Tracking Attacks on Muslims This Summer

The sentiments President Obama responded to this week have already moved past rhetorical hate and into violence.

By Seth Freed Wessler Sep 11, 2010

President Obama was asked yesterday why, nine years after 9/11, we’ve seen a sudden intensification in anti-Muslim sentiment this summer. "At a time when the country is anxious generally, and going through a tough time, fears can surface," the president said, before winding into his most forceful comments on the subject to date. Others, such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have attributed the newly poisoned air to electioneering. But whatever the cause, what’s certain is that the anti-Muslim sentiments Obama has spent his week addressing have already gone beyond rhetorical. 

There won’t be hard numbers on hate crime incidents for a while. But a quick review of media accounts in the past six weeks–roughly the time that mosque mania has filled the airwaves–turned up at least 13 reports of anti-Muslim violence or property damage. Five of the incidents were serious enough to draw federal hate crime investigations. (Scroll down for graphic.)

In the most high-profile incident, late last month, NYPD arrested a 21-year-old white film student after he allegedly stabbed New York City taxi driver Ahmed Sharif. The suspect, Michael Enright, reportedly asked Sharif if he observed Ramadan before slashing him across the neck and arm, all while yelling, "This is a checkpoint!" At least three others have been physically attacked across the country, including a Sikh 7-Eleven attendent who was allegedly punched in side of the face by an assailant who thought he was Muslim.

At least six mosques have been targeted with graffiti, arson or had windows smashed. In Queens, a drunk man entered a mosque and urinated on prayer rugs while yelling "terrorists." In Nevada, a wall was spray painted with, "Burn the Koran? Why? Just burn Muslims."

These incidents, drawn from a scan of national and local press, are likely just the tip of the iceberg. Abed Ayoub, legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), a national advocacy organization, says the ADC has received hundreds of reports of attacks this year alone. Some reports, he says, are of violent attacks while others are hate speech.

A spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, another national advocacy group, says the organization’s offices have similarly been flooded with reports of violence against Muslims.

Since September 11, 2001, incidents of violence and other attacks against Muslims have remained consistently higher than the preceding period. In 2000, the FBI reported there were 36 victims of anti-Muslim violence. In 2001, the bureau reported a whopping 546 attacks. That number has never dipped back below 130, which was the mark for 2008. Data for 2009 won’t be released until November.

Yet, watchdogs believe these numbers still grossly under report the extent of violence. "Oftentimes," says Ayoub, "victims don’t come forward, they’re afraid to."

Hate crime experts say that Muslim communities under-report hate violence for a number of reasons. The first is that many Muslims are immigrants, and watchdogs point to a widespread anxiety about interacting with law enforcement that is common among immigrant communities. For Muslims specifically, memories are still fresh of the post-9/11 sweeps that resulted in the mass detention of Muslim men, and continued intrusion into Muslim communities today.

"What’s happening now," says Ayoub, "is that we’re going back to those immediate post-9/11 kinds of hate and hate crimes. Within a day or so you had someone stabbed, urinating in the prayer room and so on. We’re going back to where we were."

The Department of Justice is currently investigating five incidents across the country as hate crimes and state officials are treating numerous other attacks that way as well.

Lena Alhusseini, the director of the Arab American Family Support Center, a New York City social service organization, says the mainstreaming of these attacks and of anti-Muslim rhetoric means that, "In some ways, this moment is worse than after 9-11 for [Arabs and Muslims]. Now, the whole conversation and discourse is dominated by hate mongers."

"And there is so little response from leaders," Alhusseini adds. "Our community is on our guard. We’ve become very careful about where we go and what we say."

With the ninth anniversary of September 11 this weekend, many fear that the violence will escalate. The current spate of violence feels to many as if it reflects a crystallization of anti-Muslim feelings, rather than a sudden shift. Moustafa Bayoumi, a professor at Brooklyn College who’s book How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America recently drew the ire of faculty and alumni, says "I think it feels that like this is a sustained thing, as if things are changing. I am not sure if it’s a blip or if it’s changing, time will tell, but it feels that way."