In 1996, a string of arsons at black churches in the South brought a swift investigation to see whether hate crimes were involved.
The FBI, the ATF and civil rights organizations quickly responded and news reports questioning whether there was a link between the fires were immediate.
Two white men were quickly arrested in February 2010 after a series of 10 fires at black churches in East Texas in less than two months.
This summer there were eight attacks in 11 days against mosques in the U.S., seven of them defacements and one the deadly Aug. 5 shooting in a Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin.
The FBI is investigating to determine if the attacks were hate crimes and if any of them are linked. But the public reaction has been mighty quiet.
A Morton Grove, Illinois, man sprayed a mosque using a pellet rifle; a homemade bomb was tossed at an Islamic school in Lombard, just 25 miles away. In Joplin, Mo., a mosque was reduced to rubble following a fire early this month and authorities are investigating whether it was caused by arson. A mosque in North Smithfield, R.I., was vandalized; teenagers were arrested and charged with hate crimes in Hayward, Calif., where worshipers were taunted and the mosque pelted with eggs, oranges and bb pellets. A mosque in Oklahoma City was hit with paintballs; a group of women threw pig legs at a temporary prayer space at a mosque in Ontario, Calif.
Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), blames hateful political rhetoric by politicians for inciting acts of violence against Muslim houses of worship.
“How long are we going to go pretending like there is no relationship between this acquiescence of hatred in politics and the inclination of violence on the ground?” Rehab told Salon.com. “You cannot demonize a community and then be surprised when they’re under attack.”
Two weeks ago, Rep. Joe Walsh, (R-Ill.), whose district includes Lombard, made comments during a town hall meeting in Elk Grove alleging that “radical Islam” had made a home in suburban Chicago and that radical Muslims were seeking to kill Americans “every week.”
According to FBI data, cited by Salon.com, the rate of anti-Muslim crimes fell from nearly 500 in 2001 (after 9/11) to 107 in 2009. But in 2010 (the latest year for which the FBI has data) it increased 50 percent to 160.
Arsalan Iftikhar, an international human rights lawyer, founder of TheMuslimGuy.com and author of the book “Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era,” said in a CNN column the mosque attacks are just as much acts of terrorism as they would be if they had happened to Christian churches and that authorities need to speak up and denounce them, even when – or most especially when – the attacker is white.
“If not, we send millions of people of color around America the message that the term ‘terrorism’ has been co-opted, that it shall apply only when brown bearded men are the shooters and not when they are the tragic victims,” he continued.
“Unless we acknowledge this attack on the Sikh temple as an act of terrorism, we will essentially be relegating brown-skinned Americans to second-class citizenry by perpetuating the myth that ‘terrorism’ is only a Muslim, Arab or South Asian phenomenon and beyond the pale for any white person to commit.”
When Donald Trump was pushing the birther argument against President Obama and hinted that the president might secretly be Muslim, I asked Iftikhar whether he thought what he once described during the 2008 campaign as an attempt to make Obama appear to be an “other” was about to be resurrected during the Republican primary season this year.
“Since many primary candidates within the Republican field were pandering to anti-Muslim sentiment during their campaigns, I do see these whisper campaigns of President Obama being a crypto-Muslim Manchurian Candidate being resurrected during the 2012 presidential elections,” Iftikhar said.
“I think many right-wingers out there have tried to ‘other-ize’ President Obama whether by the Muslim or birther smears. I think some people will try to capitalize on this phenomenon moving forward. “
But beyond scoring some cheap political points, it plants the seeds of hatred in the minds of those who may even feel they are being patriotic to some degree by targeting Muslims—even they are also Americans.
All Muslims are not Arabs; all Arabs are not Muslims and not all Muslims in this country were born elsewhere. In a nation whose founding principles included freedom of assembly and freedom to worship, it is no small irony to see a group of citizens attacked for exercising their constitutional rights.
And it’s damning to think that Americans—the public, the government and the media—are not standing up in a more vocal way against the bullying.
The thought that it could happen to any group deemed different, for whatever reason, is terrorism enough.
Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”