America the Tolerant

by Howard Fienberg
October 21, 2002

Mazhar 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 problem America 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 society.


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 immediately:


  • Fifteen cases involved definite bias, but were focused not on Muslims; they targeted Arabs or nationals of specific countries, like Iraq or Sudan.
  • Three cases occurred outside of the U.S.
  • Six 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.
  • Two 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 Muslims.


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.

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