Got news? Hate crime edition

This was the year when the media took a keen interest in what they termed "Islamophobia." This was all the craze for a while, with Time running a cover story headlined "Is America Islamophobic?" The actual text of the story acknowledged no evidence to substantiate the charge, but had paragraphs like this:

Although the American strain of Islamophobia lacks some of the traditional elements of religious persecution -- there's no sign that violence against Muslims is on the rise, for instance -- there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that hate speech against Muslims and Islam is growing both more widespread and more heated.

"Islamophobia" was reported and opined on everywhere, from CBS News to the Christian Science Monitor.

Most stories acknowledged the difficulty of quantifying this "irrational fear of Islam," much less defining it. It's very hard to measure. But there is one report put out by the FBI on hate crimes that can help. The agency acknowledges throughout the report how imprecise the data is but it does indicate that hate crimes against Muslims went up. Whereas in 2008, 7.7 percent of religious hate crime incidents were against Muslims, in 2009 it had risen to more than 8 percent.

But what really blew me away were the stats on anti-Jewish crimes. In 2009, over 71.4 percent of religious hate crime incidents were against Jews. That's up from 65.7 percent in 2008. For comparison purposes, Jews are 1.2 percent of the population and Muslims are .6 percent of the population, according to the latest American Religious Identification Survey.

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby picked up on this, noting some of the many problems with Time's incendiary cover story. He finished:

Year after year, American Jews are far more likely to be the victims of religious hate crime than members of any other group. That was true even in 2001, by far the worst year for anti-Muslim incidents, when 481 were reported -- less than half of the 1,042 anti-Jewish crimes tabulated by the FBI the same year.

Does all this mean that America is in reality a hotbed of anti-Semitism? Would Time's cover have been closer to the mark if it had asked: "Is America Judeophobic?"

Of course not. Even one hate crime is one too many, but in a nation of 300 million, all of the religious-based hate crimes added together amount to less than a drop in the bucket. This is not to minimize the 964 hate crimes perpetrated against Jews last year, or those carried out against Muslims (128), Catholics (55), or Protestants (40). Some of those attacks were especially shocking or destructive; all of them should be punished. But surely the most obvious takeaway from the FBI's statistics is not that anti-religious hate crimes are so frequent in America. It is that they are so rare.

In a column a few years back, I wrote that America has been for the Jews "a safe harbor virtually without parallel." It has proved much the same for Muslims. Of course there is tension and hostility sometimes. How could there not be, when America is at war with violent jihadists who have done so much harm in the name of Islam? But for American Muslims as for American Jews, the tension and hostility are the exception. America's exemplary tolerance is the rule.

The Associated Press had a pretty dry look at the FBI hate crime report. I guess these numbers are just that normal. But what do these numbers say, if anything, about some of the media treatment of religion, religious bias and "irrational fear of Islam" and "irrational fear of Judaism" this year?

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