WASHINGTON — Hate crimes directed against Muslims remain relatively rare, notwithstanding the notoriety gained by incidents such as recent vandalism at the Madera Islamic Center.
Jews, lesbians, gay men and Caucasians, among others, are all more frequently the target of hate crimes, FBI records show. Reported anti-Muslim crimes have declined over recent years, though they still exceed what occurred prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"We see hate crimes generally go in spurts, and are often in relation to international or domestic events," Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Friday.
In 2008, 105 hate crime "incidents" against Muslims were reported nationwide. There were 10 times more incidents recorded as anti-Jewish during the same year, the most recent for which figures are available.
The number of anti-Muslim hate crimes leaped to a record 481 in 2001, apparently prompted by the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. It hasn't been nearly that high since.
All told, 7,783 reported hate crime incidents occurred in 2008, including 1,381 in California. These incidents can take many forms.
Lodi resident David Halla, for instance, was arrested Monday and charged with assaulting a 76-year-old charter bus passenger while en route from Modesto to the Chukchansi Gold Resort-Casino. This could count as a hate crime, as witnesses say Halla shouted racial epithets at the Spanish-speaking victim.
On the other hand, if Halla had called the alleged victim old, that wouldn't have been recorded as a hate crime, because age is not covered by federal hate crime laws.
By itself, hate is not a crime.
Congress, though, has specified that a criminal act becomes a hate crime when it is "motivated in whole or in part by an offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation." Stiffer penalties can result.
The very idea of a hate crime can pose special challenges.
Lawmakers, for one, must decide whether certain crimes deserve stricter punishment because of the victim's identity.
In 2009, for instance, San Joaquin Valley congressional Democrats supported expanding a federal hate-crimes law, in part by adding sexual orientation and disability to the protected categories of people. The Valley's Republican lawmakers opposed the bill, which became law, with conservatives saying it valued some populations over others.
"Under this bill, justice will no longer be equal," Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, a senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, declared during House debate. "It will allow different penalties to be imposed for the same crime. This is the real injustice."
Reporters and pundits, too, confront hate-crime questions.
Reporters must figure out whether to cast a particular incident as an aberration or part of a larger narrative. The widely read Talking Points Memo website, for instance, is reporting on the Madera Islamic Center as part of broader coverage of national anti-Muslim attacks. The presentation gives the impression of a trend, a cause for concern.
Pundits, in turn, must figure out whether their own rhetoric can incite violence. In the San Joaquin Valley, for instance, some Muslims have publicly questioned whether heated talk-show discussions about the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" in New York City might have spurred the unsettling incidents at the Madera Islamic Center.
Over the past week, a brick was thrown toward a window and several signs were left at the center, located on Road 26 north of town. One sign said "No temple for the god of terrorism," while another said "Wake up America, the enemy is here."
The signs included a reference to a supposed organization called the American Nationalist Brotherhood.
"We're still investigating," Madera sheriff's department public information officer Erica Stuart said Friday. "We're still trying to get to the bottom of this group."
Hate crimes of any kind are rare in Madera County, as well as the rest of the San Joaquin Valley. The last reported Madera County hate crime occurred in 2005, according to available records show. The 2005 incident involved race.
Only 49 reported hate crimes occurred in the entire region between Stockton and Bakersfield during 2008, with nearly one-third of the incidents occurring somewhere in Kern County.