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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  • sari

    Hate crimes are a little like rape; both tend to be under-reported, because authorities tend to downplay the implications and/or blame the victims. So to say that Muslims reported X crimes and Jews reported X+N may reflect greater persecution against Jews, the Muslim community’s lack of trust in law enforcement and low expectations for justice, or both. In fact, the greatest number of hate crimes were directed towards African-Americans (70% of 3,949 hate crimes based on race).

    The press has done a terrible job in covering this case, pronouncing a verdict with no supportable data. However, if CAIR, a major mouthpiece for the Muslim community, is not to be trusted, to whom should reporters turn for information? University professors, local imams? Muslims on the street? Should anecdotal accounts be taken into account or ignored because they can’t be verified?

  • Bill

    The trouble with the hate crime designation is that it cherry picks cases and uses the results to add a pseudo-statistical patina on what they wanted the results to show. The SPLC is hardly an objective source. (Bravo, Mollie!) It decides what comprises a hate group, shows a rise in the number of hate groups and raises a whole lot of money to combat this rise.

    CAIR is similar. Why worry about Islamist attacks when the real danger is noticing that the people responsible for 9/11 were Muslim? Yes, there is a danger of painting all Muslims with that brush, but when Major Hasan’s mass murder in the name of Islam at Ft. Hood is labeled “workplace violence,” there’s a greater risk of cervical dislocation from turning the other cheek too far.

    The feeding frenzy over Trayvon is another example of lazy, irresponsible mob journalism. We simply don’t yet know all the facts. Will there be a finding of fact? Or a finding of mob rule and political calculation? And how will the media report this? (Technical fact for reporters: When someone is smashing your head against the concrete, it’s the same as bashing your skull with a rock. You’ve got only a few seconds of consciousness to solve that problem.) Maybe this was a racial attack, maybe it wasn’t. But to report that there is an epidemic of white racist violence against blacks is absurd when interracial violence is overwhelmingly black on white.

    TMatt’s posting yesterday on the BBC’s justification of kid-glove handling of Islam and brass knuckles coverage of Christianity says it all. They show a similar bias against Israelis. The MSM caterwauls that the real problem is white racist Christians, all the while trembling at the thought of fatwas and urban riots.

    I’ve known reporters who risked their lives in hostile territories, been threatened with execution, humped jungles and ridden helicopters into hot LZs to cover stories. Journalists have suffered disease, maiming and death to learn the truth. They weren’t always right, but Lord knows they tried.

  • carl

    Hate crimes aren’t intended to describe the nature of an individual crime. They are intended to frame in a negative light some group with which the criminal might be associated. So what we have here is the media using the opportunity to frame its cultural enemies. Are they doing it consciously? Who knows. But you can bet the opinion of the editorial staff as to the nature of the perpetrator is pretty certain, because its members just “know” the types of people who do these kinds of things. Funny how “those people” always turn out to be from groups that aren’t associated with the dominant ideologies found in the news room.


  • Thinkling

    Some of the questions asked are quite exacting, but there is no doubt parts of these pieces are simply standard identity politics templates whose blanks are just filled in haphazardly, without deeper examination to see if the whole pictures are actually coherent.

    The SPLC citation is a perfect case in point. To paraphrase a favorite movie, “this organization doesn’t do what it says it does.”. Why it it so often used as a source is beyond me.

    I liked the queries about what a hate crime is. That phrase is used in different ways, some of them contradictory, so one needs to spell out what one means if one wishes to make any sense of things.

    Somewhat tangentially, I heard an interview on NPR yesterday about hate crimes. I missed who it was or the contextual story, but the person pointed out that properly understood the opposite of “love” is not “hate” but rather “apathy” or “indifference”. This is crucial to note, as most of what are deemed hate crimes do not involve hate at all, rather that the victim is seen as some sort of “other” and thus the perp sees them as less worthy of their own status. e.g. the crime would be seen by the perp as akin to animal cruelty, and very few animal batterers actually hate the animals, rather they are just significantly maladjusted. This is not to plead that we change the terminology for these crimes, but rather to be very careful when talking about raw “hate” in these cases, as usually such a motivation is usually absent.

  • tioedong

    Gateway Pundit has a film from a local Tv station suggesting the window was broken from the inside, not from the outside to get in.

    I have no doubt that Muslims (like whites, blacks, Asian and ispanics) are targeted for hate crimes, but we also are missing other facts:

    Has she been in arguments for her use of the headscarf? With whom? Were there other robberies in the area? Was her house robbed? How were the words written and spelled on the note? Was she pregnant or sexually assaulted? How many other Muslim women live in that neighborhood? Did her 17 year old who was sleeping nearby really not hear anything? Did the neighbors notice a suspect or a suspect’s car nearby?

    Finally, if she is Iraqi and you are looking for a hate crime, we have to wonder if she is Sunni or Shiite, and if this might be payback for something in the old country.

  • John M.


    Perhaps the decline of classical educations will be the decline of Western Civilization. It would seem to me that “homophobia,” by some Latin/Greek hybridization, would be the fear of sameness, or something the same as you, perhaps in opposition to “xenophobia”. But that’s not what it means. Really it just allows the tarring and feathering of an opponent without having to deal with the carbon footprint of boiling the tar or the animal cruelty of getting a bunch of feathers.

    (Bachelor’s of Science in Business Administration)

  • Matan

    Mollie’s broad and unsubstantiated swipe at SPLC is again an example of how religious conservatives always, always overplay their hand. The SPLC has specific critereal for designating hate groups that goes beyond mere ideology, which she would know if she visited their site. Where is the critera, Mollie? Could it be here?

    We employ a three-pronged strategy to battle racial and social injustice:
    •We track the activities of hate groups and domestic terrorists across America, and we launch innovative lawsuits that seek to destroy networks of radical extremists.
    •We use the courts and other forms of advocacy to win systemic reforms on behalf of victims of bigotry and discrimination.
    •We provide educators with free resources that teach school children to reject hate, embrace diversity and respect differences.

    Activities, Mollie, are not mere ideology. [Portions, including personal attacks, deleted. Please revisit our commenting policy and take it down a notch ... or 300 notches, in some cases.]

  • Mollie

    By the way, Matan, I see you’ve posted under various different names here over the years, including EpiscoPal and TRose. Sometimes you’ve posted under one name to defend comments made under the different pseudonyms (in common parlance, sock puppetry).

    These are multiple violations of our commenting policy. Please reacquaint yourself with the commenting policy.

    And go ahead and work on the civility. It’s always fine to disagree, even forcefully, but please do so civilly.

    And rather than try to *thwart* our commenting policy, please work to abide by it.


  • John Pack Lambert

    With numbers under 50 are fluctuations in the reported number of “anti-Muslim” hate crimes even significant? What was the number of anti-Jewish crimes?

  • John Pack Lambert

    The majority of Iraqis in El Cajon are Catholics, specifically Chaldeans. A large portion of them fled the Al Queda run violence in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Alawadi is a Shi’ite whose family left Iraq after the collapse of the Shi’ite revolt against Saddam Hussein.

    I also want to know if Alawadi was wearing a head scarf at the time of the killing. Generally women do not wear head scarfs in their own home. I have seen no evidence that she was wearing a head scarf at the time of her killing, and if she was I want to know why no one has commented on what this might mean.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Well Mollie, your skepticism might be about to be proved right. Here is a story that mentio ns avadavits, possible divorce, and questions about the 17-year-old daughter being angry over a planned aranged marriage, having been “found having sex in a car with a 21-year-old man” and all sorts of things. I noticed a little skepticism about the daughter sleeping through the attack.

    At a minimum the story is more complexed. It still may have been a hate crime. It still may have been a non-relative. Of course, it could also have been lots of things. What it clearly is not is a case of the police saying “this is not a murder worth investigating”. It is not at all like what some claim the Martin killing was. Now what exactly the Martin killing was is still not clear, but it was clearly a case of the police chosing not to charge someone who had killed another person. Whether it was murder or self-defense is another story, but in the Alawaida case the police have yet to have any clear person of interest.

    The outrage in the MArtin case if properly directed is against the government for not taking the case to prosecution. The decision on the validity of the killing should have been sent to a jury, not made so early on by the prosecutor. Thus Time magazine is confusing the issues in the Martin killing by trying to draw a comparison in the Alawaida killing.

    If just someone being killed was reason to rise up in protest we would be constantly protesting murders. This might not be a bad thing, but might also tend towards the vigilantyism that some claim lead to Martin’s killing in the first place. Of course it is hard to see the Martin killing as having involved anything less than misplaced extreme vigilantism.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Here is the San Diego Union Tribune story. I guess I was confused about the “sleeping” possibility.

    What I did learn. 1-The note was a copy. 2- Authorities have not released the contents of the note. Thus all the quotes given so far have been bogus. This is quite an odd occurance. 3- The attack was at 11:00 AM. The daughter says she “heard a squal and glass breaking” and 10 minutes later went and found her Mom. 4- The attack item was “like a tire iron”. 5-Someone claims to have seen a man fleeing the general vicinity. 6- The husband claims to have not been present, but there is no proof. 7-This was a Wednesday. Has the 17-year-old daughter graduated high school already? That is the only way I can figure her being home at this time of day.

    It seems people rush too fast to judgement.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Even the previous “similar note” claim is not backed up by word of people outside the family. The media seems to have just accepted that people would shrug off a threatening note and not at all consider reporting it to anyone. This should cause more skepticism from journalists than it has so far.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The San Diego paper buries this line at the bottom of its report on the search warrants “Alawadi’s father is a Shia cleric in Iraq”. What is not clear is if the Islamic Center mentioned in this article is Shia or Sunni. There are all sorts of religious issues that are being ignored by shouting “hate crime”. Why we let a Sunni, Palestine-linked group that at times serves as an apologist for radical, militant Sunnis be the speakers on the killings of Shi’ites is another question the media needs to ask.