Vandals spray-painted 19 swastikas on the walls of the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia last October. A young woman leaving a mosque with her friends in Sterling, Virginia, after nightly prayers in the summer of 2017 was raped and killed. Someone scrawled “F*** God & Allah” across a Farmville mosque in October 2017. Later that year, a Fairfax teacher pulled off a Muslim student’s hijab in front of her class.
“These events aren’t isolated,” said Samuel J. West, a doctoral student of social psychology and neuroscience at Virginia Commonwealth University. “They’re happening in conjunction with a well-documented rise of activity of the white power movement and white supremacist organizations.”
In Virginia, hate crimes include illegal, criminal, or violent acts committed against a person or property on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity. But often, such offenses are not classified as hate crimes. Because it’s hard to assess intent, it’s rare to be charged with a hate crime.
“The bar is pretty high for that conviction of ‘hate crime,’” said West, whose research focuses on the development of aggressive behavior across populations. “You not only have to be proven guilty of intent, but you also have to be proven of a specific kind of intent … not only are you the one who attacked them, you attacked them because they’re queer or black or Muslim.”
Tangible forms of intent for religiously based hate crimes can be anything from social media posts expressing hatred for the specific targeted group to verbal slurs yelled when committing the hate crime.
But if intent can’t be proved, offenses that may involve bias aren’t considered hate crimes. A case in point: In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 2015, three Muslims were shot dead by a white man in their apartment over an argument about a parking spot in the complex. The case was classified as a parking dispute.
West said classifying acts like the Chapel Hill shooting as a parking dispute are a reflection of the nation’s judiciary system.
“The U.S. legal system is absolutely created by white men,” West said. “And it certainly makes sense that it would favor them, especially in these cases.”
Because of how hard it is to prove intent, several episodes of religiously motivated violence are often labeled “bias incidents” by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group that collects data on religiously motivated hate actions and crimes.
“Not only are incidents like those increasing, but the violent nature of those incidents is also increasing,” said Zainab Arain, CAIR research and advocacy manager.
In its 2018 Civil Rights Report, CAIR found nearly 2,600 anti-Muslim-based bias incidents in 2017 — a 17% increase from the previous year. Almost half of those took place within the first three months of the year.
That rise parallels a 23% national increase in religiously motivated hate crimes against any religious group — the second-highest number of hate crimes based on religion. The highest number of religiously motivated hate crimes was recorded in 2001, following the 9/11 attacks.
Virginia State Police recorded 44 religion-based hate crimes in 2017, the latest year for which data are available. That was almost double the 23 religion-based hate crime the previous year.
Of the 44 offenses in 2017, half were anti-Jewish, and eight were classified as anti-Muslim. White men were the largest group of offenders for all hate crimes in Virginia.
Arain said the number of hate crimes is likely higher than what reports show for two reasons: underreporting due to fear of retaliation and inaccuracy of FBI data.
“The FBI does collect it only from law enforcement agencies, and law enforcement agencies are not required to report it to the FBI,” Arain said. “Many law enforcement agencies don’t event collect hate crime data in their own municipalities.”
As hate crimes and bias incidents on the basis of religion sharply increase, Arain said, a few factors are at play.
“This across-the-board rise in nativist movements is playing a role in increasing religious discrimination and religious-based hate crimes,” she said, mentioning a slew of nativist campaigns around the world, including the Chinese cleansing of Uighur Muslims.
When it comes to the U.S., Arain said she considers President Donald Trump a “white supremacist.” She said his election has contributed to rising hate.
“That emboldens people who share the same beliefs or ideas and have similar biases and prejudices to act out on their ideas and commit and perpetrate these hate crimes targeting various religious minorities,” she said.
In conjunction with rising hate-fueled violence, domestic hate groups have also increased. There are more than 1,000 hate groups in the U.S. — the most the nation has seen more than in two decades — according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Thirty-nine of those groups call Virginia home.
West called these groups “terrorist organizations.”
Hate crimes and acts of terror do overlap. There is, however, one characteristic that separates the two.
“A hate crime doesn’t have to be politically motivated,” said David Webber, assistant professor in VCU’s Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. “But an act of terrorism does.”
While there isn’t a standard definition of “terrorism,” the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations defines it as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” Recent incidents like the mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the church bombings in Sri Lanka are classified as acts of terror since they were fueled by political motives.
Hate crimes are also punishable by law, while domestic acts of terror are not. International acts of terror in the U.S. or by U.S. citizens, however, are punishable under U.S. law — for example, pledging allegiance to ISIS or al-Shabaab.
Webber referenced the car attack at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville as an example of domestic terrorism labeled and punished as a different crime. An avowed neo-Nazi, James Alex Fields Jr. was convicted of murder for driving into a group of counterprotesters and killing Heather Heyer.
“When he used his car to kill that person in Charlottesville, he was never charged with an act of terrorism,” Webber said. “Even though by a definition of terrorism, he was involved in an act of political violence for political reasons, and he killed someone for it. We call that an act of terrorism.”
But since acts of domestic terrorism aren’t punishable by law in the U.S., Webber said, Fields was charged with a hate crime. On March 27, Fields pleaded guilty to 29 counts of hate crimes — one resulting in Heyer’s death and 28 in connection with injuries to other people.
Both hate crimes and acts of terror are forms of aggression. But aggression is not always expressed as physical violence.
“There are many forms of aggression,” said West, a doctoral student who researches the topic. “You’ve got your run-of-the-mill physical violence, your verbal aggression … then you get into ‘mark your territory’ with things like instrumental violence or relational violence.”
Simple examples of instrumental violence on the basis of religion would be vandalizing the side of a mosque, or defacing a Jewish cemetery.
“Most people are not very violent, and don’t really like to be unless someone has provoked them or attacked them or offended them in some way,” West said. “That phenomenon (of violence and aggression) is one that is so inconsistent with much of human nature.”
But there are reasons why people are drawn to acting out aggressively.
Webber, who researches violent extremism, identifies three key factors why individuals are drawn toward extreme violence and hate-fueled aggression: needs, narratives, and networks — “the three N’s,” as he calls them.
“People become extremists because they’re striving to fulfill an important psychological need that is universal for all of us,” he said. “The need to feel significant, to feel like you’re valued, to feel like you’re respected.”
Webber said people drawn to extreme violence — whether it be a hate crime, terrorist attack or another form — see an aspect of “heroism” in their actions. This is amplified by the ease of creating communities through social media, he said.
“You used to have to meet with people secretly, talk to them; or they have to find a poster on the street,” Webber said. “Now, they can log online and see everything. It expands your reach, the potential recruitment pool that you have. You can put information up and people can read it instantly. And you can draw people into a cause really quickly.”
Recruitment for hate groups outside of social media still exists. White supremacist propaganda — in the form of leaflets handed out on college campuses, flyers, rallies and other events — increased 182% in 2018, according to research conducted by the Anti-Defamation League.
Adding to the hate targeted at specific religious groups is how news outlets portray members of these communities.
“A large contributing factor is likely the negative coverage in the media of certain religious groups,” said Raha Batts, imam of Masjid Ash-Shura in Norfolk, Virginia.
Batts said Western media outlets portray Islam as a “religion of terror.”
West said media bias likely plays a significant role in the dehumanizing of certain outgroups.
“Individuals of different races are treated much differently by the news media,” he said. “A more heinous crime could be committed by a white person, and those [news] articles often are quick to refer to mental illness as being the primary motivation or a primary factor at play.”
But if the perpetrators of violence are non-white, the media raise the specter of terrorism and ties to extremist groups, West said.
Batts is no stranger to bias incidents. A few years ago, he and his family stayed in a hotel in Norfolk before moving to the area permanently. After checking into the hotel, his wife passed a group of men who Batts said had been drinking outside of the building.
“One of them was terribly angry at just the sight of my wife,” Batts said. His wife dresses in niqab, a full-length veil that covers her face. “He began acting kind of erratic. He had a beer bottle, and he slammed the beer bottle on the ground.”
The other men stopped him from approaching his wife, Batts said. But she felt the hostility.
“They were military guys, and they served in Afghanistan together,” Batts said. “This particular person, he had a problem with Muslims.”
Batts said negative media coverage played a role in the bias incident he and his wife experienced.
“I spoke to the young man for some time,” Batts said. “Just explained to him that we’re not terrorists, we’re not anti-America. We’re not your enemy.”
Other faith leaders have recognized the spike in hate crimes and acts of terror against their communities.
“Hate crimes have always committed against us; it’s just a fact of being a Jew,” said Rabbi David Spinrad of the Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia. “It’s not a new phenomenon.”
Nearly 60% of hate crimes perpetrated across the U.S. in 2017 were anti-Jewish, according to a report by the Anti-Defamation League. Between 2016 and 2017, anti-Jewish hate crimes rose by 57%.
On Saturday, authorities said, a man with an assault rifle opened fire in a synagogue in a suburb of San Diego, California, killing one person and wounding three. The man has also been charged with arson at a nearby mosque.
Spinrad said interfaith dialogue and solidarity is the best combatant to rising hate.
“This is big — this has so much momentum,” Spinrad said. “The importance of the relationship of American Jews and American Muslims … I can’t overstate that it is huge. They’re coming for you, and they’re coming for me.”
Amid negative news coverage of the Muslim community, Batts echoed Spinrad’s thoughts on interfaith dialogue and building community.
“It’s our job,” Batts said. “We can coexist with one another, and we can work together. There will be certain things that you believe that I don’t necessarily believe. But we can still be good to one another, we can still be kind to one another. We all have the same goals in mind.”