Islamophobia and the Paradox of Hate Crime

The number of Muslims attacked each week in London more than tripled after the Paris terrorist attack on November 13 and mosques in France and the USA have experienced an increase in threats and vandalism. The pattern is not new. Islamophobia and Islamophobic hate crimes tend to flare up on the heels of dramatic events. Terrorism can serve many goals, but the terrorist’s most persuasive message is that of fear; terrorist actions are in essence manipulations of fear, actions intended to signify risk and to instill a general sense of uncertainty. Security-related fear is, according to recent research, the strongest predictor of Islamophobic prejudice; fear increases risk estimates and has distortive effects on the perception of ordinary Muslims.

Hate crimes are prompted by prejudice, such as Islamophobia, but prejudices are not the same as hate crimes. It is a large step from believing a group of people to be “dangerous” to committing crimes against individuals who are thought to belong to the group. However, widespread Islamophobic prejudice seems to contribute to anti-Muslim hate crime, but indirectly: terrorist attacks and intensified Islamophobic prejudice serve as a window of opportunity for extremist group and networks and widely held prejudice about a minority group may lead to hate crimes being excused (“They got what they deserved”). Furthermore, widespread prejudice offers a justification to criminal behavior, with the perpetrators of hate crimes thus claiming that they had only done things that “others would have done, if only the dared.”

Prominent hate crimes can, however, have paradoxical effects and are, in themselves, dramatic events with the capacity to influence public opinion.

Hate crimes are, in essence, message crimes with the purpose of frightening an out-group and also making impressions on a perceived in-group. But when hate crime is highlighted in the media, it often triggers a strong counter-reaction; hate crimes challenge a collective moral consciousness and can lead to a sense of outrage so strong that people are prepared to take action. Such actions can take both internal and external form. Hate crimes can function as a catalyst for resistance within a targeted out-group but can also have wider effects: notorious hate crimes seem to trigger initiatives that promote alliances between targeted minorities and other actors. A statistically representative study of Muslim congregations in Sweden illustrates the paradoxical effect.

According to this study, 40 % of the Swedish Muslim congregations turned out to been subject to hate crimes (violence, unlawful threats, vandalism). The study shows that it is possible to link hate crimes to specific events; most of the hate crimes were committed in the context of dramatic world events, especially in conjunction with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but also the bombings in Madrid 2004 and London in 2005 – that is to say, because of events outside Sweden. However, an interesting finding is that the very places with the greatest number of hate crimes, outside support for the congregations was broader and more vocal. Hate crimes galvanized community organizations and individuals who were willing to support Muslims’ right to practice their religion freely; and when such forces rally round, it becomes possible for Muslim congregations to make new allies and develop collaborations with new partners.

Parts of this column have been reproduced from a recent scholarly article: Klas Borell. 2015. When is the Time to Hate? A Research Review on the Impact of Dramatic Events on Islamophobia and Islamophobic Hate Crimes in Europe. Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 26(4): 409–421.

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Klas Borell

Klas Borell

Professor of Sociology and Social Work, Jönköping University

Klas Borell serves as Professor of Sociology and Social Work at Jönköping University, Sweden. He received his PhD from Uppsala University in 1989 and has been a visiting fellow at American University of Beirut, Lebanon, and at universities in the United States. Klas Borell's research focuses on the intersection of Sociology and Social work and he has written extensively on social exclusion and social conflict, Muslim congregations, hate crimes and Islamophobia in Europe. Borell serves as the project manager for SimChild. SimChild is a computer based simulation of professional social workers assessments of children under risk with the purpose to promote social work students awareness of the discriminatory effect of hidden stereotypical norms.

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