Originally published in Religion Dispatches, August 2, 2017:
A newly-released Pew poll (headline: “U.S. Muslims Concerned About Their Place in Society, but Continue to Believe in the American Dream“) reveals a Muslim America that has changed dramatically in the past five decades.
In 1967, there were probably fewer than 250,000 self-identifying Muslims in the United States: today, according the poll, there are about 3.35 million.
So, the Muslim community is likely ten times larger than it was fifty years ago–though Muslims still account for only one percent of the total U.S. population.
The growth of the Muslim community is largely due to immigration. In 1965, the Immigration and Naturalization Act signed by President Lyndon Johnson in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty reformed the racist system of immigration that largely prohibited immigrants from countries perceived as non-white. Millions of non-white people have immigrated to the United States since then, and perhaps two million of them have been Muslim.
Even though the poll does not count the number of mosques in the country, other data reveal a similar picture there: In 1967, there were perhaps fewer than 200 mosques in the country. Today, there are likely more than 2,000.
In 1967, the single largest Muslim organization in the United States was probably Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, a group that was not accepted as legitimately Muslim by many Sunni and Shi‘a religious authorities.
Today, the sectarian profile of Muslim America roughly mirrors that of the rest of the Muslim world. The majority of Muslim Americans are Sunni, while 16% identify as Shi‘a, 14% say they are “just Muslim,” and 4% are members of smaller communities such as the Ahmadiyya movement and the Nation of Islam.
The 2017 Pew poll also reveals that the more things have changed in Muslim America, the more they have stayed the same.
Muslims faced a lot of suspicion and discrimination in 1967, just as they do in 2017.
In 1967, the Nation of Islam was identified by the F.B.I. as a prime target of its infamous COINTELPRO, or counter-intelligence program. Meant to eliminate what J. Edgar Hoover thought were subversive organizations in America, COINTELPRO used everything from entrapment to disinformation campaigns to achieve its goals.
Though members of the Nation of Islam were largely law-abiding, exercising their Constitutional rights to religious freedom and freedom of speech, the group’s criticism of American racism and imperialism struck many ordinary Americans as politically radical and thus dangerous.
The globe’s most powerful symbol of resistance to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was the Nation of Islam’s most famous member, boxer Muhammad Ali. In 1967, Ali refused induction in the U.S. armed forces to protest the war, and as a result, was forced to give up his heavyweight boxing crown.
In 2017, even though no Muslim American critic of U.S. foreign policy has the international stature of Muhammad Ali, the very presence of Muslims in the United States is seen by many to be a national security threat. The 2017 Pew poll paints a picture of unprecedented anti-Muslim discrimination, hate crimes, and bias in the country.
As in 1967, today’s F.B.I.—whether overseen by Democrats or Republicans—actively engages in counter-intelligence in the country’s Muslim communities. Entrapment, or so-called sting operations, have accounted for perhaps 317 out of 580 total anti-terrorism prosecutions of Muslims, according to 2016 data. The 2017 Pew poll reports that 39% of Muslim Americans think that those arrested were “violent people who posed a real threat” while 30% said that many of those arrested were tricked by the FBI and another 30% refused to answer the question or said that “it depends.”
The mainstream media in 1967 often depicted the Nation of Islam as dangerous and Muhammad Ali as a traitor. Today, though media are far more sensitive to issues of bias, stories about Islam and Muslims in most mainstream media outlets, whether liberal or conservative, unconsciously reinforce negative stereotypes. Coverage of Islam is associated more often than not with violence, gender discrimination, political instability, intolerance, and other qualities that most Americans find troubling. Six out of every ten Muslim Americans surveyed said that the media’s coverage of Muslims is unfair.
Even as the 2017 Pew poll shows a Muslim American population that is critical of anti-Muslim prejudice, media bias, and some government policies, it also reveals a remarkably hopeful community.
There was no polling of Muslim Americans in 1967, but historical research on Muslim Americans has revealed something similar. Despite all the negativity surrounding the image of Islam and Muslims and the real prejudice that Muslims faced in the 1960s, Muslim individuals and communities on the whole found the strength to believe in a better future.
Muslim Americans also report that the number of non-Muslims who have been kind to them has risen in the past year. They believe in the American dream by a greater percentage than non-Muslim Americans. Over nine out of ten Muslims say that they are proud to be American.
The question this poll raises for non-Muslims is: over the next fifty years, will our actions strengthen or weaken the surprising optimism of Muslim Americans?
“Being nice” and “getting know to our Muslim neighbors” is just a start. As citizens we have to grapple with the institutions that continue, in Muslims’ minds, to create anti-Muslim bias.
The media need to monitor what they print and broadcast, using quantitative analysis to track the underlying messages of their stories and their effects on consumers. Stories about Muslims that stoke fear or anger may sell ad time and increase hits, but media outlets committed to tolerance, religious freedom, and intellectual rigor must present a more balanced view of Islam and Muslims.
U.S. citizens, whether liberal or conservative, should hold federal, state, and local law enforcement to account when an entire community comes under suspicion based on religious and racial profiling rather than a body of evidence. As long as Muslims are disproportionately targeted for criminal investigation, anti-Muslim bias will be perpetuated. By the end of 2016, Muslim terrorists were responsible for 123 of the 240,000 murders in the United State since 9/11. Yet counter-terrorism remained the number one priority of the FBI, which spends several billion dollars annually to prevent and prosecute Muslim terrorists. Is this myopic focus on Muslim terrorists doing all of us more harm than good?
Finally, citizens and policy-makers must grapple with its never-ending war on terrorism abroad. For a significant portion of the country, the war on terrorism is, by definition, a war on radical Islam. As long as the country remains on a war footing against an ill-defined, amorphous ideological enemy, Muslim Americans are likely to remain at the center of negative public discourse.
As a society, we need to do more to earn the optimism of the Muslim-American community.
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