After years of pressure from civil rights groups and lawmakers who say attacks against religious and ethnic minorities are not adequately monitored by law enforcement, the FBI will begin formally tracking hate crimes against Sikhs, Hindus and Arabs.
Meeting in Portsmouth, Va., on Wednesday, an FBI advisory board voted to expand standard hate-crime incident reports used by thousands of police departments across the country to include crimes motivated by bias against the two religious groups, as well as Arabs.
The changes, which go into effect by 2015, are being praised by Sikh, Hindu and Arab advocates hoping to avoid underreporting of hate crimes and increase awareness among law enforcement of their religions and cultures. In particular, members of the Sikh religion, in which men typically grow beards and wear turbans, have said crimes against them are often misreported as anti-Muslim.
"We can't go to policy makers or law enforcement to make the case about crimes against our communities unless we have the official data," said Rajdeep Singh, director of law and policy for the Sikh Coalition, a civil rights group that has pushed law enforcement for two years to take action. Specific hate-crime statistics, Singh hopes, will help law enforcement prevent crimes against Sikhs, Hindus and Arabs.
The FBI has not responded to a request for comment.
Statistics on the population of each group in the United States vary. Singh's organization estimates 500,000 Sikh-Americans; the Hindu American Foundation says there are 2.3 million Hindus in the United States. According to the Arab American Institute, there are about 3.5 million Arab-Americans.
In recent years, there have been violent anti-Sikh attacks in California, Florida, New York, Washington, and most prominently in Oak Creek, Wisc., where a white supremacist shot and killed six worshipers at a temple in August. In another high-profile attack in December, a woman pushed a Hindu man to his death on a New York City subway track, and then told police, "I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001." Criminals also have targeted Arab-Americans, who they often assume are Muslim.
"After 9/11 in the Arab-American community, the fact that hate crimes increased is no secret. But we were running into underreporting by community members. They wouldn't come forward because they felt nobody would listen or count them," said Abed A. Ayoub, legal director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which supported the reporting changes.
The changes follow a letter 26 senators sent earlier this year to the FBI asking it to include the religious groups and Arabs in hate-crime tracking. In March, more than 100 members of Congress requested the same of the FBI, and Attorney General Eric Holder recently spoke in favor of the changes in front of the House Judiciary Committee.
The FBI currently tracks reports of hate crimes against Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and atheists/agnostics. The bureau also tracks hate crimes motivated by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender. Tracking formally began in 1990, when Congress passed the Hate Crimes Statistics Act.
In 2011, the most recent year for FBI hate-crime statistics, there were 1,318 anti-religious crimes reported, which accounted for less than 20 percent of total hate crimes. Most of the reported religious hate crimes -- 62.2 percent -- were against Jews, while 13.3 percent were against Muslims. Anti-Catholic, anti-Protestant, anti-atheist/agnostic and attacks against multiple religious groups altogether accounted for 14 percent of the reports, while 10.5 percent of them were about crimes against other unspecified religions.
UPDATE: 9:58 p.m. -- FBI spokesman Stephen Fischer said the bureau also has decided to begin tracking hate crimes against additional religious groups.
The hate crime tracking will include "all self-identified religions in the United States as listed in the Pew Research Center’s Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (2008) and the Statistical Abstract (2012) approved by the U.S. Census Bureau," Fischer wrote in an email. "The recommended list includes Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Jehovah's Witness, Orthodox, Other Christian, Jewish, Islamic (Muslim), Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Other Religions, Multiple Religions-Group, and Atheism/Agnosticism."
Upon approval by FBI Director Robert Mueller of the new groups, "the FBI will make the necessary Uniform Crime Reporting Program technical enhancements, procedural changes, and manual revision to begin collecting this data," Fischer said.