For perpetrators, ramifications are different if you’re Muslim, new study shows

Researchers found stark differences in media coverage and legal ramifications.

New study confirms Muslim perpetrators are treated differently than non-Muslim counterparts. (CREDIT: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
New study confirms Muslim perpetrators are treated differently than non-Muslim counterparts. (CREDIT: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Perpetrators viewed as Muslim disproportionately suffer the brunt of legal and media bias, according to a new study released Thursday examining the varying reactions to violence and extremism in the United States.

Published by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), a nonpartisan research organization devoted to U.S. Muslim community development, the study assesses ideologically-motivated violent incidents with two or more fatalities between 2002 and 2015, along with plots that were foiled or prevented in some way. The study does not attempt to analyze motive or assess the accuracy of how perpetrators are portrayed by law enforcement and the media. Rather, it explores how those portrayals play out — with stark findings.

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Muslims and those perceived as Muslim due to their race or other factors were far more likely to experience negative media coverage and outsized legal ramifications than perpetrators not seen as Muslim, according to the study. A review of incidents shows that prosecutors sought sentences three times longer for Muslim perpetrators — 230 months versus 76 months. In actual sentencing, Muslims typically received sentences that were four times the length of non-Muslims, despite the similarity in severity or general scope of their actions.

CREDIT: The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding
CREDIT: The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Media coverage of perpetrators viewed as Muslim also differed dramatically in comparison. Coverage of ideologically-motivated violence in incidents featuring a Muslim perpetrator frequently centered on religion, leaning into the use of words like “terrorism” and “terrorist.” When carried out effectively, such incidents received twice the amount of print attention overall when compared to violence carried out by non-Muslims. In the case of foiled incidents, coverage was seven-and-a-half times greater.

“Our report in many ways confirms that similar biases exist in relation to how Muslim-perceived individuals involved in or suspected of criminality are treated by our interconnected media and legal systems,” study co-author Kumar Rao told ThinkProgress via email. “And the potential impact on Muslim communities, and those perceived or presumed to be Muslim, is demonstrably profound, particularly in this political moment.”

CREDIT: The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding
CREDIT: The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

The study corroborates much of what research has indicated for years, particularly when it comes to media coverage. A 2017 study conducted by Georgia State University researchers showed that violent incidents carried out by self-identified Muslims earned 449 percent more coverage than crimes perpetuated by essentially anyone else.

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Crimes by non-Muslim white men, like the 2015 mass-murder of Black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina by Dylann Roof, also receive less aggressive coverage, not least because law enforcement officials are often unwilling to label such incidents ideologically-motivated extremism.

That’s a very different reality than the one facing people of color, especially if they happen to be Black. Last fall, an internal FBI report on so-called “Black Identity Extremists,” or BIEs, was leaked and published online by Foreign Policy. The report revealed an active ongoing effort to monitor Black activists or individuals the government believes to be a threat. There is little evidence indicating that the BIE label is a valid category, but the report’s existence is an indicator of official and public priorities.

ISPU’s study focuses on perceptions surrounding Muslim identity, but the report’s authors note that communities of color suffer more broadly than their white counterparts when it comes to both media coverage and legal ramifications. Those discrepancies are heightened when the individual is Black.

“An obvious example is how law enforcement apprehended (properly I would argue) Dylann Roof following his targeted slaughter of Black churchgoers in Charleston — pulled over, arrested without incident, and then interrogated and provided appropriate due process,” Rao, the study’s co-author, said. “Compare this to the recent murders by police of Philando Castile or Stephon Clark, unarmed Black men, who had not committed — nor were even accused of — any real wrongdoing, let alone mass murder.”

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The study’s release comes two days after a 39-year-old woman opened fire at YouTube headquarters. In the hours following the attack, numerous online posters and commentators speculated the shooter, Nasim Najafi Aghdam, was Muslim, linking the attack to Islam. The rumor had already gone viral before it was revealed that Aghdam, an Iranian-American, was not Muslim; she was a member of the minority Baha’i faith.