In what has become a disturbing annual ritual, the FBI recently released hate crime statistics for 2016. It was not good news, especially for American Muslims.
There were 6,121 reported hate crimes in 2016, a 6 percent increase over 2015. Anti-Muslim activity — which had already risen significantly during 2015 — accounts for a good part of that growth, mushrooming by about 20 percent.
Curiously, just as we are seeing significant growth in anti-Muslim activity, there is evidence that perceptions of Muslims in the United States are changing. A recent poll by the Arab American Institute suggests that more Americans now have positive views of Muslims than they did just two years ago.
This new poll would appear to be reason for optimism. If views of Muslims are improving, a reduction in hate crimes should be just around the corner, right?
In fact, viewing hate crimes statistics in light of improving perceptions of Muslims may obscure a deeper, more troubling reality of anti-Muslim hostility. By seeing hate crimes as a reflection of, well, hatred, the broader public lets itself off the hook, blaming anti-Muslim activity, including but not limited to hate crimes, on a shrinking number of anti-Muslim bigots — a few bad apples emboldened perhaps by our president.
History offers a more sober view.
The kinds of anti-Muslim activity we see now reflect patterns that have persisted for decades — perhaps centuries — in U.S. public life. If we see hate crimes as just one part of a larger body of anti-Muslim activity, we can begin to discern three interlocking histories that have led us to this moment: a history of anti-Muslim sentiment, a history of racist immigration laws and a history of intimidating people of color. Together, they can help us see connections between anti-Muslim hostility and broader histories of violence and intimidation that profoundly affect public life in the United States.
The first of these histories dates back to the earliest moments of national life. As Denise Spellberg shows in “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an,” it was unclear to those building the foundations of the United States whether full rights of citizenship could — or should — extend to Muslims. The towering figures of our country’s founding mythologies were essentially asking whether Muslims could be fully American, an imaginative exercise to test the limits of religious toleration. They assumed this was a hypothetical question, either unaware of or uninterested in the thousands of enslaved Muslims from West Africa living in the country at the time.
For many, the answer was a tentative yes — but for almost as many, the answer was a resounding no. Then as now, a good number of political leaders imagined the United States to be inherently white and Protestant.
Of course, these questions around whether Muslims can be truly American were not limited to the days of the early republic. For much of the 20th century, they also fueled FBI infiltration and surveillance of African American Muslim communities like the Nation of Islam. As historian Sylvester Johnson shows, the FBI long considered African American Muslim groups — along with other African American groups critical of racism in the United States — to be at best security threats, and at worst, enemies of the state.
This fundamental suspicion of Muslims continues to show itself today in debates about whether they can serve in public office and the ongoing surveillance programs and widespread infiltration of Muslim communities by law enforcement agencies. These efforts have, to date, yielded very little, if any, actionable information.
The idea that Muslims — unless they can prove otherwise — pose a threat to the United States resonates so strongly because it also has ties to broader histories of highly racist policies regarding non-European immigrants and their families.
U.S. history is replete with policies that reflect the idea that non-European immigrants and their descendants pose a threat to the culture and security of the United States. This is especially true of policies targeting Asians, most notably the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Such exclusions relied heavily on the idea that these groups were nonwhite — a designation that often applies to Muslim immigrants as well, regardless of their country of origin.
Immigration reform in 1965 opened the door to many Muslims from South Asia and the Middle East. In the post-Sept. 11, 2001, environment, government officials, as well as a sizable portion of the general public, have found it very easy to place immigrant Muslims and their families, including American-born children, into the category of existential cultural and security threat.
The current Muslim ban sits at the nexus of these two histories — immigration and anti-Muslim suspicion — that have been sustained in profound ways over the centuries in government policies as well as in popular discourse.
There’s a third piece, though, that helps clarify why, despite greater social acceptance, Muslims in the United States are still in a precarious position: the intimidation of people of color around their participation in public life. That intimidation comes not just from public campaigns by private citizens but is often enshrined in local, state and federal policies as well.
Such intimidation comes in a variety of forms. Hate crimes against people and property, both on the rise in recent years, is one. But there are other forms of intimidation that arguably have broader effects on American Muslim participation in public life. The constant threat of surveillance, well established in Muslim communities, chills what Muslims say and how they say it. It is difficult for someone to voice legitimate, critical opinions when they are afraid of being maligned as anti-American — or worse.
Then there are the public campaigns against the construction of mosques, schools and cemeteries, which resemble redlining practices that have prevented African Americans from living in majority-white communities. This kind of intimidation often comes in the form of discriminatory application of banal zoning ordinances, despite civil rights protections aimed to prevent this very thing.
At least a dozen such cases, which often stretch on for years, have received media attention over the past decade. There is a similar pattern: the implementation of new ordinances or the application of seldom-used existing ordinances relating to sewer systems, parking, traffic patterns or “neighborhood integrity,” along with a good measure of anti-Muslim hostility in public hearings and public debate.
Most broadly, intimidation comes in the form of racial rhetoric that portrays communities of color as threats to everyday, hard-working Americans, whether as criminals, cultural menaces or security risks. Such portrayals create conditions that either suppress participation in shared public life or severely constrain the nature of that participation.
As anti-Muslim activity has swelled in recent years, American Muslims have answered hate with unprecedented outreach. By very conservative estimates, American Muslims have held more than 1,300 outreach events since 2010, including mosque open houses, question-and-answer sessions and interfaith discussions.
This kind of work — in which Muslims humanize themselves to non-Muslims — takes an incredible amount of time and emotional energy.
It is probably no coincidence that fewer American Muslims are running for office today than in 2000. Fear of hate crimes is certainly one reason for this development. But the deeper histories from which contemporary anti-Muslim hostility springs suggest that there is much more at work.
The data suggests that addressing the fears of non-Muslims has become — by necessity — a central preoccupation for American Muslims, thus limiting the possibility of other kinds of public participation.
Improving these conditions is a task that cannot be the burden of American Muslims alone. It requires broad public engagement with histories of exclusion, which we cannot do if our impulse is to blame a handful of bad actors for things that have long been part of our collective life.
History is not destiny. But positive impressions of American Muslim are not in themselves sufficient to overcome the real effects of the interlocking histories animating contemporary anti-Muslim hostility.