American perceptions of Islam continue to put Muslims on the defense.
Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred, American Muslims across the nation maintained relatively low profiles, forming close-knit communities in which they lived and worshipped together. But since that fateful day, when close to 3,000 people — including many Muslims — lost their lives in the terrorist attacks that took place in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, they were suddenly forced into an unwanted limelight.
“Before 9/11, Muslims didn’t reach out much to a lot of people outside of their communities or to other faith groups,” said Zainab Al-Suwaij, executive director of the American Islamic Congress in Washington, D.C. “But after 9/11, they were kind of forced to do that, to tell the rest of the world that we are here, we are part of the American mosaic and we are here as American citizens.”
In addition, Al-Suwaij said, they opened the doors of their mosques, community centers and organizations to encourage more interaction and understanding between Muslims and people of other faiths. One message they’ve tried to send is that they, too, were affected by the events of 9/11.
“Sept. 11 shook all of us. It was a horrible action that we will remember for as long as we live. We remember the date, we remember the moment it happened because it was something we never expected,” said Al-Suwaij.
That unfortunately hasn’t stopped some Americans from viewing them and their Islamic faith with suspicion. Even some lawmakers can be counted among those who’ve shown prejudices against Muslims, as evidenced by Rep. Peter King (R-New York), who, as chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, has hosted hearings on the threat of Islamic extremism in America. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), one of two Muslims serving in the House, famously condemned King’s actions.
“Targeting of the Muslim-American community for the actions of a few is unjust,” he tearfully testified at the first hearing earlier this year. “Stoking fears about an entire group for a political agenda is not new in American history.”
Rep. Allen West (R-Florida), one of two African-American House Republicans, also has harshly criticized Islam, calling it an “ideology” and not a faith, at an event he hosted on Capitol Hill in the days leading up to the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, 10 years later, 55 percent of Muslim Americans say it has become more difficult to be a Muslim in the United States and report having experienced mistreatment or discrimination in just the past year. Interestingly, 66 percent said that life for Muslims is better here than in most Muslim nations.
Al-Suwaij believes that American views of Muslims are influenced by where they get their news, “whether they are watching CNN or Fox News, for example,” she said.
Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, said there’s always been a fair amount of stereotyping of Muslims in America, which was exacerbated in the media aftermath of 9/11. He believes that prejudice against Islam is parallel to the anti-Semitism that once pervaded the nation.
“One thing that is quite revealing to me is that close to two-thirds of Americans say they don’t even know any Muslims. People have found that whether it be related to race or with social preference or anything else, that when people actually know someone personally of a particular minority group that prejudice dissipates,” Zunes said, adding that the “good news” is that Muslims and other groups have made efforts to engage in dialogue and discourse to develop a better understanding of each other.
And although Zunes is shocked that West and others would say that Islam is not a religion, he said, “Interpretations regarding the political, social and economic applications of Islamic thought in today’s world are as diverse as they are in Christianity or Judaism.”
Interestingly, a University of Maryland report on American views on 9/11 in the past decade showed that in response to an ABC News survey conducted in October 2001, 47 percent said they had a generally favorable view of Islam. In subsequent years, however, in polls conducted by ABC and other organizations, that number has declined. In an August 2011 poll, only 33 percent of respondents had a generally favorable opinion, versus 61 percent who said they had an unfavorable opinion.
(Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)