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Is Federal Data Misstating the State of Hate?

Anti-Muslim hate crimes are recorded at a rate of less than half their Jewish counterparts in America. Those numbers may not paint a full picture.

Hate crime against Muslims could be a lot worse apparently. At least according to the latest official numbers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, anti-Muslim hate ranks second among religiously motivated hate crimes, with about 25 percent of the total in 2016. That's less than half of the share of anti-Jewish hate, which clocks in at about 55 percent.

But there's reason to be skeptical about that data. Hate crimes are notoriously undercounted in general. And there is evidence, including the wary relationship between Muslim Americans and law enforcement, to suggest that hate crimes against them are especially unlikely to end up in an FBI spreadsheet.

The likely inaccuracy of the numbers on anti-Muslim hate is double-edged, says Jen'nan Read, an associate professor at Duke University who studies the assimilation experiences of Muslims in the United States. On one hand, better data could mean more resources for the work against Islamophobia. On the other, it would be unwelcome news for a group eager to show they are accepted, thriving members of American society.

"If you report a hate crime is it going to result in something positive?" Read asks. "[Or] is it going to put a spotlight on you even more than there's already a spotlight?"

According to a Pew Research study, 75 percent of Muslim Americans say there's "a lot" of discrimination against Muslims. That's almost double the 43 percent of Jewish Americans who say there's "a lot" against Jews. Discrimination doesn't directly translate to hate crimes. But some experts say that they're closely related; that there's a "reciprocal influence" between especially heinous acts and everyday bias.

Superficial markers may make Muslim Americans more likely to face discrimination in general and hate crimes in particular. About 40 percent say there's something about their appearance that might make someone think they're Muslim, and that sub-group reported significantly higher rates of discrimination than other Muslim Americans, Pew found.

That tracks with another 2017 Pew survey, which showed that the majority of hate crimes against Jewish Americans involved vandalizing property—spray painting a swastika, for example—whereas nearly 80 percent of hate crimes against Muslim Americans were against the people themselves.

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A hate crime only becomes official when someone calls the cops, and Muslim Americans may be more reluctant than most to make that call, experts say. Many are recent immigrants from countries in which police are just a tool of an oppressive government, an experience may make them wary of American police. But cops have also done their part to alienate the community. The ongoing history of surveilling mosques and profiling Muslims might make law enforcement a difficult place to turn, says Maya Berry, the executive director of the Arab American Institute.

Berry describes instances when a Muslim American has been the victim of a hate crime, reported it, and then been contacted by an FBI agent who uses the fact that they reported the crime as an opening to question them about their religious community or travel history.

"Those are the kinds of stories that, when documented in a community, really put a shadow of doubt on the process itself," Berry says. "We know that those are very credible fears."

Even if someone does decide to report a hate crime, there can be institutional resistance to categorizing it as such. Hate crimes are a stain on a community, and they can bring unwelcome scrutiny from federal agencies. As a result, political power is sometimes needed to win official recognition for hate crimes against a group. A study from 2003 found that the presence of an advocacy group, in combination with other factors, makes it more likely that hate crimes get formally acknowledged.

But the organizations working for Muslim Americans are relatively new, and many are still expanding their footprints, says Corey Saylor, a director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations. By contrast, Jewish Americans have had the Anti-Defamation League, which focuses on anti-Semitism, but also works against hate crimes in general, for over a century.

"I think a high percentage of the crimes committed against Jews and Jewish institutions are reported," says Michael Lieberman, a lawyer with the Anti-Defamation League. "But I also think that it doesn't take anything away from those numbers to also say that the numbers of crimes committed against Muslim Americans, the LGBT community, the disabled community, are definitely underreported."

Still, some argue that overstating the share of anti-Jewish hate can have far-reaching political consequences. Many Muslim organizations have been starved for funding over their advocacy for Palestinians, according to a 2011 publication from the Brookings Institution. Some have been hobbled by pro-Israel groups that accuse them of anti-Semitism—accusations that often draw power from the questionable statistics on the share of anti-Jewish hate crime, says Rabbi Alissa Wise, a deputy director with Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-bias group that opposes Israeli control in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.

"Anti-Semitism is used as a cudgel against activism for Palestinian rights," Wise says. "You can't fight anti-Semitism at the expense of Muslim communities."