When the FBI identified the two Boston Marathon bombing suspects as Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev, the American Muslim community braced itself for another onslaught of anti-Islamic feeling—a caustic sentiment that has persisted in the country since 9/11.
In fact, the wave of suspicion and accusations had already begun. A Saudi student, injured in the blast, was tackled by another bystander and labeled a suspect by the New York Post. The hashtag #Muslims trended on Twitter, which was also the platform for one of the more incendiary comments from Fox News contributor Erik Rush, who, when prompted by another user if he was "already blaming Muslims," responded: "Yes, they're evil. Let's kill them all."
American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), which issued a statement "expressing deep concern" regarding the negative statements and threats against Arab and Muslim Americans, demanded an apology. When Internet users noted a possible resemblance between one of the bombing suspects and Sunil Tripathi, a 22-year-old Brown University student missing since March 16 (he was cleared and his body subsequently found), news organizations picked up the story without comment from authorities and overwhelmed his already suffering family with interview requests.
Raed Jarrar, communications director for the ADC, hopes physical violence toward Arabs and Muslims after Boston has subsided. Even so, the provocative rhetoric continues, most notably on April 23, when former Republican Rep. Joe Walsh from Illinois recommended that the U.S. begin profiling "our enemy ... young Muslim men." Although Jarrar hopes the detrimental fallout for Arab and Muslim Americans from the bombings is ending, he is not optimistic. "Unfortunately there is a trend in the numbers of Arab Americans discriminated against: Every year is worse than the year before."
According to the FBI, the highest number of anti-Islamic hate crimes was reported in 2001 in the wake of 9/11. That year, 481 incidents were reported, compared with 28 the previous year. In 2002, the number of incidents dropped to 155. The decline was attributable, believes Mark Potok, an expert on extremism at the Southern Poverty Law Center, to speeches then President George Bush gave saying that Arabs and Muslims were not the enemies—al Qaeda was. "I think that mattered," he says. Though public figures can influence matters for the better, Potok points out that social media has been a force for the worse, allowing Internet users to "say things, ugly things, that have the potential to reach millions of people. It makes it easier for people to participate in Muslim bashing."
Hate crime statistics for 2013 won't be released by the FBI until late next year, so the consequences of the Boston Marathon bombing for Muslims in America may not be known until then. The thing to keep in mind, warns Potok, is that hate crimes are dramatically under-reported. "And Muslims are among the groups least likely to report."
Potok hopes that U.S. leaders will set the example and speak out. "Barack Obama needs to act soon," he says. "The propagandists move very fast."