Mark Potok: Anti-Muslim Hate Crimes, the Radical Right, and the Islamophobia Network

Mark Potok is currently writing a book about the rise of right-wing populism, and for 20 years helped lead the Southern Poverty Law Center’s premier operation monitoring the extreme right in the United States. Potok served as director of the Intelligence Project and, later, Senior Fellow at SPLC and Editor in Chief of its award-winning Intelligence Report investigative magazine, until leaving in 2017. In addition to editing the magazine, Potok was a key spokesman for the SPLC, a well-known civil rights organization based in Alabama, and testified before the Senate, the Helsinki Commission, the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights, and in other important venues.

Q1: What is your work as an extremist expert, and how do you define an extremist group?
Well, what I do is I am the editor of our investigative magazine The Intelligence Report. My other title here is Senior Fellow, where I do a lot of research and writing of my own, and editing of other people’s copy, both for the blog for our investigative magazine, and for a number of white papers—longer pieces on one topic or another. Essentially, I’m a kind of editor, but I also do a lot of talking to the press about extremist groups.
I don’t have a good definition for extremism, and it’s not a very good word because extremism always relates to the center, and where the center is. If you look for instance at European countries over the last twenty years the ‘center’ has moved fairly dramatically to the right, particularly with respect to immigration, and similar issues. I guess one could define extremism as being very far outside the norms of normal political discourse, but that’s not a very solid definition. The better term for what we do [at the Southern Poverty Law Center] is we cover the radical right.
Q2: Has the xenophobic rhetoric of the candidates in this presidential election cycle escalated hate crimes and violence against Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim?
As an anecdotal matter yes, I don’t think there’s any question that that has happened. It’s not really provable because the best indication we have for measuring that—and it’s not a very good indicator—is the FBI National Hate Crime Statistics. I say that they’re not a good indicator because they’re vastly underreported. When you look at the total number of hate crime incidences reported year after year, they run between about 6,000 to 11,000 a year. It’s now known, thanks to much more detailed studies done by the Department of Justice, that the real number of hate crimes in recent years has been between about 260,000 and 290,000 a year. For a variety of reasons the FBI numbers vastly understate the real level of hate crimes; nevertheless, they do give you some sense of the trends.
We still don’t have the 2015 hate crime numbers, they won’t be in until late November of 2016 and 2016 of course won’t be in until the following year, so that’s why I say it’s only anecdotally. I think anecdotally it’s obvious that we’ve seen an uptick in xenophobia and more specifically in anti-Muslim hatred and rhetoric. I would say yes, certainly, a lot of that is due to Trump and the things he has said, but let me say a couple things about that. There are other reasons of course why anti-Muslim sentiment goes up as well as xenophobia. Some of those are real things that happened in the world, things like Charlie Hebdo attacks, the second attack on Paris, Brussels, etc., and not to mention the attacks in the United States with San Bernardino and then Orlando, Florida. What I’m saying is that, if you look at the FBI Hate Crime Statistics, you can derive some sense of the trends, and I think that’s statistically true, I’ve talked with the people in some length who carried out the DOJ studies, and they agree that while the reported numbers are very low compared to the real numbers, we can still get a sense of the trends within those numbers. The latest numbers we have on anti-Muslim hate crimes are from 2014, but what’s interesting about the 2014 numbers is that every category of hate crimes went down, except for anti-Muslim hate crimes which went up that year by 14% over the prior year. I think it’s pretty clear that the reason for the 14% rise was that 2014 was the first year we were getting a lot of really horrible news about the Islamic State. That was the year that Americans were starting to get the first real news about this incredibly barbaric organization.
2015 started with Charlie Hebdo, and the Jordanian pilot being burned alive in a cage, with other attacks following. So, it’s not just anti-Muslim rhetoric, these kinds of attacks absolutely also lead to hate crimes against Muslims, and I think 2015 was a very bad year in terms of ISIS attacks, the San Bernardino shooting, and Trump attacking Muslims, and then of course the Orlando shooting in June of 2016. I’m suggesting that it’s a mix of things [that influence hate crimes against Muslims], both the anti-Muslim rhetoric that we hear coming from [Trump’s] campaign and from other sources, and actual radical Islamist attacks.
Let me say this, and I’ve said it many times, words have consequences, and I’m talking specifically about public figures, and what they say, and the relationship of what they say to hate violence. There are a couple of cases I want to point out to you. One, is the positive case for what public figures say. In 2001, to the surprise of absolutely no one, anti-Muslim hate crimes spiked by about 1,600 – 1,700%, in the United States—3,000 people were murdered on 9/11 and we had this huge reaction. Before then, there were almost no anti-Muslim hate crimes in the United States, at least according to the FBI statistics. For instance, in 1996 there were 27, 28 in 97’, 21 in 98’, numbers like that. In 2000 there were 28, in 2001 there were 481, that’s the 1,600% rise. Like I said, none of that is surprising, but what is surprising is that in 2002, which began a mere three and a half months after 9/11, we saw a huge drop in anti-Muslim hate crimes. They fell by about 67% according to the FBI statistics, and I think this is very surprising, as it was very close on the heels of 9/11 about the most spectacular terrorist attack in history—certainly in this country—and yet these numbers went down dramatically. The reason, I would argue, is almost entirely due to President Bush. Whatever else Bush may have done, he was very good in the aftermath of 9/11 in the sense that he said repeatedly, ‘Arabs are not our enemy,’ ‘Muslims are not our enemy,’ ‘our enemy is a very specific group, it’s called Al-Qaeda.’ At the same time, he did things like appear with an Imam at the Washington National Cathedral, and in other kinds of religious settings. And it wasn’t just once or twice, Bush said that again, and again, and again, and again, so my argument is that [what Bush said] suppressed a lot of potential hate violence directed at Muslims. It’s not completely even, but basically there’s a long downward trend [in anti-Muslim hate violence] from 2002 all the way until 2010.
In 2010 we saw what appeared to be at first almost inexplicable, a 50% rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes from 2009 to 2010, following a fairly steady decline ever since 2001. When you think back to 2010 there really wasn’t any objective in terms of terrorism that could explain that sharp rise. There weren’t any Jihadist attacks in the United States that year, there were no Islamic State horror stories coming in from abroad, there were no attacks in Paris or Brussels, or anything that would get a lot of attention in the Unites States. It seems to me that two things happened. One, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer ginned up a giant controversy over the so-called Ground-Zero Mosque in NY City, which of course was neither at Ground Zero, nor a mosque. They made a big deal out of it, and managed to create a very big demonstration against the Islamic Center, and they really got this message out that it was, as Geller called it, a ‘Victory Mosque,’ a triumphal monument to the people who slaughtered Americans on 9/11. The man behind Park 51 was accused of all kinds of things being tied to terrorists, and the fact that it was in New York, the largest media market in the world, helped it became a national story, and very quickly that spilled out into other controversies around mosque construction in places like Murfreesboro, Tennessee. That was one thing, the mosque controversies, which began in New York and spread around the country that year.
The other big thing that happened in 2010 is that David Yerushalmi came out as one of the authors of a report alleging that Muslims were involved in a conspiracy to impose Sharia Law in American criminal courts. Yerushalmi also drafted that year the American Laws for American Courts legislation, the model anti-Sharia legislation that he got a lot of press attention for. Obviously, it’s not possible to impose Sharia Law on American criminal courts under the constitution, that was simply propaganda. So, he created a fear-mongering, hate-generating tactic, aimed at Muslims in America that was very effective, and now we’re up to about half-a-dozen states that have actually adopted the anti-Sharia legislation, beginning with Oklahoma. I’m making the opposite argument here, where as Bush said good things in 2001 about Muslims and really worked hard to deflect anger from Muslims in general, in 2010 we had a number of right-wing propagandists really defaming Muslims in a pretty effective way by getting a lot of press and attention around the country.
Hate violence influenced by a politician’s speech is impossible to prove, I can’t absolutely prove that someone got beat up because Donald Trump said we should ban Muslims, or forbid them from coming into this country. But once in a while you get a case that shows you how true that really is. Trump began his campaign with his speech denouncing Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, and it was only two months later that a Latino man, a homeless man in Boston, was beaten up very badly by a couple of white men. They used steel pipes [to beat him up], then urinated on him, and when the men were arrested right after the attack they told the arresting officers that they had been inspired by Donald Trump. Usually you don’t get that kind of evidence, but it’s just an indication of what I’m talking about. People really do react to, as I say, speakers in the public square, and you can hardly get more attention then Trump has gotten in the last year or so.
Q3: Is it safe to say that post 9/11 up until 2010, that hate speech and violence directed toward Muslims was acted out by individuals, in other words it wasn’t organized, and then in 2010 we start to see organized anti-Muslim, anti-Islam efforts and groups?
That’s right. The SPLC creates a list of hate groups every year and we had no anti-Muslim hate groups at all until 2010. In 2010, we counted five, 30 in 2011, 36 in 2012, again 36 in 2013, then it dropped down to 24 in 2014, and in 2015 the count was 34. We expect that number to go up again in 2016 by quite a lot, to about 100 groups. There really wasn’t an anti-Muslim network in the same way as developed from 2010 on.
Q4: Do you know what sparked the rise or creation of organized Islamophobia efforts?
Frankly, I think it was people like Pamela Geller and David Yerushlami. There’s also a lot of money in that world. The vast majority of hate groups we cover have no money at all, they don’t have two pennies to rub together. If you look at the anti-Muslim network, it’s awash with cash, there are people such as Daniel Pipes getting $300,000 plus dollars a year, those kinds of things.
Steve Emerson and David Horowitz, there’s a lot of money in those groups, and they’re being funded presumably by wealthy donors, and foundations. I think it’s a combination of funding coming from various right-wing individuals, and foundations, and other organizations, and the work of anti-Muslim propagandists that all came together and really started to coalesce in 2010.
Q5: What are the motives of people like David Yerushalmi, David Horowitz, Pamela Geller, etc., and what do they or their organizations seek to gain by fostering a culture of hate and fear of Muslims?
One thing they have to gain is cash money.  This is very unlike other hate groups, as this is a very lucrative world. We see people who were formally, essentially, no-bodies who all of a sudden are more or less awash in money. I think that’s a piece of it, I have no doubt that these people are also ideologically antagonistic in a very big way to Muslims.
They’re virtually all self-taught. Daniel Pipes is the closest thing they’ve got to an intellectual, and he’s the guy who originated the “no-go zones” myth. We’re looking at a bunch of self-taught right-wingers who are antagonistic to Islam to begin with. Some of them have certain kinds of connections; Yerushalmi was a  part of the right-wing settlers movement in Israel for a while, but I don’t think that’s true for anybody else that I know of in that world. But we’ve got different circuits; we’ve got a circuit of the ex-Muslim radicals, the Ayaan Hirsi Alis of the world, and someone like Brigitte Gabriel making all these claims about how oppressed she was in Lebanon.
Q6: So, in some way they’re working for other people to deliver Islamophobic messages and to promote this culture of hate?
I don’t know that they’re working for other people, but they’re being funded. Many of them are, Horowitz works for himself but he also funds other people. I’m just saying there’s quite a bit of money in this world, that’s a part of what keeps it so alive, and active. And I think these people really do, as a general matter, despise Muslims and Islam as a religion.
Q7: I was reading in an article that you wrote that there are a lot of women, they make up the majority actually, of anti-Muslim activists. Do you know why that is?
I can’t really explain it. I wrote it that way just because we had covered a lot of other people, and it was noticeable how many women were in there, but no, I don’t have a theory to explain that one.
Q8: Given the racial make-up of the United States who is more likely to be a victim of anti-Muslim violence?
I would say, given the anti-Black racism that has been in this country from the very beginning, that darker-skinned Muslims are more likely to be targets. Somali refugees for instance. I also think that an awful lot of victims of anti-Muslim violence aren’t Muslims at all. They are very often Sikhs, because ignorant Americans believe that people who wear turbans must be Muslim, because they look foreign.   
Q9: Are Muslim individuals or groups the main perpetrators of terrorism in the United States?
Definitely not. In terms of raw numbers there are far more attacks from the domestic radical right then from Jihadists either from abroad or from the United States, although the body count has come to be very even. Ever since 9/11 there were higher numbers of people killed by the domestic radical right, white supremacists, etc., but with the 49 people killed in Orlando, basically the two tallies are about the same, about 100 people in each case.  That’s the count of bodies, but obviously that’s swayed heavily by the 49 people killed in Orlando, and the 14 people killed in San Bernardino, both with very high death tolls. And of course that excludes 9/11, which is a gigantic outlier. I think if you look at the last 20 – 25 years certainly there are more victims of radical Islamic terror, because the tally was swung so heavily by 9/11, with nearly 3,000 victims. But again, in terms of numbers, the number of attacks are clearly more from the domestic radical right than from Islamist individuals or organizations.
The other thing I should say is that the vast majority of terrorist attacks in the United States now, and going back several years, have come from so-called lone-wolf terrorists, people operating on their own as opposed to as a part of a group. That is as true for Islamist attackers, as for other kinds. Something like 9/11 is the exception, where you have a whole group working together.
Q10: Are there themes or patterns of hate crimes occurring in geographical areas where there are fewer Muslims or a smaller Muslim community?
Typically we see a lot of hate crime generated when there is a local controversy like in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where a bunch of construction equipment was vandalized, and a number of other incidents like that. But, I should say that what we are living through right now, goes beyond anti-Muslim hate crimes. We see an enormous amount of bigotry and bias against Muslims that does not rise to the level of a hate crime. A lot of the Muslim organizations, organizations like CAIR, have reported an unbelievable level of bullying of Muslim school children, something like 80% of kids are reporting this. That gives you a sense of how bad it really is on a day-to-day basis, even for children.
Q11: How does Islamophobia and anti-Muslim violence connect historically to other groups and communities who were scapegoated, marked as other, and made targets of violence and hate crimes?
They are connected closely in that Muslims in this county are fairly rare. They are still seen as very different by many Americans, and they practice a faith that is very little known in the United States, and it probably doesn’t help that Islam has become known here as connected to Black nationalists and the left-wing of the Black civil rights movement. Muslims are labeled as enemies on many different levels, they are seen—and obviously this isn’t universally true—to be dark skinned, they are seen to come from very poor countries that are not remotely like us, they are felt to look different and so on.
That’s essentially what has happened to group after group of people here in the United States. Today nobody talks about Catholics, but in the 1920s the KKK grew to four million members, its largest size ever,, based almost solely on its opposition to Catholic immigration at a time when the United States was very much still dominated by Protestants. That came to a head with John F. Kennedy running for the Presidency; he had to go out and give a speech promising that he wouldn’t be taking orders from the Pope. Since that time anti-Catholicism has dropped to the point of virtually disappearing; most of the Klan groups now accept Catholics, for instance, which they never did in the past. When people seem strange and distant, typically you see more hate crimes directed at minority groups when they are not all that numerous. I think Muslims fit that profile very well. My sense is that you are far more likely to see anti-Muslim hate crimes somewhere in rural Tennessee then you are in Dearborn, Michigan.
**Interview edited for clarity