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Pushing the bias button

June 1, 2003

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and other lobbying groups are reporting a rising tide of anti-Muslim bigotry and a massive increase in anti-Arab crime in America. Obvious questions: What rising tide? What massive increase?

Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, in an article he co-wrote, says the reason we haven’t heard or read about an upsurge in the crimes is that “by and large, the big backlash never occurred.” There are incidents, a few of them horrible, and there are breathtakingly nasty comments, like the ones delivered by a few prominent evangelical preachers in the wake of 9/11. But there is no tide of hate crimes or bigotry because America decisively refused to scapegoat its Muslim and Arab citizens after 9/11 and is refusing to do so now.

The FBI reported 481 anti-Muslim incidents of varying seriousness in all of 2001. The media spun that number as huge. But why? All such incidents are deplorable, but the total doesn’t seem large for a nation with 2 million to 7 million Muslims. The FBI’s total of anti-Jewish incidents that year was more than twice the Muslim total.

Other bias numbers seem small, too. After conducting nearly 10,000 interviews with U.S.-based Iraqis earlier this year, the government reported opening only 36 cases of “backlash discrimination or hate crimes” in the entire United States. What we commonly get in incident reports is pessimistic rhetoric backed up by paltry or questionable numbers. The Muslim community “continues to be picked out and picked on,” said the head of the Human Relations Commission in traditionally conservative Orange County, Calif. But his new stats show only 15 hate crimes and lesser incidents involving Middle Easterners and Muslims in all of 2002, compared with about seven a year during the 1990s. Orange County bigots who pick on Muslims are apparently not up to the job.

Every now and then a Muslim spokesman slips and admits that the numbers aren’t grave. When the executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Salam al-Marayati, testified before the California state senate in May, he noted that fewer hate crimes against American Muslims were reported during this year’s war in Iraq than during the 1991 Gulf War. Good news. But by the end of his testimony, he was back on message, claiming that “anti-Muslim bias is a systemic disease of our culture today.”

Why do CAIR and other groups push the “bias” button so hard? Well, the victim stance works. It attracts press attention and has made the “bias against Muslims” article a staple of big-city dailies. It encourages Muslims to feel angry and non-Muslims to feel guilty. It raises a great deal of money, garners a lot of TV time and gets the attention of Congress. And by pre-positioning all future criticism as bias, it tends to intimidate or silence even the most sensible critics.

From a lobbying point of view, who would want to give up a set of advantages like this? I have an answer right here: anybody who thinks the future is more important than strumming the same old bias guitar for several more years. The obsession with bigotry is delaying the honest discussion Muslims have to have with non-Muslims in America. Here’s one conversational topic: In light of the threat from Islamist terrorists, what kind of heightened scrutiny of Muslims in America is appropriate and fair?

By insisting that all such heightened scrutiny is illegitimate “racial profiling,” the Muslim lobby and its allies have in effect banned rational discussion. In response, the government has opted for a broad policy of hypocrisy, denouncing racial profiling in public while encouraging it among workers who have the job of guarding against terrorism. Officially, it is committed to the notion that a Swedish nun is as likely to set off a bomb as a young male visitor from Iran.

Another important conversation, currently frozen by the bias issue, is the role of national identity. Many people around the world are downgrading their national identity and looking for supranational or subnational identities like John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban. What is the impact of this trend on Muslims, who are historically more focused on a religious identity than a national one? And when Muslims abroad want to know how you feel about being both American and Muslim, what are you prepared to say?

We notice that CAIR’s new ad campaign, “Islam in America,” has virtually nothing in it about living in America, feeling American, or sensibilities shared with people of other faiths and no faith. So how about it? Can we get beyond bias and talk about this?

From → Politics, Victims

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