Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A new non-partisan project finds that the national rhetoric has played a significant role in the rise of hate against Muslims in America.
In December 2015, a severed pig’s head appeared at the doorstep of the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society. In September 2016, the police chief of Gurley, Alabama, posted a picture on Facebook of a box of bullets, with the note: “100 more bacon grease covered bullets in the box! This relaxes me so!!” In December that year, a man assaulted a 16-year-old Muslim boy in Brooklyn. When his mom, an off-duty NYPD officer who wears a hijab, came to his defense, the attacker called her an “ISIS bitch” and threatened to cut her throat. In January 2018, a Boise, Idaho, State lawmaker re-introduced a bill that banned “foreign law” for the third time. Originally, he had included supporting material with definitions of Sharia law to clarify his intent.
These are just a handful of the 600 anti-Muslim incidents that have taken place between 2012 and the present. They are all documented in a new data visualization project by New America—a non-partisan, nonprofit think tank.
The charts and interactive maps in the projects reveal some interesting trends, but perhaps the most striking one is this: While anti-Muslim incidents appear to increase after terrorist attacks, as previous research has suggested, the sharpest spikes have happened since 2015—“indicating political rhetoric from national leaders has a real and measurable impact,” said Robert McKenzie, a senior fellow at New America and director of this project.
He and his colleagues compiled the list of incidents using research tools like LexisNexis and LegiScan, and broke the sample down into five categories. The first one is “anti-Sharia legislation”—and includes bills that seek to ban Islamic law from being considered in U.S. courts. The second category includes “legislation or action by public officials that hinder the refugee resettlement process or voice opposition to the resettlement of refugees in a certain area,” the researchers explain. The third documents cases where local governments have rejected mosques, Muslim cemeteries, or schools in their communities. It’s essentially a count of cases where NIMBYism against Muslim structures has been successful. The next category lists incidents of anti-Muslim statements by local officials. And the fifth and final category draws from news reports of threats and violence to Muslim communities, including criminal acts and hate crimes. On their website, the researchers explain the criteria for these categories further, noting that they’ve taken a “conservative approach” towards data collection.
Arguably, the most revelatory chart based on their dataset plots incidents over time. The small dots are color-coded based on the category they fall in, and can be isolated by toggling that category from the legend at the top of the chart. Significant events that might affect the frequency of such incidents, such as terrorist attacks, are marked at the bottom. Here’s a snapshot of when all documented incidents took place between 2012 and today:
Selecting just incidents in the first category (in yellow here) shows a clear trend: Anti-Sharia law legislation tends to pop up every legislative cycle, with some consistency. On the website, clicking on each circle pulls up a scrolling list with more details on that bill or law. This shows something striking: of the 147 instances of these bills being introduced, only in 11 cases have they become law. (Courts have struck down such legislation in the past.)
“The point is that there's no place in the country that I'm aware of where Muslim communities are calling for Sharia law,” McKenzie said. “The purpose of [these bills] is really about ‘othering’ a faith-based community; it’s really about drumming up fear.”
Then, my attention was pulled by the uptick in incidents belonging to the fifth category. Around 87 percent of these incidents have happened between mid-2015 and today, according to McKenzie. Within this time frame, two shorter periods stood out: November 13 to December 31, 2015 and November 8 to December 8, 2016. A striking 25 percent of all hate crime incidents occurred within this period.
On the other hand, these types of events after the Boston Marathon bombing and the Charlie Hebdo shooting were relatively scant. “While both of these attacks received significant media attention, they occurred before the 2016 presidential cycle was underway,” McKenzie said.
The project also includes a neat interactive map, showing the geographical distribution of anti-Muslim incidents. Not surprisingly, California had the highest number of total incidents—it is the most populous state and home to the largest Muslim population (first map below). Maine, on the other hand, registered the highest number of per capita incidents (second map, below).
The researchers behind the project intend to keep it updated as new numbers come in. Their goal is to make “it possible for a range of stakeholders to discuss anti-Muslim incidents with a shared set of facts. Is there an increase in anti-Muslim incidents? Where and when has anti-Muslim incidents been at its most pernicious and threatening?” the researchers write on their website.
Still, they caution that the database is not comprehensive. And beyond the numbers, it also excludes qualitative information on the impact of the incidents on Muslim communities in the United States.
“It makes them wonder: ‘Are they safe? Are they welcome here?’” McKenzie said. “[The project] does not capture the kind of fear each incident creates for the community.”