Don't Overstate Anti-Muslim Bias. Really?

05/19/2011 05:29 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2011

"It is impossible to distinguish between Muslims who are anti-American and just waiting for a chance to do us harm, and those who are merely pursuing their religious beliefs in this country. The only way to be sure and safe is to exclude them all." -- Letter to the Editor, Gainesville Times, May 13

The sentiment expressed above reflects an Islamophobic mindset unable to distinguish between the vast majority of law-abiding American Muslims and the few who would do us harm.

While the American Muslim community cheered the death of Osama bin Laden, its celebration was tempered by an odd backlash of sorts. From Maine to California, the U.S. has suffered a rash of anti-Muslim bias incidents, including physical assaults, vandalism of personal property, humiliation in the classroom and the desecration of houses of worship.

The perpetrators of these crimes are clearly unaware of the results from a 2009 Pew Research Study finding that very few American Muslims hold a positive opinion of al Qaeda -- only 5% gave the terrorist organization a favorable rating. Yet, too many Americans mistakenly associate Islam with violence and Muslims with terrorism.

What remains puzzling to me, however, are erroneous views that widespread anti-Muslim bias in America is lacking when in fact Islamophobia, understood as the hatred and fear of Muslims and exemplified in the excerpted letter above, pervades our society.

For instance, in a March 26th opinion piece entitled "Don't Overstate Anti-Muslim Bias," William J. Bennett and Seth Leibsohn argue that the "larger story of anti-Islamic bias in America does not hold water."

They cite hate crime statistics compiled by the FBI depicting 72% of religious hate crimes in America were anti-Jewish and only 8.4% were anti-Muslim in 2009.

Leibsohn and Bennett buttress their argument by pointing to the ascension of President Barack Obama to the presidency notwithstanding his Arabic name and a Muslim born father. And, in another contest (albeit of a different import), a Muslim, Arab woman was chosen as Miss USA in 2010 -- additional proof that anti-Muslim bias is lacking.

Leibsohn and Bennett's arguments are fatally flawed.

First, their reliance on FBI hate crime statistics is misplaced.

By way of background, the FBI has been collecting hate crime data from state and local law enforcement agencies since 1990 which it compiles in an annual report.

Most civil rights advocates will tell you that the FBI hate crimes report does not tell the whole story. Since hate crimes are often underreported to and by law enforcement, the data reflects the reporting of hate crimes to local police agencies, and even then, only those law enforcement agencies which actually report to the FBI.

Having worked with the Arab, Muslim and South Asian communities for the past ten years, I have seen bias incidents go unreported to law enforcement agencies for a number of reasons. These reasons include the fear of compromising one's immigration status; lack of English-language and cultural proficiency; unfamiliarity with the criminal justice system; apathy towards recourse.

Members of these communities may also distrust law enforcement, given past reports of abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, "extraordinary renditions" by the CIA of Muslims to third countries to be subjected to torture, the NSEERS Special Registration program targeting male nationals predominantly from Muslim-majority countries, to name a few. Recent immigrants may also carry cultural baggage from their native lands where law enforcement was not to be trusted and regarded as corrupt. In my view, this may account for the discrepancy between underreported hate crimes versus an increase in employment discrimination claims by American Muslims, which are at an all-time high. While hate crimes must be reported to the police and/or the FBI, employment discrimination complaints do not.

But, even when victims report an alleged hate crime, it may not make it into the FBI report for other reasons, including: the police may fail to record it as a hate crime; their departments may not report hate crime statistics to state officials; and those officials may not accurately report to the FBI.

For instance, following the September 11th terrorist attacks, as many as nineteen people were murdered in the backlash against the Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities including, Balbir Singh Sodhi, Waqar Hasan, Adel Karas, Saed Mujtahid, Jayantilal Patel, Surjit Singh Samra, Abdo Ali Ahmed, Abdullah Mohammed Nimer, and Vasudev Patel. Their stories were told in the national media including, USA Today and the Washington Post.

Yet, the FBI hate crime reports for 2001 and 2002 reflect that no anti-Islamic murders were committed in those years (see Table 4 in each report).

Next, it strikes me as peculiar that Leibsohn and Bennett chose the ascension of President Obama -- a Christian who attends Church with his family on Sundays -- to the Oval Office to make a larger point regarding an absence of anti-Muslim bias.

Never mind that the 2008 presidential campaign was wrought with Islamophobia, from those calling Obama a secret Muslim clearly seeing the term as a pejorative, to political rhetoric by Republican Presidential candidates. While Senator John McCain expressed his preference against Muslims assuming the U.S. presidency, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney disapproved of any Muslim appointments to the Cabinet. Islamophobia runs rampant in politics today.

Further, as elated as I was that a Muslim woman of Arab descent won Miss USA in 2010, I cannot help but reflect upon other types of contests of a different import. Pointedly, the number of actual Muslims running for political office in the U.S. is on the decline from its already small number. While in 2000, some 700 Muslims (out of 2-6 million American Muslims) ran for elected office in the U.S., that figure dropped by 90% to just 70 in 2002. By 2004, it was up to only 100 Muslims.

Finally, while Liebsohn and Bennett point to a CNN survey purportedly showing that 70% of Americans would not oppose construction of a mosque in their area, recent Pew Study Research from March 2011 depicts the American public as divided over whether Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its believers. Indeed, 40% say the Islamic faith is more likely than others to encourage violence while 42% say it is not.

To place these figures in proper context, in March 2002, just 25% saw Islam as more likely to encourage violence while twice as many (51%) disagreed.

To be clear, I despise racism and prejudice against any groups, including Jews, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, the disabled, etcetera. There is a danger when hate violence and animus against American Muslims is understood as a past phenomenon. We render no service to our country by idealizing ourselves, and ignoring pervasive prejudices as normal.

To overcome a problem, we must expose it, discuss it and then, address it effectively -- together.