Op-Ed: It’s hard to prove any hate crime. But for Muslim victims, it’s especially tough.

Op-ed originally published in the Washington Post, Feb. 17, 2015

Photo Credit: Chuck Liddy/The News & Observer via AP

By Farhana Khera

On Monday, a grand jury indicted Craig Hicks — accused of fatally shooting his Muslim neighbors in their Chapel Hill, N.C., home — on three charges of first-degree murder. The indictment made no mention of a hate crime. One of the victims, 21-year-old Yusor Abu-Salha, had previously told her father that Hicks made her uncomfortable, saying “he hates us for who we are and how we look.” Hicks’s Facebook page reveals many hateful posts about religion, and the victims’ relatives say he became hostile only after Abu-Salha, who was visibly Muslim because of her headscarf, moved into the home with her new husband. Her sister, who also wears a headscarf, was killed as well. But police have suggested that this gruesome attack simply stemmed from a parking spot dispute. Emphasis on this “motive” shows how difficult it can be for American Muslims to get justice when targeted for their faith.

State hate crime laws often apply harsher sentences to cases in which the perpetrator acted out of hate against the victim’s race, religion, sexual orientation or some other protected characteristic. Unfortunately, Hicks’s indictment is the strongest one allowed under North Carolina law, because the state’s hate crime statute does not allow sentencing enhancements for felonies, like first-degree murder. The federal hate crime statute was enacted for situations exactly like this one: to protect Americans from hate even when state laws fall short of fully vindicating their rights. It should be applied in this tragic case.

Proving a crime was motivated by bias is not an easy task.  The prosecutor must show that the perpetrator had a biased state of mind, using evidence such as epithets and symbols of hate. Case in point: Over the decade ending in 2012, local Texas law enforcement agencies reported that about 200 crimes per year were motivated by hate. Only 10 resulted in hate-crime convictions — less than one per year. Hate crimes are notoriously tough to push through the legal system. But certain hate-crime victims face unique challenges on the path to justice. For Muslims, there are hurdles at every step, from reporting the crime to conviction. And law enforcement is not doing enough to remove these roadblocks to justice.

One significant hurdle is simply getting hate crimes against Muslims reported to authorities. FBI statistics show that about 160 Muslims were victimized in hate crimes each year between 2011 and 2013. This number is a result of significant underreporting. American Muslims experience prejudice far more often than they report to authorities. When asked anonymously in a 2011 Pew poll if they had been threatened or attacked in the past year, 6 percent of Muslims said they had. Given that the Muslim population was 2.6 million in 2010, responses to the Pew poll suggest that about 156,000 Muslims were victims of hate crimes. The Justice Department notes that two out of every three hate crimes are not reported because victims believe that police cannot or will not help. This is especially true for Muslims, who have been targets of massive surveillancedeportation, questioning and other harassment by local and federal law enforcement during the past 14 years. That excessive scrutiny has eroded the trust necessary for victims to report hate crimes.

Even if a victim knows how to navigate the law enforcement system and file a hate-crime complaint, there are dynamics that may make it more difficult for Muslim victims to win convictions. In surveys conducted in 2006 and 2007, Georgetown University researchers found that Muslims, whether or not they are American, face severe stereotypes in the United States. Americans stereotype Muslims as far more untrustworthy and violent than whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians. This can create barriers to gaining empathy from police, attorneys, judges and juries.

Even with these hurdles, a chilling truth remains: The number of reported hate crimes motivated by anti-Muslim bias is five times higher than before 9/11. From Oregon to Ohio, mosques and Islamic centers have been torched and defaced. The lives of innocent Muslim workers have been threatened, and people even suspected of being Muslim have been killed by perpetrators invoking the 2001 terrorist attacks. In December, a 15-year-old Muslim, Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein, was run down and killed in Kansas City, Mo., by a man in an SUV who had a history of anti-Muslim views and had made threats against the local mosque. The SUV had an anti-Muslim message, comparing the Koran to Ebola, in its rear window at the time of the attack. This disturbing level of hate crimes, coupled with an increasingly prejudiced and vicious environment of anti-Muslim rhetoric, has led our nation to a crisis point.

More must be done at the federal level, as well. For the past 50 years, since passage of the Civil Rights Act, the federal government has played an indispensable role in investigating and prosecuting civil rights violations, including hate crimes. The FBI and Justice Department bring more resources and expertise to these investigations, especially when hate crimes are committed in small cities and towns. But given the rising level of anti-Muslim sentiment, the federal government should be stepping in even before crimes are committed. The Justice Department should launch a website — modeled after the Education Department’s StopBullying.gov – dedicated to informing the public on how to identify and report hate crimes. The site should also provide a one-stop shop for tools and resources for law enforcement, educators, public officials, media and other key stakeholders in reducing hate-motivated violence.

On Friday, President Obama spoke out against the Chapel Hill murders, saying “no one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship.” A day earlier, the FBI announced it had opened a preliminary inquiry into the horrific tragedy to determine if a federal crime had been committed. These are good first steps. But the FBI needs to go further and conduct a full investigation into this crime. Amid growing prejudice and hate crimes against Muslims in the United States, it is time for U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to send a strong message that hate-motivated violence against American Muslims will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Last week, Muslim Advocates and 149 leading civil rights, faith, community and civic groups sent a joint letter to the attorney general, urging a full and rigorous investigation into the murders of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha and Razan Abu-Salha. It is my sincere hope that this tragedy will be a turning point for America. Local and federal law enforcement can create a legacy for these young Americans, by taking a much stronger stance against anti-Muslim violence.

Farhana Khera is the first executive director of Muslim Advocates and the National Association of Muslim Lawyers.