Getting it Right about Islam and American Muslims
American Muslims deserve a break. There are as many as 6 to 8 million Muslims living in the United States and contributing to the country as doctors, engineers, artists, actors and professionals, but for a decade many have found themselves and their religion wrongly equated with the acts of terrorists like Osama bin Laden. Many have been the victims of fear, suspicion, and prejudice Muslim-bashing, unlawful surveillance, illegal search, arrest and imprisonment. Efforts to build Islamic centers and mosques in New York, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Tennessee have been equated with building monuments to terrorism. Prominent American public figures and politicians – including as Bill O’Reilly, Sarah Palin, Rep. Peter King and Newt Gingrich – openly spoke against Muslims and encouraged unfounded social suspicion of them. The net result is an increase in anti-Islam and anti-Muslim bashing, witnessed in the hysteria that has led to a movement across some 20 states in America to ban Sharia.
Today’s historic changes, the death of Osama bin Laden and the Arab Spring offer an opportunity to redress anti-Islam and anti-Muslim bias (Islamophobia) and to reaffirm that American Muslims, like other mainstream Americans, desire a secure and democratic America. Despite the fact that American Muslims years have had to explain that neither they – nor their religion – sanction terrorism.
Major polls have consistently shown American public opinion of Islam plunging. The furor over the proposed Islamic center (Park 51) in New York City resurfaced hostility toward Islam and Muslims. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, large minorities said they could not think of anything positive to say about Islam. In one study, 38 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam, compared to 30 percent who reported a positive view. Another study conducted by The Washington Post found Islam’s unfavorable image creeping up to 49 percent among Americans.
This fear and hostility has been reinforced by the American public’s basic ignorance and misunderstanding of Islam: The Pew Forum’s September 2010survey of religion literacy found that only about half of Americans know that the Quran is the holy book of Islam. It also found that less than a third know that most people in Indonesia–the world’s most populous Muslim nation–are, in fact, Muslim. What many did know and fear were stereotypes based on misinformation.
Mainstream American Muslims have too often been equated inaccurately with terrorists and people who reject democracy. Muslims Americans cherish the freedoms guaranteed by the American Constitution as much as others and, as the Gallup World Poll of 35 Muslim countries reported, like all Americans, majorities of Muslims globally desire democracy and freedom and fear and reject religious extremism and terrorism.
Failure to recognize and appreciate these facts continues to feed a growing Islamophobia in America that threatens the safety, security and civil liberties of many American Muslims despite the fact that, as Gallup and PEW polls have shown, they are as educationally, economically and politically integrated as other Americans. It is time to remember and act on the words of President George W. Bush in calling upon all American to distinguish between the religion of Islam and the acts of a fraction of Muslims who commit acts of terrorism and President Barack Obama’s words reminding Americans that: “the United States is not –- and never will be -– at war with Islam. … Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims. Indeed, al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own.”
It’s time to turn a deaf ear to our preachers and politicians of hate and get it right with our American Muslim fellow citizens. John L. Esposito is University Professor and Founding Director of the Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding. He is co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, and author of The Future of Islam (2010). Sheila B. Lalwani is a Research Fellow at the Centre.