Is Anti-Muslim Backlash a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

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A rally for Muslims and immigrants in Manhattan
A rally for Muslims and immigrants in Manhattan (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

By Felix Hafner

Assaults against Muslims in the United States have exceeded attacks in 2001, reaching their highest modern level, according to Pew Research Center. In 2017, there were 127 attacks against Muslims, surpassing the previous peak of 93 in 2001. The data analyzed a spread of FBI hate crimes statistics from 2000 to 2017.

I don’t want to minimize the problem of a trend of increasing attacks against Muslims. Such increases in assaults against any group are serious and merit a response. Anti-Muslim bigotry is never acceptable and must continue to be challenged until it is eradicated.

It is also important to put this increase in its broader context.

One-hundred-twenty-seven assaults a year in a country with a population of close to 400 million is still a strikingly low number, especially given the fact that it’s not happening out of nowhere but in the context of repeated murderous attacks coming out of the group whose members are assaulted.

This is emphatically not to excuse the assaults. It is simply to add that given what we know of human nature, tribal instincts and how humans typically react when threatened, the response of Western civil society as a whole has been remarkably civilized in the past decade or so.

Yes, there is some indication that something is changing for the worse at the moment, which is troubling. However, again, the number of assaults is still low, even allowing for a larger number of non-registered assaults.

Additionally, the word “assault” doesn’t give us a good idea of the true nature of the incidents. Assault is, legally speaking, a rather broad category. While a physical attack is necessary to qualify as assault, the bar is low. A hand on one’s shoulder in conjunction with some threatening words is an assault, a raised fist together with some verbal abuse may qualify, a light shove definitely does. So what kinds of incidents were these? It’s important to know that to assess the seriousness of the situation.

There is a constant and laudable effort to put the threat coming out of the Muslim community in perspective. I have argued again and again that the likelihood of being even within a kilometer of a terrorist attack is vanishingly small anywhere in the Western world and the number of people committing those acts is such a tiny fraction that being afraid of Muslims strictly makes no sense.

At the same time, I’ve often read about Muslims living in fear in the West because of the Islamophobia of the general population. Looking at these numbers, that makes even less sense.

In general, I wonder if a more positive narrative about the reaction of people in the West, instilling some pride in the generally pretty civilized response among the population wouldn’t be more helpful than constant hand-wringing about an impending anti-Muslim backlash which never seems to happen and, if anything, feels like it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy at this point. Such an approach could be unifying and uplifting.


Clarion Project condemns anti-Muslim bigotry in all its forms. Read our statement here.



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