In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Arabs and Muslims in the United States, and those perceived to be Arab or Muslim, such as Sikhs and South Asians, became victims of a severe wave of backlash violence. The hate crimes included murder, beatings, arson, attacks on mosques, shootings, vehicular assaults and verbal threats. This violence was directed at people solely because they shared or were perceived as sharing the national background or religion of the hijackers and al-Qaeda members deemed responsible for attacking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The post-September 11 violence against Arabs and Muslims was not unprecedented. Over the past twenty years backlash hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims in the United States have become predictable, triggered by conflict in the Middle East and acts of terrorism associated with Arabs or Muslims. The hate crimes that followed the September 11 attacks nonetheless were unique in their severity and extent. While comprehensive and reliable national statistics are not available, Arab and Muslim groups report more than two thousand September 11-related backlash incidents. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported a seventeen-fold increase in anti-Muslim crimes nationwide during 2001. In Los Angeles County and Chicago, officials reported fifteen times the number of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim crimes in 2001 compared to the preceding year.
In many cases, government officials responded quickly and vigorously to the backlash violence. President George W. Bush and numerous state and city officials publicly condemned anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate crimes. In addition, as this report documents, state and local government across the nation undertook a series of steps seeking to contain acts of violence and bring perpetrators to justice. Nevertheless, aspects of the U.S. government's anti-terrorism campaign-the detention of twelve hundred mostly Middle Eastern and South Asians because of possible links to terrorism, the effort to question over five thousand young Middle Eastern men, and the decision to fingerprint visitors from certain Middle Eastern and Muslim countries-reinforced a public perception that Arab and Muslim communities as a whole were suspect and linked to the "enemy" in the U.S. war against terrorism.
In this report, Human Rights Watch documents the nature of the September 11 backlash violence and the local, state, and federal government responses to it. Drawing on research in six large cities, Human Rights Watch identified public practices used to protect individuals and communities from hate crimes. The report focuses particularly on four areas of response: police deployment, prosecutions, bias crime monitoring, and outreach to affected communities.
Our research demonstrates that action in advance of potential outbreaks of hate crimes can help mitigate the harm to individuals and property from backlash crimes. The success in combating backlash violence in Dearborn, Michigan, for example, where only two violent September 11-related assaults occurred in a city with 30,000 Arab-Americans, reflected steps taken by local and state officials long before September 11. In particular, Dearborn police had already identified high-risk communities and were ready to deploy officers where needed within hours of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon; pre-existing relationships between community leaders and officials facilitated communications. In cities such as Los Angeles and New York City, where police departments did not have strong pre-existing relationships with Arab and Muslims, police quickly deployed officers in vulnerable areas once backlash incidents began.
Although various systems existed to track bias crimes in the United States, flaws in those systems limited complete and accurate reporting of the nature and extent of September 11 backlash violence. The effective allocation of public resources to prevent and respond to hate crimes requires better, complete, accurate and timely monitoring of such crime.
None of the cities researched developed backlash mitigation plans. Yet recent U.S. history, as described in this report, had clearly shown that backlash violence usually followed acts of terrorism attributed to Arabs or Muslims. Given that future acts of terrorism in the United States or conflict in the Middle East can be expected to generate new outbreaks of violence against members of Arab and Muslim communities, Human Rights Watch believes that federal, state and local government should develop plans to prevent and mitigate backlash violence.
Ultimately, prevention of anti-Arab violence will require an ongoing national commitment to tolerance, respect for multicultural diversity, and recognition that "guilt by association" has no place in the United States. In the meantime, public officials face the challenge-and the responsibility under U.S. and international law-of combating backlash violence undertaken by private individuals.
The September 11 backlash against Arabs and Muslims is part of a larger, long-standing problem of hate crimes in the United States. Over the past ten years, the Rodney King beating, the 1993 Yusef Hawkins racial murder in Bensonhurst, New York, the 1993 shooting spree on the Long Island Railroad, the summer of 1996 African American church burnings, the 1998 murder of James Byrd, and the 1999 murder of Mathew Shepard have strengthened calls in the U.S. for increased attention to violent bigotry and crimes motivated by bias against distinctive communities identified by race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. While the focus of this report is on violence against Arabs and Muslims, the strengths and weaknesses of official responses to the September 11 backlash reflect the strengths and weaknesses of the official response to all hate crimes.