On November 21, Maha Sayed, an attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called for an investigation into the actions of a kindergarten teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina. In a letter to the local school board, and as the Charlotte Observer reported, Sayed wrote that the teacher grabbed a Muslim student “by the neck and began choking him” on November 16. The letter also delineated a pattern of abuse, including bullying from fellow students and the teacher, who is accused of singling out the kindergarten student and calling him a “bad Muslim boy” repeatedly.
It could be easy to interpret a story about this student’s allegations as an isolated incident, one that mars our cultural understanding of kindergarten teachers as inherently warm, loving, and kind people. But with reports from civilian and non-profit organizations, as well as news media, suggesting that hate crimes have spiked since Donald Trump’s presidential election, to view this alleged act of violence against a Muslim child as isolated or the act of one person is not merely inappropriate but deeply dangerous. Hate crimes reflect both intent and systemic structures of bias. They are not limited to a perpetrator against her victim, but rather extend out to systems of race and racialization, gendered biases, ethnic, and religious-based hatred.
Trump ran a campaign that targeted Muslims in his rhetoric and proposed policies. And during 2015, anti-Muslim hate crimes rose to the highest levels since just after 9/11, surging 67 percent over the previous year, according to the most recent FBI data. Researchers with Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative have argued that the recent uptick in hate crimes corresponds with the presidential contest. And in the weeks since the election, that trend appears to be continuing. Mosques in California, Georgia, and Pennsylvania have been targeted with hate mail, stating that President-elect Trump would do to Muslims what “Hitler did to the Jews.” Muslim women who choose to veil are especially vulnerable, given the public ways in which their religious identity is marked. There have been many reports of forcible removal of hijab, threats and acts of violence, and harassment of Muslim women across America in the weeks since the election.
Tracking hate crimes in real time is nearly impossible. Activists like Shaun King and non-profits like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League are trying to compile data, especially since November 8; each of these, among others, asks that people report incidents as widely as possible: both formally to organizations and informally via Tweets or Facebook posts. In reality, however, our legal structures, reporting systems, and classification schemes are ill-equipped to handle such a task. By their nature, crimes have to be verified, victims’ stories corroborated, and perpetrators identified. The justice system is slow, at best; at worst, the ways in which hate crimes are reported indicate complicated classificatory systems that obstruct and obfuscate the very reporting they aim to enable.
Classifications have mattered as part of the ways in which Muslims—among others—have been racialized. Islam is not a race—religions are not races—but Muslims are racialized. The process of racialization refers, most simply, to the collapsing of diverse populations into one recognizable whole, sometimes based on skin color but often based on perceived similarities between and among members of a group. This assumed similarity, regardless of physical appearance, ethnicity, language, or nationality is especially prominent in the racialization of religious groups, like Jews or Muslims. As religion scholar Sylvester Johnson suggests, assumptions of race as tied to phenotype or biology fail to capture the ways in which power—especially global, colonial power—invented, assigned, and defined race based upon exclusionary definitions that were not tied to specific bodies. In other words, while Islam is not a race, Muslims are racialized and defined racially in large part based upon their relationship to imperial power. In reality, Muslims are extraordinarily diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and country of origin. Both globally and within the United States, Muslims are in no way a monolithic population. But the pattern of racializing Muslims dates to programs led by the FBI specifically targeting African American Muslims in the 1950s. More recently, this pattern has been tied to post-9/11 surveillance, stop-and-frisk, and profiling programs. Racializing Islam is not new, then, but is rather historically rooted in methods of demarcating and dominating populations within the broader frameworks of white supremacy and control. In the wake of Trump’s election, the intersection of the racialization of Muslims and empowered white supremacy is all the more evident.
The most recent FBI report states that hate crimes are most frequently related to race, ethnicity, or ancestry: 56.9 percent of all hate crimes fit this category. Religious bias garners its own category, however, and these comprise 21.4 percent of reported hate crimes. The division between religion and race is complicated, to say the least. In the FBI’s data, racial categories are limited to those that appear in the U.S. Census, which is to say that they are both limited and only include categories the U.S. currently tracks: African American or Black; White; Asian; Hispanic; American Indian or Alaskan Native; Arab; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; and Other. These categories have noticeable limitations as we track hate crimes. It matters whether an attack is counted as “anti-Black” or “anti-Muslim” or both. It matters how we classify in situations like the all-too-common scenario in which a turbaned Sikh man is targeted because he appears to his assailant as Muslim. Is this an anti-Sikh crime? An anti-Muslim crime? An anti-Asian crime? Police officers and district attorneys, among others, are responsible for making these choices; individual jurisdictions are then responsible for reporting that data to the federal authorities. A choice based on available evidence, individual decisions, and personal understandings may not capture the crime itself, and it may not reflect complex intersections of the victim’s presumed race, religion, and ethnicity.
These classifications matter a lot in terms of proving and documenting patterns of systemic biases, violence, and hatreds. They matter because the act of writing off a bias incident (like a kindergarten teacher choking a Muslim child) as isolated rather than as a part of a larger trend affects the ways in which we implement safeguards and make visible systemic racisms often rendered invisible to many (especially white actors).
Even if we cannot accurately track the number or rate of hate-related crimes since November 8, we can and ought to think through the ongoing racialization—the homogenization—of Muslims. Trump and his advisors have called for a Muslim registry, one that, if implemented, may echo the controversial National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a program established by President George W. Bush’s administration in 2002 and eventually discontinued in 2011. In both Trump’s articulation of a Muslim registry as well as the original NSEERS program, “Muslim” is conflated with region, and non-citizens (under NSEERS) as well as citizens (per Trump’s remarks) requiring registry do so not on religious identification but on country of origin. Trump has called for various iterations of a registry, including the “extreme vetting” of immigrants from “Muslim countries,” which was the premise of NSEERS and the brainchild of current Trump advisor, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
The phrase “Muslim countries” is of import here: What is a Muslim country, exactly? Is it a state where Muslims are a majority population, like Saudi Arabia? Is it a state that explicitly relies on an interpretation of Islamic sources for its governance, like Iran? Is it a state that has struggled with home-grown terrorism, like France? Does it matter if these countries are majority Sunni or Shiite, have significant non-Muslim populations, are trusted U.S. allies, or are currently fighting the incursion of non-state militants like Daesh? None of these basic definitional parameters have been discussed publicly by Trump’s team, and under NSEERS, some 25 countries, all in Asia or Africa with predominantly Muslim populations, were eventually part of the program of registering non-citizens.
The 25 countries listed under the discontinued NSEERS program have unique national identities with particular relationships to the U.S. and its allies, countries like Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Qatar. Moreover, some of them had very little in common historically, geographically, and linguistically because they spanned the globe from Somalia to Jordan, Pakistan to Eritrea. Religiously, many scholars of Islam would happily enumerate the differences in interpretations, legal application, and lived religion between and among these regions, both contemporarily and historically. That these are collapsed into an operative identity demonstrates the racialization of Islam, the focus on Muslim as both a priority and a priori.
The uptick in hate crimes against Muslims reported by the FBI in 2015 as well as the circumstantial evidence that crimes have increased since November 8 exist within this framework, too. Taken individually, the 800+ hate incidents reported since Trump’s victory might be read as isolated incidents. They might be seen as expressions of systemic racisms. Those that involved Muslims—or those presumed to be Muslims—ought to also be seen as expressions of the ways in which Muslims representing linguistic, ethnic, nationalistic, and even racial diversity have continued to become racialized as a solitary, definable group in contemporary history. The five-year-old North Carolina boy who alleges that he was singled out, called names, and physically assaulted by his kindergarten teacher exists in a framework in which he has been racialized, imagined to be part of a homogenous, threatening Muslim whole.
Ilyse R. Morgenstein Fuerst is assistant professor of religion and director of the Middle East studies program at the University of Vermont.