Reports of anti-Muslim bias hit record levels after start of Israel-Hamas war, group says

The Council on American Islamic Relations said 2023 was the year it received the highest number of bias reports in its 30-year history.

A report released Tuesday from the Muslim civil rights organization CAIR shows it got 8,061 complaints nationally last year from Muslims who reported experiencing discrimination or hate incidents. It’s the largest number the group has ever gotten, the report said, and represents a 56% increase from 2022.

It’s also a larger number than it received in the aftermath of 9/11, when anti-Muslim sentiment was at a peak in the U.S., said Corey Saylor, CAIR’s research and advocacy director. But he notes CAIR was a smaller organization at the time, and fewer people may have known they could report.

Nearly half of all complaints came in the final three months of the year, after the start of the Israel-Hamas war, which the report cites as the primary driving force behind heightened Islamophobia.

Saylor said “both parties” — Democrats and Republicans — “have indulged in rhetoric stereotyping and dehumanizing Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims.”

A “deluge” of reports of Islamophobia began to pour into CAIR’s offices around the country within days of the Oct. 7 attack in Israel, he added.

The complaints ranged from verbal discrimination in the classroom or workplace to incidents of physical violence reported to police. The rise worries advocates, who say anti-Muslim incidents disproportionately affected children and students last year.

The most high-profile incident was the fatal stabbing of Wadea Al-Fayoume, a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy, in October. His family’s landlord, 71-year-old Joseph Czuba, is accused in the crime. Czuba had strong feelings on the Israel-Hamas war, prosecutors say, and was allegedly screaming anti-Muslim slurs during the attack. Czuba has pleaded not guilty.

“While every wave of bias has the tragedy of people being attacked, places of worship being targeted, this one that we endured October through December, it has a couple of standouts, and those standouts are very personal targeting of students,” Saylor said.

6-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume. (Courtesy of Hela Yousef)
6-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume. (Courtesy of Hela Yousef)

The report also cites a December incident in Georgia in which a middle school teacher was arrested after allegedly threatening to cut off the head of a student who questioned an Israeli flag in his classroom.

Saylor says the number of complaints CAIR received after October 2023 surpassed previous spikes of Islamophobia in the U.S., including when Donald Trump  proposed a Muslim ban in 2015 and attempted to implement it as president in 2018.

“By the numbers, it doesn’t even add up to what we’re seeing right now, or what we saw in October to December,” he said.

What’s particularly disheartening, Saylor said, is that 2022 was the first year in CAIR’s history when there was a drop in complaints, with 23% fewer than in 2021. The spike in 2023 was a somber snap back to reality, he said.

“It’s a return to a degree of normalcy for our community,” he said. “Unfortunately, over the last couple of decades, Muslims have come to expect to be targeted. … We have a history of that with minorities in this country.”

He urges anyone who experiences discrimination or a threat to report it, and says these incidents often go unchecked.

“I’ll talk to people and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, I got a bomb threat at the mosque a couple of weeks ago,’” he said. “I’ll say, ‘What’d you do?’ ‘I deleted it, we get them all the time.’”

Reporting an incident will bring visibility and accountability, he said, and it will also mobilize a community to come together. He encourages young Muslim people not to lose hope, saying he sees an interfaith coalition rallying together in support.

“Over the last couple of decades, the community has grown significantly stronger,” he said. “While the community expects to face discrimination, it is far more empowered to defend itself and assert itself than it has been in the past.”