Does Islamophobia Increase Hate Crimes for Others?

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In a new interview with Katie Couric as part of her 1-hour @KatieCouric show, NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says that incidents targeting Muslims on on the rise in the US. “I think Islamophobia is on the rise, and I think the best way to counter it is communication,” said Abdul-Jabbar. “To let people know who we are and what we believe in.”

Abdul-Jabbar, who has been a public face for American Muslims at events like the Rally to Restore Sanity, is right about the lack of education surrounding Islam. A 2010 study by the Pew Research Center found that Americans were more confused about the faith: In July 2005, 23% of Americans said they didn’t know what their opinion was of Islam, a figure which rose to 32% in 2010. The number of Americans who say they know nothing or very little about Islam (55%) remains about the same as it was in 2007. Perhaps one of the best examples of American misinformation is the increasing number (nearly 20%) of Americans who believe Obama is Muslim.

Despite these misconceptions, and the increase in blatantly anti-Muslim campaign ads, actual crimes targeting Muslims haven’t gotten worse in the past few years: they’ve just gotten more press. The jump in anti-Muslim attacks is real, but it happened 9 years ago. According to the most recent FBI data, before 9/11 there was an average of 30 anti-Islam hate crimes a year. Right after 9/11, that number jumped 1600%, but now the yearly average is reliably 100 to 150 attacks per year. That’s still more than three times the pre-9/11 average, but there are far more hate crimes against African-Americans (about 2,500/year) and Jews (around 950). The numbers of crimes against black people and Jews have also remained remarkably (some would say disappointingly) stable since 2003.

Though relatively stable, hate crimes against African-Americans rise and fall at very similar rates as crimes against Muslims, while crimes against Jews or Catholics do not. So it stands to reason, I think, that if this trend continues, increased anti-Muslim attacks would be reflected in a corresponding increase in crimes against black people, either by fostering a climate of hate or by people associating African-Americans with Islam. Who can forget this incident, when folks protesting the Park51 Islamic community center mistook an African-American WTC construction worker for a Muslim and quickly made him a focal point? Someone in the crowd tells him, “Run away, coward” and another yells “Muhammad’s a pig! Muhammad’s a pig!” The object of their attention, a union carpenter named Kenny, had some constructive advice for the anti-Muslim protesters. “Y’all [expletive] don’t know my opinion about [expletive],” he said. “Someone want to know about me? Ask me about me.”

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