Reporting the hate in hate crimes

Last week I mentioned that I've become mildly obsessed with the murder of Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi-American woman who was beaten so brutally at her home in El Cajon, California, that she later died. I've also been reading everything I can on the murder of Joel Shrum, the American teacher killed by Al-Qaida in Yemen. They argued that he had been trying to convert people to his religion, which is Christianity. It's surprising how many news reports about Shrum don't mention that he was Christian, although a few weeks ago the Associated Press said he was Protestant. In the case of Shrum's murder, Al-Qaida has accepted responsibility for the act of terror against Christians.

The family of Alawadi reports that her murder was an act of terror, too. Alawadi's 17-year-old daughter, who slept through the attack in their home, says she found a note next to her mother's body that suggested the beating was a hate crime.

Police are investigating that possibility but they haven't made any reported progress on the case since it happened. No matter how many times I hit "refresh" on my Alawadi Google News search, the progress just isn't there.

When we looked at stories last week, we noticed that the media seemed to be pretty sure that the murder was a hate crime and that meme dominated the coverage. Rather dramatically dominated the coverage. That remains the case. Here the Houston Chronicle alerts readers to a recent conference in the area:

The deaths of Trayvon Martin and Shaima Al Awadi sparked national outrage and have since fueled continued conversation on civil rights in Houston and across the nation...

"We do have a lot of people in this community, a significant minority, who are anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic, anti-everything," said Mustafaa Carroll, executive director for the Houston chapter for the Council on American Islamic Relations.

Representatives for CAIR touched on the rise of Islamophobia after 9/11 and privacy issues, such as the monitoring of particular people and organizations.

Carroll said that while Islamophobia in the U.S. is not widespread, the rhetoric of some public officials creates an environment where it can flourish.

"You have elected officials making ugly comments," he said. It's one thing for citizens to make it, but once you become an elected official you don't represent one segment of a community, you represent the entire community."

You just note that this is remarkably fact-free. What does "not widespread" mean? What does a "rise" in Islamophobia mean? What the heck is Islamophobia? As defined, it would be irrational fear of Islam. Is there any data set that measures rational fear of Islam, such as that which Joel Shrum's widow and two fatherless toddlers might feel, and irrational bigotry? I don't think there is such a data set. I can't even imagine how irrational fear versus rational fear would be defined.

I'm not even sure how much of a story should be built around CAIR. To some, CAIR is an important Muslim civil rights group. To others, it has troublesome ties to terrorist organizations, questionable rhetoric and little accountability (after losing their tax-exempt status last year). Speaking of, since CAIR continues to be a media favorite for discussing anti-Muslim bias, it might be good to do a follow-up to the story last year about CAIR losing that status. I just did a search on the IRS web site and it appears that the audited financials for the group for the preceding three years still haven't been filed, although perhaps the IRS is slow to register these things on the web site. The group has faced scrutiny for its involvement in a Hamas-financing case and allegations of foreign funding. When they lost their tax-exempt status last year, they claimed it was a big misunderstanding. Has that been resolved? Where do things stand?

Anyhow, the excerpt above comes from just a brief Chronicle story and probably not worth that much concern. But check out this Reuters piece headlined "Iraqi-American murder highlights anti-Muslim hate crimes." Does this murder highlight that? How do we know?

The article is just rather bizarre. It is both completely about how this murder highlights anti-Muslim hate crimes and yet admits repeatedly throughout the piece that no one really has any idea if this murder is a hate crime. If you thought that this might be reason to be a bit more careful with the reportage, you thought wrong.

The murder of an Iraqi-American mother in a close-knit refugee community on the outskirts of San Diego has brought attention to a rise in bias crimes against Muslims, even as police caution against definitively labeling her death a hate crime...

Alawadi's death comes at a time of renewed anti-Muslim sentiment nationwide. The number of anti-Muslim hate groups tripled to 30 in 2011, according to a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which advocates for civil rights.

There was a big jump in hate crimes against Muslims after the September 11, 2001 attacks carried out by Al-Qaeda, but the number subsided during the middle of the decade of the 2000s.

Bias crimes are on the rise again, reaching 186 separate offenses in 2010, the highest in five years, the FBI data show.

You may note a few things. For one, the article actually treats the Southern Poverty Law Center designation of hate groups as something serious. There is no legal definition of what makes for a hate group, and the SPLC bases its ruling on ideology. As I wrote a couple of months ago, in their recent zeal to make it easier to bully opponents by labeling them “haters,” the SPLC sort of nuked the fridge. They decided that quite a few groups that have moral or religious opposition to homosexuality are hate groups -- but only the Christian and conservative groups and not Islamic ones.

You might be more familiar with the term “hate group” when it’s used to refer to groups that incite violence. That’s not what SPLC means. But speaking of violence, you might recall that the SPLC president was on national media the day of the tragic Rep. Gabby Giffords shooting blaming conservative ideology for the massacre. The group's most recent hate group report was met with guffaws for the overwrought categorization of some "Patriot" groups and listing pick-up artists on its list. A friend on Twitter recently said that the working definition of an SPLC hate group is nothing more than a group that SPLC hates.

But even if you remotely took the SPLC's designations seriously, as this reporter did for some reason, if you say that something tripled to 30 in 2011, you need to explain what the time frame is. Did it triple relative to the previous year? Did it triple from the time such groups first made the list? Likewise, we need some perspective on the 186 separate offenses. What's the range of average crime against Muslims? Are we talking about, say, a tripling in hate crimes? An uptick of a few percentage points?

And what about some perspective relative to other groups? According to the most recent FBI hate crime report, there were over 1,000 crimes against Jews in the last year recorded. And yet we never see cover stories or features about the dangerous increase in Judaism-o-phobia, for some reason.

Anyway, in addition to providing some better numerical basis for the story, it would be good to get some stories about actual, verifiable hate crimes committed:

Community activists point to a history of violence and intimidation toward the local Muslim community, even as they say they cannot recall ever such a severe crime.

"Maybe this wasn't a hate crime. But I have cases that are hate crimes," said Besma Coda, Culture Adviser for Chaldean-Middle Eastern Social Services in El Cajon.

Some of Coda's clients have suffered broken bones and beatings in recent years, she said. One client had to get 10 stitches in his head because of a hate-motivated beating.

Again, these should be sourced a bit better, no? Names? Details? Court proceedings? I assume there is some sort of reason for objectively classifying something as a hate crime, so there has to be some sort of way to verify that, right? We learn that a leader at the San Diego chapter of CAIR says he knows of two Muslims who reported receiving threatening phone calls recently.

Now, if Alawadi was murdered in a hate crime, and people are suffering broken bones and beatings and stitches and threatening phone calls, I'm starting to get worried. I want to know much more about what's going on. But the story just goes on a lot of hearsay, which seems a rather unserious way to treat what is being presented as a very serious situation.

We learn of a recent vigil in front of Alawadi's house:

Some mourners wore the traditional black cloak and scarf worn by many devout Muslim women. Others wore T-shirts that said "Justice for Shaima Alawadi" above a silhouette of a woman wearing a Muslim headscarf.

Alawadi wore such a headscarf, and advocates for the Arab and Muslim community have suggested that her scarf may have been a factor in drawing attention to her as a perceived outsider, if indeed her killing was a hate crime.

Note how many qualifiers were needed for that last sentence. "may have been a factor ... if indeed her killing was a hate crime."

And to sum up the entire point of the story, we get this at the end:

The two cases, despite their differences, highlight broader questions of discrimination against black and Muslim communities in America, said Abdulrahman El-Sayed, a fellow at think tank Demos and an epidemiologist at Columbia University.

As darkness fell in El Cajon at the recent vigil, mourners raised their candles in the air and chanted "We want justice."

I'm not entirely sure how comfortable I feel about singling out one of the thousand-plus murders in the last month and declaring what it means before it's solved. If it turns out that this Reuters story accurately describes the campaign of terror Muslims are being subject to in El Cajon, and we learn that this crime was part of that terror campaign, then that's one thing. But did this story do a good job of telling what the Muslim experience in El Cajon is actually like? It's seriously at odds with the other stories I've been reading about the area being a fairly healthy and friendly and vibrant Muslim community. And I guess I'd like to know just a bit more about whether this was an actual terrorist attack against Alawadi before we decide that she was killed for wearing a hijab and so on and so forth.

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