The annual release of the FBI's hate crime statistics report has attracted little attention by the mainstream media in the past few years. The most recent report, however -- revealing a rise in hate crimes targeting Muslims and whites in 2016 -- has been greeted with more notice than usual by the daily newspapers; even CNN chimed in to highlight the results of the report.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a Hate Crimes Subcommittee summit on June 29, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
The reason for the sudden interest in the report was that its data appeared to confirm some of the conventional wisdom about the impact of the U.S. 2016 presidential election on anti-Muslim sentiment in America. According to the report, compared to 2015, there were increases in most categories of hate crimes. The bulk of them were based on race, ethnicity and ancestry -- with the total number of such incidents rising by 5%. Still, it is the increase in anti-Muslim crimes, which increased by 20% since 2015, that stands out.
As bad as that sounds, there are those, such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), who consider it to be merely another piece of evidence that America has become a hostile place for Muslims since the September 11, 2001 attacks – and particularly since Donald Trump began running for president. In fact, the ADL, which has long held that hate crimes are under-reported, due to the lack of uniform procedures for compiling data in different states around country, views the FBI report as simply the tip of the iceberg.
If the ADL is correct, it would be logical to conclude that hate crimes in America in general, and victimization of American Muslims in particular, may constitute a far greater problem than even the worrisome statistics indicate. In fact, they might mean that those who have suggested that the United States is an Islamophobic nation, as a 2010 Time magazine cover story did, could be right. The more one examines the FBI data, however, the less likely he is to reach such a conclusion.
Although the instances of hate crimes documented by the government are worrisome and deserving of condemnation, the report does not actually provide the proof for a widely promoted narrative that portrays the United States as a country in which Muslims are under attack, or the claims that President Trump is directly responsible for their plight.
In the first place, the FBI statistics by themselves do not show the context of the rise in hate crimes and anti-Muslim incidents. What most of the stories about the report neglect to mention is that in 2015, the FBI changed its method of classification. Before then, ethnicity- or nationality-spurred hate crimes were designated as Hispanic or non-Hispanic. The FBI subsequently revised that classification, breaking down hate crimes into a variety of possible categories. As a result, the most recent data is misleading, making the incidents in which Arabs or Muslims were targeted appear to be more numerous than in previous years.
Secondly, the widely cited "20 percent increase" in anti-Muslim hate crimes engenders a false assumption about the actual figures. The total of reported bias incidents of any kind in 2016 was 6,121; of those, 361 were directed at Arabs or Muslims. Although even a single such incident would be one too many, in a country whose population is approximately 325 million – including millions of Arabs and/or Muslims -- it is hard to argue that the numbers are indicative of a "wave" of hatred sweeping over the nation, either prior to or since the rise of Trump, even if one accepts the assumption that hate crimes are under-reported.
Third, and even more important, is that FBI hate crime statistics from the past 15-16 years actually refute the working assumption -- as reflected in the Time magazine piece -- that after 9/11, America underwent a backlash against Islam. Evidence for this claim, both in that article and other that followed its lead, was primarily anecdotal.
Let us look at the actual data. In 2000, the FBI reported 28 instances of anti-Islamic crimes. In 2001 (the year of the 9/11 attacks), the total rose considerably -- to 554 -- but then went to down to 171 in 2002. It stayed at that level for most of the decade, dipping to 105 in 2008. In 2010, a year in which a controversy raged over ultimately aborted plans to build an Islamic center and mosque in place of one of the buildings that had been damaged by falling debris from the World Trade Center attacks, the number rose to 161. In 2014, it was 154.
The claim that the relatively small number of hate crimes can be attributed to under-reporting is implausible, given the cultural climate and plethora of media outlets eager to find evidence for Islamophobia. The lack of concrete evidence to support claims of Islamophobia is due to the fact that after 9/11 -- and every other jihadist terrorist attack in America since then (such as the Boston Marathon bombing and the San Bernardino attack) -- the U.S. government has gone out of its way to discourage anti-Muslim rhetoric and to differentiate the actions of a few fanatics from those of the law-abiding majority.
The same goes for sympathetic portrayal of Muslims in popular culture. In spite of the war waged on the West by groups such as al Qaeda and subsequently ISIS, films and television shows mostly avoid depicting Muslims as terrorist villains. Most recently, the toy company Mattel released the Hijab Barbie doll, in honor of Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first American Olympian (in fencing) to compete while wearing a hijab.
The myth of a post-9/11 "backlash" against Muslims is politically motivated and spread by groups such as the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR), which presents itself as a civil rights group, but was founded to serve as a front organization for the terrorist group Hamas. The effort to persuade the public that America is Islamophobic stemmed largely from the aim to shift the narrative about terrorism to that of an Islamist war on the West to one according to which Muslims are terrorized by and in the United States.
The most ironic aspect of the media's often unwitting abetting of this effort on the part of radical Islamists -- and of the stir caused by the latest FBI report -- is the fact that, throughout the post 9/11 period, attacks on Jews have far outnumbered those against Muslims. In 2001, the peak year for anti-Islamic bias, crimes attributed to anti-Semitism were double those against Muslims. In many of the subsequent years, the figures were even more lopsided. In 2008, anti-Semitic crimes were eight times higher than those against Muslims. In 2016, after the reporting system was changed, anti-Semitic incidents were still nearly double those against Muslims and Arabs, with 681 reports of anti-Jewish hate crimes, as compared to 361 anti-Muslim/Arab ones.
Leaders of Arab and Muslim organizations that promote the backlash myth often assert that the number of Arabs and Muslims in the United States is roughly equal to the Jewish population. That is a debatable thesis since in 2013 the Pew Research Institute asserted that there are 5.3 million Americans who are Jewish by religion or consider themselves ethnically Jewish, and in 2016 Pew reported 3.3 million American Muslims. The Arab American Institute claims that there are 3.7 millions Americans of Arab descent, many of whom are not Muslim. But no matter how far off those numbers may be, the far greater number of anti-Jewish crimes makes the charge of rampant American Islamophobia even harder to swallow.
It must be re-emphasized that bias crimes of all kinds are unacceptable, and -- as with members of other religious and ethnic minorities -- that Muslims and Arabs have sometimes been victimized by hatred. Nevertheless, the statistics published by the FBI over the last 17 years refute both the Islamophobia narrative and the claim of a widespread backlash against Muslims in the aftermath of terrorist attacks by Islamists.
In addition, although Jew-hatred remains a greater problem in America than hatred against Muslims, this would not justify a charge that the United States is an anti-Semitic country. By the same token, it is unjust to call America Islamophobic. It is therefore incumbent on journalists and activists to take a more measured approach to this topic, and to cease making a causal link between statements emanating from the White House and the number of reported hate crimes.
Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer to National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.