By Annaliese McSweeney, Silk Road Rising Dramaturg for Mosque Alert
Stories of hate are all too familiar. In recent months the news has been filled with embarrassing and horrifying incidents that seem to be on repeat at the expense of our fellow Muslim citizens. Suggestions of databases and watch lists, speculation about restrictions on hypothetical Muslim presidents, journalistic indiscretion, and refusal to accept Syrian refugees—these stories of intolerance fill our news feeds, dinner conversations, and consciousness. While liberal audiences might dismiss these “American extremists,” it is important to note that there were thirty-eight anti-Islamic hate crimes between November 13th and December 17th of 2015 and the number of Americans who have an unfavorable view of Islam (55%) is higher than it was in the months immediately following September 11th, 2001.
We are guilty of pushing American Muslims to the margins. Posing them as “others” allows some to question their loyalty and legitimacy as American citizens. This mindset reinforces the political rhetoric of distrust and permeates media coverage. In contrast, the reality is that the estimated 1.5-2.75 million Muslims living in America are not a single race, but a diverse multitude, shaped by an assortment of religious, cultural, and ethnic heritages that contribute to American culture. It’s about time we recognize their real story.
Muslims share their roots with Judeo-Christians, since they are also counted among the children of Abraham. These faiths share origin stories; the Quran is viewed as a completion of the tradition promised in the Torah and continued in the Bible. At the heart of Muslim faith is the belief in one true God, the same God for all Abrahamic faiths. Their profession of faith is simple: there is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God. Not only was Muhammad the final Prophet, he was a human example for how to live life according to God’s will for all Muslims.
Beyond this testimony of faith, there are four other guiding pillars of Islam. Muslims bow toward Mecca in prayer five times a day, the most recognizable Islamic practice. In addition, Muslims fast during the daylight hours throughout the month of Ramadan. Almsgiving is also mandated by the Quran, requiring Muslims to give two-and-a-half percent of all liquid assets to charity in a given year. Lastly, a pilgrimage (or hajj) to Mecca is required once in each Muslim’s lifetime. During the hajj there is no separation between the sexes, classes, or racial groups, and the experience is supposed to represent the perfect equality of humanity as it will be before God on the last day.
Research shows that Muslim Americans are generally happy with their lives and comfortably assimilated, demonstrating strong American values and attitudes. Emigrating from seventy-seven countries, they represent African, Arab, Asian, European, Iranian, Hispanic, Southeast Asian, Turkish, “white,” or other identities. They come to America seeking higher education, economic opportunity, or freedom from religious and political persecution. While most Muslims are first or second generation (two-thirds are foreign-born and most of those migrated to America after 1980) some have been here for much longer. For example, a Bosnian Muslim community settled in Chicago in 1906 and Syrian Muslims founded the first documented mosque in North Dakota in 1929.
Muslims represent all socioeconomic levels in America. American Muslims, however, are more likely to be entrepreneurs; one in five are self-employed or owners of small businesses. More Muslims are also full-time students than the general population (and women are as likely as men to have college or postgraduate degrees) demonstrating the importance of education in the Muslim tradition.
Seventy percent of Muslims in America say that faith is very important to them. While they widely agree on the basic tenets of Islam, the younger, American-born Muslims are amenable to the idea that Islam may have more than one true interpretation. For example, most American Muslims identify with Sunni Islam and a smaller number identify with Shia tradition, but American Muslims are unique in that a significant number do not identify with either sect. Similarly, while two-thirds of American Muslims pray daily, only about half pray all five times.
Half of American Muslims attend weekly religious services, but almost twenty percent seldom or never attend services and many hold progressive views for worship. While nearly half of Muslim Americans still believe in separation of genders during worship, many Muslims are looking for change. In a divergence from traditional prayer, Amina Wadud led a mixed-gender service and sermon in New York in 2005 and M. Hasna Maznavi recently founded the Women’s Mosque of America, an all-woman mosque. Incidentally, the number of women who electively wear a headscarf has nearly doubled in America in the last ten years.
Generally, Muslim Americans are more conservative when it comes to queer and homosexual identities, but they are following the national trend toward greater acceptance. Muslims for Progressive Values here in Chicago welcomes and supports all Muslims and fosters an inclusive and tolerant understanding of Islam.
When asked about main concerns for the future, Muslim wants are similar to those of most Americans: improving personal economic status, promoting democratic ideals, advancing literacy and gender equality, creating religious freedom, and practicing social justice. They also value ending conflicts in their home countries and improving the understanding of and respect for their religious heritage. Muslim Americans believe that the guiding principles of their faith and the heart of the American Constitution are complementary, rather than conflicting, as opponents would have you believe. These beliefs draw Muslims to America. When Americans take the time to become familiar with Islam, polls have shown they are more likely to have a favorable opinion of Muslims. With each generation the hope is that the pluralism of American identity will create a space of mutual respect and equality for Muslim Americans.
Sources include, but not limited to:
Esposito, John. The Future of Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
Joseph, Suad and Benjamin D’Harlingue with Alvin Ka Hin Wong, “Arab Americans and Muslim Americans in The New York Times Before and After 9/11,” in Race and Arab Americans Before and After 9/11 edited by Amaney Jamal and Nadine Naber. (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2008), 229-275.
Lichtblau, Eric, “Crimes Against Muslim Ameicans and Mosques Rise Sharply,” New York Times: Online, last modified December 17, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/18/us/politics/crimes-against-muslim-americans-and-mosques-rise-sharply.html?_r=1.
“How Americans Feel About Religious Groups” Pew Research Center Study, last modified on July 16, 2014, accessed on January 1, 2016, http://www.pewforum.org/2014/07/16/how-americans-feel-about-religious-groups/.
“Muslim Americans: Sections 1, 2, 3, and 5” Pew Research Center Study.