocidal ideology in the world"; and said Shariah law was taking over the United States. She has said the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan would be a "triumphal" monument built on "occupied land." She has called President Obama "a third worlder and a coward" who is anxious to "appease his Islamic overlords" and "wants jihad to win"; and more.
We shouldn't be surprised by the effects of such vitriol on the public. The Pew Research Center found that nearly one-fifth of Americans (18 percent) believed President Obama was a Muslim in August 2010 – up from 11 percent in March 2009, prior to the controversy over the supposed "Ground Zero mosque." In addition, 43 percent of all Americans said they didn't know what Obama's religion is, despite his profession of Christianity.
Another indicator of the hysteria sweeping the country is the introduction of bills in numerous state legislatures to ban the use of Islamic Shariah law in our courts. These bills are based on a completely unfounded fear. They are little more than political stunts designed to pander to the country's growing anti-Muslim sentiment. The real danger is that the fear-mongering associated with these bills will add fuel to the anti-Muslim fire that is brewing.
Political leadership and education is key to tamping down this anti-Muslim xenophobia. Following 9/11, President George W. Bush delivered a series of speeches in which he said Muslims and Arabs were not our enemies. He also appeared publicly with imams and other Muslim leaders. At least in part because of his leadership, anti-Muslim hate crimes decreased in 2002 by about 67 percent – a remarkable drop. The lesson, of course, is that it matters what leaders say in the public square.
Teachers can also play a key role. They must be allowed to offer the facts about Islam and dispel the fear and myths about the Muslim community that is allowing this current hostility to grow. School districts should not be cowed into allowing their social studies classes to reflect the fear and prejudices that have gained traction in some communities.
Today's political leaders have an important role in speaking out against anti-Muslim hate and bigotry. They must follow the example set by President Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and remind the American public we are not at war with Muslims. At the same time, the government must ensure that hate crimes are vigorously prosecuted so that the Muslim community knows the government is on their side.