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February 16, 2012

Sociologist says hate crimes toward Muslims have increased since Sept. 11, 2001

STILLWATER, Okla. — The trend in the data is unmistakable. Hate crimes against American Muslims spiked following the Sept. 11 terror attacks and have settled at a new, elevated normal.

Sociologist Lori Peek is a professor at Colorado State University who authored “Behind the Backlash: Muslim Americans after 9/11.” She spoke Thursday at Oklahoma State University about her book’s findings as well as strategies for emergency management and other community groups to prevent future hate crime outbursts.

Following the first hate crime legislation in 1990, federal authorities began tracking and categorizing hate crimes in 1992. That data shows 40 anti-Islamic hate crimes occurred in the year prior to Sept. 11, 2001, and 567 were reported in the year following.

The number of reported crimes also shows that the numbers have stayed elevated in the years to follow. From 1992 to 2000, one anti-Muslim hate crime was reported every 15 days. From 2002 to 2009, that rate has stayed steady at one every three days.

“9/11 had had a lasting effect,” Peek said. “This really is the new normal.”

Another disturbing trend, she said, is that hate crimes are typically underreported, particularly among immigrant communities. Peek said some estimates put the number as high as 20 to 30 actual hate crimes occur for every one reported.

Polls also show that anti-Islamic sentiment has steadily grown in the years following the Sept. 11 attacks. Peek cited a national poll take one month after the attacks, which said only 14 percent of Americans surveyed said they had a negative view of Islam. In 2009, that percentage grew into a majority.

In her research, Peek interviewed a number of second generation American Muslims in the New York City area. She said those interviews gave a ground-level perspective of what happened in the aftermath of the attacks.

“‘It just put me to tears, just to tears. On the one hand I’m crying for all the thousands and thousands of people who died,’” Peek said quoting from an interview. “‘So I’m crying out of grief and shock from that, and at the same time I am crying because I just knew exactly what was going to happen to the Muslim community.’”

From her interviews, she said, many American Muslims simultaneously grieved for the loss of life while bracing for a backlash. That bracing led to altered behavior, depression, concealing parts of Muslim or Arab culture and increased isolation, particularly immediately after the attacks.

Peek quoted disaster researcher Charles Fritz who coined the term “community of sufferers” to describe how communities tend to come together following a natural disaster.

“Rather than someone ripping the shirt and stealing it from you, people are more likely to take the shirt off their back and give it to you in the aftermath of a disaster,” she said.

However, the backlash and the resulting fear of retribution kept America’s Muslim communities from taking part in that experience, Peek said. That separation has helped create a cycle, she added.

 “There is a self-fulfilling prophecy that starts because then the community is isolated, so the misunderstanding continues and the hate crimes continue,” she said.

The unfortunate thing about disasters, Peek said, is there will always be a next time. Because of that, she said communities should prepare for these kinds of community fissures the same way they would natural disasters.

Dearborn, Mich., has the largest community of Arab Muslims in the U.S. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the community has had only one anti-Islamic hate crime. Peek credited that Dearborn’s pre-disaster preparedness. The city has a “backlash mitigation plan,” that Peek said is being replicated by large cities with diverse populations. Dearborn has gone as far as to prerecord public service announcements in case of future attacks.

Peek said the main thing that made Dearborn successful is established preexisting relationships between public safety, government, community and religious groups.

“We can’t wait until the attack happens and then try to build the bridges,” she said. “By then it will be too late.”

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