America the Tolerant
by Howard Fienberg
October 21, 2002
Tabesh, a motel owner in Salt Lake City, saw his business burn down
on July 21. Police investigated the incident as a hate crime, but on
September 11 the police arrested Tabesh himself on
suspicion of setting the fire. The incident, and the date, illustrates a
has had to face over the last year. Has resentment at the perpetrators of the
9/11 attacks translated into increased abuse of American Muslims? Or is that
threat overstated? A careful review of the data available on anti-Muslim
incidents over the past year suggests that America has remained a tolerant
The source of most of the data on anti-Muslim incidents is
the Muslim civil rights report issued annually by the Council on American
Islamic Relations (CAIR), a nonprofit organization based in Washington,
D.C., dedicated to "empowering the
Muslim community in America
through political and social activism." CAIR claims to have found an
annual upward trend in the number of bias incidents every year since 1996.
For the period of March 2001-2002, CAIR claimed to have
compiled 1516 incident reports of "9/11 backlash," including
"denial of religious accommodation, harassment, discrimination, bias,
threat, assault and even several murders." No details of these incidents
were given. Instead, CAIR provided its 525 "normal" claims for the
year, documenting 522 of them. Either figure represents quite a jump from the
previous year's 366 reported incidents. But not all the cases are obvious
instances of anti-Muslim discrimination or bias. Twenty-two cases can be discounted
cases involved definite bias, but were focused not on Muslims; they
targeted Arabs or nationals of specific countries, like Iraq or Sudan.
cases occurred outside of the U.S.
instances involved anti-Muslim bias or discrimination of some sort, but
were not directed at individuals. This included educators making
allegedly anti-Muslim remarks and a report of an allegedly anti-Muslim
poster in New York City.
more instances of bias were not only impersonal but were not necessarily
anti-Muslim, including a medical student who "came across a
discriminatory email that discussed limiting applicants to 'Americans
and Europeans' for security reasons," which could have ultimately
been aimed at anyone from Australians to Africans.
Ninety-seven other cases in the CAIR report concern a lack
of religious accommodation rather than bias or discrimination. Sometimes
people were insensitive to Muslims' religiously-obligated attire (a kufi for men, a hijab or niqab for women). Some Muslims reported complications in
securing space or time for prayers in the workplace, or time off work for
religious holidays. Several parents complained that their kids were not
allowed to pray in school.
Overall, increased flexibility in standard operating procedures
in both private companies and government agencies, coupled with increased
public knowledge of Muslim practice, would go a long way towards eliminating
this set of difficulties. Admirably, CAIR has taken the lead in suggesting
guidelines for accommodation, as well as efforts at public education. But in
a secular society, most any religious community will suffer similar hassles.
Many Christians are asked to work on Good Friday every year. Sikhs are often
inconvenienced by their head-wear. Such problems do not uniquely affect
Another 293 of the 522 reports live in an ambiguous gray
area. Some were matters of perception, involving people who believed they
were being discriminated against because they were not hired, were fired,
were treated rudely, etc. Others seem to have been filed as discrimination
primarily because the victim of the crime or negative act happened to be
Muslim, with no supporting evidence that the incident was motivated by bias.
For instance, numerous reports involved rude or incoherent treatment at
Departments of Motor Vehicles--hardly America's most courteous service
industry. Or how about the student whose teacher reportedly read an anti-Arab
tract to his class? It turns out to have been pop song lyrics, based on the
classic existentialist novel The Stranger by Albert Camus,
himself an Algerian and well-known Arab sympathizer.
Unfortunately, 106 cases (out of 522) in the report appear
to be blatant instances of anti-Muslim bias or discrimination. Some might
even qualify as hate crimes. All are worrying in our secular, liberal
democracy. But on a careful reading, only a minority of the total incidents
in CAIR's report fell into this category; a further
93 cases were failures of religious accommodation. While CAIR claims their
report "may not represent the full scope of bias," due to
under-reporting, it is also possible that more people were reporting
incidents to them than in the past, since CAIR's
public profile has risen since 9/11. If 9/11 backlash did cause over 1500
genuine additional incidents, it would strengthen CAIR's
case considerably if they could be documented.
In a country of 280 million people, it may perhaps be
comforting that the number of documented cases of blatant anti-Muslim
activity is so small. At the same time, it does not do the argument of those
who have faced real bias any good to claim that the real number is much
higher without good evidence to support that view.
See the original: http://www.tcsdaily.com/article.aspx?id=102102A
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