Worse than Hate: The Inspiration for Hate Crimes Against Muslims

Hate Crimes
About 200 people gathered in east Minneapolis for a rally and march to to denounce hate speech and hate crimes against Muslims. September 17, 2016. Photo by Fibonacci Blue.

By Evelyn Alsultany

Crime, but Not a Hate Crime?

On February 10, 2015 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Craig Hicks, a 46-year old white male car-parts salesperson, murdered his neighbors. They were three Muslim American students: Deah Barakat (age 23), his wife Yusor Abu-Salha (age 21), and her sister Razan Abu-Salha (age 19). He shot each of them in the head. The FBI labeled the murders a parking dispute, not a hate crime. The decision sparked a debate over whether these deaths were really just the result of a parking dispute or a hate crime. Hicks turned himself in and was charged with three counts of First-Degree Murder and sentenced to three terms of life in prison.

Two years later, on June 18, 2017 in Reston, Virginia, 22-year old Darwin Martinez Torres, a construction worker and undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, killed Nabra Hassanen (age 17) in what law enforcement classified as road rage. The state officially charged Torres with abduction with intent to defile, first-degree murder, and rape. He was sentenced to life in prison. Fairfax County police spokesperson Julie Parker said at a news conference that there was no evidence Torres used any racial slurs as he committed the crime. Therefore, it did not constitute a hate crime. In both cases, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and 150 other civil rights groups challenged law enforcement about these classifications. They demanded that the police investigate and classify them as hate crimes in light of the nationwide rise in Islamophobia.

Diminution and Denial

Why was law enforcement so reluctant to label the murder of Muslim youth as hate crimes? In my book, Broken: The Failed Promise of Muslim Inclusion, I argue the failure to designate cases like these as hate crimes allows for the diminution and denial of anti-Muslim racism. We should recognize such a diminution as a form of racial gaslighting. It is a systematic denial of the persistence and severity of racism.

However, the answer to the problem is not as simple as just designating them as hate crimes. The designation does matter for recognition. We do want the state to acknowledge the racialized violence inflicted upon us in order to do something about it and to stop gaslighting us. However, the designation does not really solve the problem. Too often it comes without addressing the state’s complicity in hate crimes through decades of policy making that classify Muslims as a national security threat. Moreover, hate crime violence is only one kind of violence that Muslims encounter. What if we connected other forms of violence to hate crimes?

Other Forms of Violence

Here are a few other forms of violence inflicted upon Muslims we forget about: A war on Afghanistan that has killed 70,000 Afghan and Pakistani civilians. A war on Iraq that had  nothing to do with 9/11 and killed over 180,000 Iraqi civilians. The imprisonment of Muslim men at Guantanamo Bay prison without charges. Torture at Abu Ghraib prison. Extraordinary rendition. The USA PATRIOT Act. Special Registration. Countering Violent Extremism. The Muslim Travel Ban. Hate crimes are but one facet of the multi-dimensional violence that Arabs, Muslims, and those mistaken as Arab or Muslim face.  More importantly, hate crimes are deeply connected to and shaped by state policies – the “War on Terror” and USA PATRIOT Act, for example, portray Muslims as un-American and a threat.

Recognition from the state is important for symbolic reasons. But we must not disconnect hate crimes from the other forms of violence Arabs and Muslims confront. Arab and Muslim Americans are vulnerable to many forms of violence, yet hate crime debates give the impression that this is the primary form of violence. What about state violence? What about how state violence inspires hate crimes? What about how Muslim Americans are the group most often framed either as terrorist threats to national security or useful for national security purposes? The government has long surveilled Muslim communities. Agents and officers have infiltrated mosques and even student groups on college campuses. So, how can Muslim Americans view state institutions as allies?

Stop Inspiring Hate

We frame discussions about hate and discrimination as the state protecting marginalized groups from attacks from individuals. We do not imagine the need for protection from the state or even attacks influenced by the state. Obviously, I am not advocating that Muslims quit seeking recognition from the state. Rather, I pose a simple question. What would it look like if conversations about hate crimes extended beyond mere recognition from the government to include other forms of violence, particularly state violence? Racial gaslighting happens when we disconnect hate crime violence from other forms of violence and depict the state as if it is an arbiter of safety and security, of protection and justice, when it is anything but. Ultimately, we cannot address hate crimes against Muslims without addressing the national security machine that inspires them.

Evelyn Alsultany is the author of Broken: The Failed Promise of Muslim Inclusion (NYU Press, 2022) and Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11 (2012). She is an associate professor in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California’s Dornsife College.

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