Before September 11, 2001, most Americans didn’t know what to think of Muslims, if they thought about them at all. Seemingly isolated terrorist acts occurred in various parts of the world, linked to Muslims who were militant and violent in their activism against Western cultural and political institutions and symbols. The U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were bombed in 1998 and the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. But for the most part, Americans were woefully ignorant of the religion of Islam. Then came 9/11.
But Americans still don’t know what to think of Muslims. They have opted to remain woefully ignorant of Islam, but to this ignorance have now been added stereotypes and caricatures of the most malicious kind. The September 11 attacks by members of al-Qaeda are unspeakably horrific and will remain so in our nation’s history. Those who lost their lives during the events of that day and those who have served—some at the price of their own lives—in the struggle of the United States to root out this entrenched violent extremism are persons who should be honored by our nation. That would be something that is noble and commendable because it is good and right and true, expressive of the deeper virtues of courage and compassion.
It is, nonetheless, profoundly regrettable that what most Americans believe about Islam is so, well, so wrong! Commenting on survey research that probes the knowledge of Islam among Americans, Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero notes that “Americans will admit to a very high level of ignorance about Islam. There have been some surveys where people are asked: What do you know about Islam? Have you ever met a Muslim? Do you know anything about it? And Americans will typically run for the side of the survey that heads towards absolutely, positively nothing — that kind of response.”
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, was interviewed by Paul O’Donnell of Belief.net. Esposito was asked what, to some, might seem like a fairly bland question: “How do Islamic fundamentalist terrorists fit into the larger picture of Islam?” It is a reasonable question, to be sure, distinguishing as it does between the principal actors in the events of 9/11 and the larger population of followers of the religion of Islam. But to his credit, Esposito discerned the bias built into the question, so rather than respond as one might expect (“This is a fringe extremist element in Islam; they should be taken seriously as a threat, but they are not indicative of Muslims as followers or Islam as a religion.”), he answered O’Donnell’s question with other questions: “Let me ask, how do Christian fundamentalists who blow up clinics fit into a Christian context? How does someone like Baruch Goldstein, who shot Muslim worshippers inside the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994? How did he fit into the Jewish context?” How does it happen that the actions of some, however appalling they might be, have to be accounted for by reference to their supposed religion, as though somehow that explanation justifies or makes it otherwise reasonable?
In a Los Angeles Times article published in April, 2008, Esposito and his co-author, Dalia Mogahed, director of the Center for Muslim Studies at Gallup, noted: “How much do Americans know about the views and beliefs of Muslims around the world? According to polls, not much. Perhaps not surprising, the majority of Americans (66 per cent) admit to having at least some prejudice against Muslims; one in five say they have ‘a great deal’ of prejudice. Almost half do not believe American Muslims are ‘loyal’ to this country; and one in four does not want a Muslim as a neighbour.”
What is wrong with this bias and ignorance of Islam? According to Esposito and Mogahed, it truncates our capacity to analyze and understand the conditions that contribute to the struggle with militant and violent extremists who shield themselves with Islam; it underscores the perception of some global Muslims that this struggle is in fact a war on Islam; and it mitigates the ability of American voters to choose well-informed candidates for public office, leaving us subject to demagoguery and susceptible to manipulation out of fear.
To believe that all Muslims are terrorists, or supporters of terrorists, or sympathetic of terrorists, is to display one’s lack of knowledge. To act or argue on the basis of this ignorance is to give evidence of one’s ethnocentrism, xenophobia, or bigotry, or all of the above. As a civil society, we have chosen not to condone these vices when it comes to diversity in age, gender, race, sexual orientation, and disability. But apparently, we have not given them up when it comes to country of origin and religion.
According to the Pew Research Center, there are 1.57 billion Muslims in the world, or one out of every four persons on the globe. They live in such widely diverse nations and cultures as Morocco, Algeria, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt on the African continent; Turkey, Syria, Jordan in the Mediterranean region; Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Peninsula; Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan in the Middle East; Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh on the Indian subcontinent; and Malaysia, Indonesia, and Philippines in Southeast Asia. Like other religions, Islam extends along a spectrum of piety and practice, from strict orthodoxy to moderate adherence to secularism; there is “fundamentalist” Islam and “cultural” Islam, as is true of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Christianity.
While estimates for Muslims in the U.S. vary widely (between 2 million and 7 million), 65 percent of Muslim Americans are first-generation immigrants and 77 percent are U.S. citizens, according to America.gov. This means that somewhere between 1.5 million and 5.3 million Muslims are “no longer strangers and aliens, but fellow citizens” (Eph 2:19) of the United States, having sworn to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic” (Naturalization Oath of Allegiance). Coming as they do from all over the world, these Muslim immigrants are an “extraordinary mosaic of ethnic, linguistic, ideological, social, economic, and religious groups” (Muslims in America – A Statistical Portrait).
The first-ever nation-wide survey research done on Muslim Americans by Pew Research Center has shown that, for the most part, Muslim Americans have adapted to life in the U.S., are reasonably happy here, and see themselves as moderates on issues that continue to be contentious between foreign Muslims and Westerners. They enjoy the communities where they live, believe in hard work, and do not think there is a conflict between being Muslim and living in this society. They reject Islamic extremism, and many agree that it is harder to live as a Muslim in the U.S. since 9/11. The waves of Muslim immigrants who began coming in the 1990s came for the same reasons other immigrants have: educational and economic opportunities and family reasons.
It is unfortunate that a proposal to build an Islamic Center and mosque a few blocks from 9/11’s ground zero has generated such public clamor of resistance and opposition. Those who oppose this project have repeatedly stated that the reason is the seeming insensitivity to the families of those who lost their lives at ground zero. Public figures have decried the project for emotional reasons (Sarah Palin), while others have harbored theories of a Muslim conspiracy (Newt Gingrich). At least one, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey of Tennessee, has contended that Muslims do not have the legal right to practice their religion because, after all, Islam isn’t a religion!
Without diminishing the honor and commemoration due to those who lost their lives on September 11, there remains yet another issue, one whose weight ought to lie heavily upon our national conscience in addition to our woeful lack of knowledge of the religion of Islam. Beyond mere “tolerance,” the issue is upholding the freedom of conscience and the right to worship according to the dictates of one’s conscience. With all due respect to the families of the 9/11 victims, we cannot, as individuals or as a nation, abandon or subvert the freedom of conscience and religion provided for by the First Amendment to our Constitution. As uncomfortable and challenging as it may be, we must nevertheless uphold the right of all who live here to exercise their religious beliefs and commitments in the same spirit that first gave rise to codification of that freedom in the Bill of Rights.
This challenge to protect our freedoms and to guarantee that they are applicable to those whose religion is different than others is all the more complicated in an atmosphere where such ignorance of a religion is widespread. When paired with activism, lack of knowledge can be extraordinarily dangerous, moving whole communities of varying sizes to undertake activities that belie the cherished freedoms guaranteed by our founding documents. The rights of a majority are not protected when the rights of a minority are undermined or denied. Religious freedom for all is imperiled if the religious freedom of others is infringed.
It is both ironic and tragic that the religious and cultural bigotry born of ignorance is actually posing a threat to religious liberty in the United States. As evident in locales from coast to coast, opposition to Muslims is rising, sometimes taking virulent and scandalous forms, as in a local church proposing to hold a Koran-burning event on September 11, 2010, because, in the pastor’s words, “Islam is of the Devil.” Whether one considers oneself a person of faith or a non-observant former religionist or a seeker of one kind or another, one ought to be concerned about this threat. Citizens mindful of their freedom to be or not to be religious would do well to exercise some civic virtue and act to defend the constitutional rights of all. The freedom of all may just depend on it.