Global Politics Go Local in the American City

On August 5, 2012, Wade Michael Page fatally shot six people and wounded four others in a mass shooting at a Sikh temple in a Milwaukee suburb, Oak Creek. Page was a white supremacist and belonged to a neo-Nazi group of skinheads called “Hammerskin Nation”. He had founded several white power music bands including one called, “End Apathy”. The music and his hateful messages were disseminated over the Internet and social media sites. The 9/11 attacks were a pivotal turning point in his radicalization process, according to acquaintances who spoke to the media, but Page was an equal-opportunity hater and known to disparage Jews, Blacks, and Muslims in the same tones. It is believed that he thought the Sikhs to be Muslim.

Page took his life after he was shot by a local police officer. The policeman, Lt. Brian Murphy, showed great heroism in trying to stop the shooter. Murphy was severely wounded in the gun battle.

The shooting elicited an outpouring a neighborhood support for the local Sikhs and people turned out in large numbers across Wisconsin to demonstrate sympathy for the Sikhs. A typical response was a story in The Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel. Under the headline, “Outpouring of support trumps Page's hatred,” a columnist tried to banish evil in sugar-coated inter-faith communality:

“On this night, we were all Sikhs, shoulder to shoulder across the room. Most everyone sat on the carpet for the hour-plus service, ensuring you'll never take pews for granted again. Messages were presented in both Punjabi and English.”1

This terrible incident contains three elements that have come to frame life in midsized cities over the past decade: migration and increasing ethno-religious pluralism, the intrusion of global conflict on local ones, and a mix of old-fashioned American racism with the also quintessentially American belief in the power of redemption through neighborliness.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a narrative emerged about how the institutional failure to address religious discrimination and anti-immigrant hostility encouraged extremism on the part of European Muslims among U.S. policy-makers and commentators. The subsequent attacks carried out by local Al Qaeda-inspired groups on the urban transport systems in Madrid in 2004 and in London in 2005 reinforced the sense that the U.S. was “special” because of our long history of religious accommodation and a local infrastructure for dealing with diversity, exemplified by the ‘mayor’s prayer breakfast’ model and the keenness of local governments to harness the votes and incomes of local immigrant communities for the benefit of the locality.

That narrative no longer holds. The protests against the so-called “mosque at Ground Zero”, an optimistic project about a Muslim Y that was supposed to have gone up on the site of a shuttered department store in lower Manhattan, and other incidents from anti-Muslim campaigns on city buses in New York and the Washington D.C. Metro to the Oak Creek shooting have spelled out a darker and less “special” story about the resilience of post-racial and post-Christian pluralism in the United States.

My research focuses upon the impact of global political events, specifically the ongoing confrontation with Islamist militancy, on metropolitan and mid-sized cities in the United Kingdom and the United States adjusting to a growing Muslim and non-Christian local community. We are used to speaking about urban “minority-majority” areas and the associated planning issues and political challenges. The locations that interests me in the present context are suburban or mid-sized cities that have already or are in the process of becoming “minority-majority” municipalities.

Until recently Americans had little opportunity to meet Muslims or to have Muslims as neighbors or co-workers, but since 9/11 the number of Muslims living in the U.S. has doubled, primarily through immigration. In the past decade, Muslims have established themselves in more than two hundred counties where no Muslims had lived before. Over a thousand new mosques have been built. The encounter with new Muslim neighbors provides new opportunities for anti-Muslim bias crimes. And perceptions of Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans are colored by global events. Threats and abuse broadcast by Islamic radicals abroad (some of them American citizens, and many of them converts) rub off on perceptions of American Muslims at home.

Toleration in the City

Developing a new language for how to speak about “other people” in your community is one of the first challenges facing municipal planners and elected officials. But as the “Ground Zero” mosque incident illustrated, New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s early and strong endorsement of the rights of the Muslim backers to build the mosque as long as they observed local zoning rules was drowned out by another narrative about mosques as incubators of terrorism. The well-know Dutch Islamophobe Geert Wilders flew in to advise opponents of the mosque, which helps explains why the complaints mirrored European tropes about mosques as alien invaders in the cityscape.

Uncivil discourse is protected speech but incitement to violence is not, if an imminent threat is at hand. The social media revolution has made it easy to incite to violence and disown the consequences. In Europe, anti-Muslim and extremist Islamist groups are locked in a dangerous dialectic of mutual provocation, maintaining a symbiotic relationship as “best enemies.” They coordinate demonstrations, for example, mobilizing members to turn up for street fights at each other’s meetings and often re-post each other’s incendiary material online. Their message is essentially the same, namely, that democracy is “disallowed” for Muslims who must live only in a state regulated by the Sharia and are not fit for living in your neighborhood.

Reversing the adage about a butterfly’s flapping wings setting off a storm across the world, the social media revolution has made it possible to use global politics for local impact. The events that led to the death in Benghazi of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, on September 11, 2012, were initially attributed—an oversimplification, as it turned out—to local protests against an American-made film, uploaded on YouTube, titled “Innocence of Muslims.” The YouTube clip was posted on YouTube months before violence occurred in Egypt and elsewhere, but it came to the attention of Egyptian authorities after excerpts were broadcast on the Cairo-based ultraconservative religious al-Nas television. The TV station was alerted to the existence of the YouTube clips by a Twitter campaign, promoted by a U.S.-based Coptic Christian activist and a pastor in Gainesville, Florida, Terry Jones. Jones first got everyone's attention in 2010, and then year after year for his plans to burn copies of the Koran on September 11 in an anniversary ritual. (Jones was arrested and charged this past September 11 shortly before torching 2,988 copies of the Koran, the exact number of people killed in the 9/11 attacked. Oddly, Jones did not subtract the two dozens American Muslims who died in the attacks from his tally.)

The producer of the YouTube film, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, falsely claimed that he was an Israeli-American, and that he raised money from Jewish donors to fund the film. That too was false but the deception was widely broadcast in Middle East media. The “screening” of the video was announced to coincide with “The International Judge Muhammad Day,” scheduled for September 11 in Gainesville, Florida.

Pastor Jones has at various times been urged by Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense, and General Martin E. Dempsey, the Chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, and possibly other federal officials, not to proceed with Koran-burning demonstrations. The federal government’s intervention is understandable but carries the risk of tarring Muslims with the blame for limiting what has previously been regarded as an essential aspect of American civil liberties.

Provocations intended to produce evidence of the alleged intolerance of Muslims—or vice versa, of Christians vis-à-vis Muslims—are a staple of the repertoire of extremists. The arguments and the dissemination of the narrative are global. The staging and the enactment of performances following the narrative are local. The “mosque at Ground Zero” protests, the Terry Jones and “Innocence of Muslims” spectacle, and the Danish cartoons from 2005 which set off a nine-month long global cycle of protests and counter-protests, all played out in a “glocal” loop of localized performances, violence, and even death, and counter-performances.

Hateful speech is not easily curbed. There is no right not to have your faith insulted in public transit systems, for example. Twice federal courts have ruled that efforts on the part of the New York City and Washington D.C. transit authorities to prohibit an ad implying that Muslims are “savage” are violations of the First Amendment. The ad reads: "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad."

In July 2012, an attempt by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority to disallow the ad on the grounds that the language was demeaning to Muslim subway riders was struck down by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Judge Paul A. Engelmayer argued that while the reference to “jihad” could reasonably be seen as singling out Muslims, a refusal to allow the term “savage” would imply that the term could not be used in reference to any of the groups protected under current policy. This, the judge concluded, was an excessively broad interpretation of the Transit Authority’s right to regulate the content of ads. (The Transit Authority’s policy prohibits the display of images and texts that “demean an individual or group of individuals on account of race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation.”)

The ad was purchased by Pamela Geller, who is co-founder with Robert Spencer of “Stop the Islamization of America” and the ”Freedom Defense Initiative,” U.S.-based organizations modeled on what in Europe has become known as the “counter-Jihad” movement. Geller and Spencer are inspired by the Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, who is famous, among other things, for having proposed that the Koran should be banned in the Netherlands, as is Hitler’s Mein Kampf, because Islam is not a religion but a fascist ideology. After the run in New York City, the ads went up in Washington D.C. Metro system after the U.S. District Court for the District Court of Columbia overruled the transit authority’s decision in early October.

The MTA’s concern that Muslim and Arab American subway riders have a right not to be described as savages is reasonable enough. It is a different matter to argue, however, as did the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, that the ad should be censored because it contains “fighting words” and represents a risk to public safety. Citing a hypothetical risk for violence, the Washington transit authorities implied that Muslims are aggressors rather than victims. The transit authorities thereby reinforced the message of the ad that Muslims are particularly liable to take violent umbrage.

The Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR) months later responded with a campaign of their own, using wholesome pictures of American Muslims, some with headscarves and beards and others without, with quotes about seeking self-improvement with the slogan “this is my Jihad”. The joint effect of the campaigns is that American Muslims have become identified in a battlefield of slogans and under the cloud of global events.

The Suburbanization of Hate Crimes

Hate crime statistics are one indicator of local toleration—or rather the lack there of. Unfamiliarity may explain a great deal but it is not until recently that American Muslims have become subjected to persistent bias crime.

The FBI’s annual release of hate crime statistics revealed a jump in anti-Muslim bias incidents in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks, from 28 incidents in 2000 to 481 in 2001. In the following five years the number of incidents held steady at about 150 incidents annually, three-times the level experienced prior to 2001. Over the next few years the incident figures dropped by about 20%.

With the exception of the post-9/11 backlash, incidents of hate crimes directed against other religious groups—a category that includes Sikhs who are sometimes confused with Muslims in bias crimes—generally match those recorded as anti-Muslim incidents. A comparison with anti-Jewish incidents and incidents targeting other religious groups is instructive. Anti-Jewish incidents have historically made up about two-thirds of all religious bias incidents, but started to decline in 2000 and dropped 23.5% between 2000 and 2005, the year in the last decade with the fewest religiously-motivated hate crimes overall.

The FBI’s annual release of bias crime statistics for 2011 was not available for the preparation of this paper, and the 2010 statistics are therefore used. In 2010, the FBI recorded 186 anti-Muslim and 992 anti-Jewish bias crime offenses. The total number of offenses was 7,699, of which 80% was based upon race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. 18.9% were based upon religious bias. 207 incidents targeted a temple, synagogue, church, or mosque, with one instance of arson against a mosque recorded in 2010. (See table 1 for a detailed breakdown by type of bias offense.)

The American Jewish population is significantly larger than the American Muslim population and the figures have little meaning as an indicator of Muslim-American exposure to bias crime unless weighted for population size. Based on the population information in the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey published by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Center’s reporting on the size of the Muslim population in the U.S., the American Jewish population was approximately 5,242,800 in 2010. The estimated Muslim population was 2,595,000. Using all types of incidents—both property and personal hate crimes—to create a weighted measure of the impact of hate crimes relative to the size of religious groups, we arrive at a standardized measure for the incidence of bias crimes in 2010.

Using this methodology, there were 0.176 bias-crime offenses per 1,000 Jews and 0.072 offenses per 1,000 Muslims. Two conclusions follow. American Jews are more than twice as likely to become exposed to religious hate crimes as are American Muslims. And, second, aside from the post-9/11 spike in hate crimes, the prevalence of such crimes against American Muslims stabilized in the following years, and if measured against a growing population even declined. Anti-Muslim bias crimes have, however, increased in a number of smaller states that previously had few such crimes. This is consistent with the shift of Muslim settlement away from large metropolitan areas.

Nobody should find comfort in these numbers. In fact, the findings highlight the reason that we should be extremely concerned over evidence of a rapidly worsening situation in the past year with respect to toleration and bias crimes vis-a-vis Muslim Americans and other largely immigrant-origin non-Christian faith groups. Religious bias crimes have increased in importance relative to other bias crimes. From 2002 to 2010, the total number of hate crime offenses declined by 17.8% but religiously motivated offenses declined at half the rate, at 9.9%.

White men are disproportionately responsible for religiously motivated bias crimes, and white supremacists or individuals expressing sympathy for supremacist ideas have been identified as the perpetrators in a number of cases. Supremacists are proven to be willing to attack members or symbols of any non-Christian faith group, and we should be careful not to focus on crimes committed against Arab Americans and Muslim Americans to the exclusion of attacks on other non-Christian religious groups and their members.

Not reflected in the hate crime statistics released by the FBI are a wave of attacks on mosques and Hindu and Sikh temples. The increasing severity of the recent attacks on mosques is a source of particular concern. (See table 2 for a listing of mosque attacks and attacks on Sikh temples likely involving identity confusion.) Some arson attacks and shootings at mosques and Sikh and Hindu temples have led to fatalities, and in other cases there was a high risk of fatalities.

TABLES

Table 1. Hate Crime Statistics 2010. Bias Crime Offenses Based upon Religion.

Table 2. Attacks on Muslim and Sikh Homes, Businesses, and Places of Worship, September 1, 2011, to September 30, 2012.

About the Author
Jytte Klausen is the Lawrence A. Wien Professor of International Cooperation at Brandeis University.
Posted on July 23rd, 2014.