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Hate Crimes Aren't Usually Caused By Hate Groups

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the Miami Herald
Young men pray as the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Miami holds a prayer vigil on Sunday December 13, 2015 for the victims of the San Bernardino shooting.

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, a man in Palm Beach County broke into and smashed the windows of a local Islamic center.

He was later arrested and now faces hate-crime charges.

Mark Potok is a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama. The center tracks hate groups in this country. He says hate groups aren't the ones that trigger these kinds of hate crimes.

You guys, you track hate groups. According to your hate map, Florida has the second largest amount of hate groups in the country. So how active do you guys find are these groups?

Hate crimes, for instance attacks on mosques and that kind of thing,  are not carried out by members of hate groups. There has been academic research that’s shown fairly conclusively that members of actual hate groups carry out fewer than 5 percent of hate crimes in the United States. Far more typical is an otherwise essentially normal person getting involved in something like this.

When things like this happen do you see it as a potential danger? Or is it just hateful speech?

This is not merely a matter of hateful speech or even isolated violence. What is going on in the country right now, both in reaction to various ISIS or ISIS-inspired attacks and in particular to what some of the presidential candidates, especially Donald Trump, has been saying about Muslims, is a real flood of hatred and violence directed at Muslims. We don’t have any real statistics yet, but it seems very clear that when we have the hate-crime statistics for 2015 they will show a quite dramatic jump.

Although what Donald Trump and some of the other presidential candidates have said does not certainly make them criminally liable for these actions,  I think there's very little doubt that when people in the public square make these kinds of pronouncements there’s real demonizing attacks on a very specific group of people. It is no surprise at all that the more thuggish elements of our society take that as a kind of permission to go out and beat people up with baseball bats.

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Southern Poverty Law Center

And on your end, do you guys go on some sort of red alert when things like that happen, when statements like Donald Trump's are made?

We don't have a red alert system here. There are no blinking lights or flags that change color. But we have known for some time going back more than a year that there was a very pronounced uptick in hatred directed at Muslims. That in fact began in 2014 as a result of many reports of real atrocities carried out by ISIS in particular in the Middle East and North Africa. The hate crimes against Muslims in 2014 went up by about 14 percent,  according to the F.B.I.

What kind of patterns do you see or what do you know about the hate groups that have anti-Muslim beliefs here in the U.S.?

Well, the truth is that probably the majority of groups that we list as hate groups in the United States, some 780 groups, do have anti-Muslim views. Some of these groups, it’s simply one more group to be despised. For instance,  the [Ku Klux] Klan certainly does not like Muslims,  but of course the Klan also despises black people, brown people, gay people and any number of others. We also have a set of groups that we list as hate groups that are really all about Islamophobia.

The majority of Muslims are not extremists. The majority of people don't hate Muslims. So why is this garnering so much attention?

Let's not forget that some polling has indicated that in the aftermath of Trump's comments, something like 60 percent of Republicans favor a complete ban on Muslims entering this country. An enormous number, an enormous percentage of Americans believe related kinds of theories. So I don't think it's true that what we're looking at are merely isolated incidents. These are related to what is going on in the bigger picture, and the bigger picture of course is a scenario in which ISIS really is a barbaric organization and regularly carries out incredible atrocities. At the end of the day, this is a country that was founded on the basis of creating an experiment in religious freedom. And here we are, many years later, talking about banning enormous numbers of people from this country simply on the basis of their particular faith.

What do you think the average person should know or should do?

I would say to Americans: Be careful what you believe. Politicians in this country regularly elide the truth, twist it or simply lie. It is a shame to have to report that,  but that's the case.