Eleven years after the attacks on September 11th, the United States has seen an increase in Islamophobic sentiment. This sentiment has been fueled by remarks from both elected officials and segments of the media, warning of the dangers of “Islamism” and equating the religion to fundamentalist terrorism. In a short piece on the recent protests in Cairo, Egypt and Benghazi, Libya where U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. citizens were killed in the ensuing chaos, FOX News’ Bill O’Reilly referred to Muslims as, “…the followers of Allah who kill in the name of their religion,” and “nuts.”
In the wake of the anniversary, a significant portion of the American public (roughly 50% of the non-Islamic population, according to a 2011 Gallup poll), and even American Muslim community leaders attempting to distance themselves from such extremism, believe that it is the obligation of Muslims to condemn, and sometimes even apologize for, acts of radical extremism even though they themselves have absolutely nothing to do with it. But are the portrayals of Americans Muslim by some elected officials and members of the media accurate? Are non-Muslim Americans the only victims of extremism? Should American Muslims be obligated to apologize for the actions of a few that distort the true meaning of the Qur’an?
Polls taken by both Gallup and the Pew Research Center, in 2011, suggest that the portrayals of American Muslims as seditious and violent threats to American society put forth by these segments of the media and elected officials are grossly inaccurate. According to Gallup, “We discovered an educated, employed, entrepreneurial, and culturally diverse community, whose strengths and struggles reflected America’s as a whole,” while the Pew Research Center reported that 56% of American Muslim desired to adopt American customs and ways of life. Even more telling, both polls found that the overwhelming majority of the American Muslim community (81% in the Pew poll, and 89% of those interviewed by Gallup) reported that suicide bombing and other attacks by individuals or small groups on civilian populations are never justified.
Another study done by the New American Foundation (NAF) revealed that, in the years since 9/11 there have been ten deadly attacks carried out by non-Muslim individuals in the United States, resulting in the deaths of 19 people. During this same period, the NAF found that there had only been four deadly attacks carried out by individuals or groups who identify themselves as Muslim, resulting in the deaths of 17 (this is including the 2009 attack on Fort Hood that left 13 dead). Furthermore, the NAF revealed that non-Muslim groups had proven more likely to try to, and actually succeed, in acquiring weapons of mass destruction.
Whereas, no homegrown Muslim group has been tried for attempting to acquire such weapons, 11 other non-Muslim groups have been found with biological weapons, one such group even possessing radioactive material in an attempt to create a “dirty-bomb.” These results, combined with other findings of the NAF’s showing that law enforcement agencies are significantly more likely to pursue and prosecute Muslim groups, led them to conclude that the tendency to focus on Muslims as terror suspects risked overlooking the threat posed to the United States by non-Muslim terrorists, which have proven to be both more frequent and deadly.
A further look into the matter clearly shows that the notion that American Muslims are “guilty by association” is clearly unwarranted. Yet this notion still exists, and is fueling ever more frequent acts of xenophobia, and particularly Islamophobia. Much like the waves of racism towards African Americans, Irish Americans, and almost every other minority group in the past, this recent spate of attacks focused towards the American Muslim community have had a profound impact on the psyche of Muslims, thus begging the question: Were American Muslims also victims of the horrendous attacks on 9/11?
A 2011 study done by the American Psychological Association (APA) that interviewed 600 Arab Americans, most of whom were Muslim, revealed that their community has suffered significant psychological trauma resulting from the increase in anti-Islamic sentiment following the attacks on 9/11. Dr. Mona M. Amer, the leading researcher of this study, found significant levels of “anxiety, depression and even PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] among a population some call doubly traumatized–first by the attacks themselves and then by the finger pointing that followed.” The study found that half of those researched displayed signs of depression serious enough to merit further assessment, while one-quarter of those studied displayed moderate to severe anxiety–rates that are significantly higher than that of the general population.
As the report suggested, these symptoms seemed to be the direct result of hostile language and behavior focused towards namely American Muslims: 28% reported being treated with suspicion, 22% being called offensive names, 21% singled out by airport security, 13% being singled out by other law enforcement officials, and 6% being physically threatened or attacked. With numbers like these, it is no surprise that 82% of those studied reported feeling unsafe or extremely unsafe in the United States following 9/11, versus the vast majority that reported feeling extremely safe prior to the attacks. These findings support statistics provided by the Pew Research Center reporting that 25% of participants claimed that mosques and Islamic centers in their community had been the targets of controversy or downright hostility. Upon reviewing these numbers, it becomes evident that American Muslims were just as much victims of the attacks on 9/11 as any other American community, and even more so having been subjected to the rash of hostility towards them that followed.
So, where does this anti-Islamic sentiment stem from? And what can be done to help dissolve such beliefs and behavior?
Mike Ghouse, a contributor to the Huffington Post, put it quite simply in his piece titled, “9/11 Prompts Strong Muslim Commitment to America:” “The world is fraught with issues and conflicts because we do not know each other, and have built up myths about the other, and when we learn and know each other, conflicts fade and solutions emerge.” Understanding that humans tend to fear what they don’t understand allows us as a society to take concrete steps towards alleviating ourselves of these hateful and un-American attitudes towards those of a different faith. Ghouse, along with several other Muslim American writers suggest that the solution lies in a notion known as pluralism. According to the Foundation For Pluralism, pluralism is defined as “the affirmation of diversity in the interests and beliefs of the citizenry,” which they claim “is one of the most important features of modern democracy.”
American Muslims should not be obligated to apologize for the acts of just a few fanatics because, as CNN contributor Aman Ali put it, “I didn’t do it. Neither did 99.999999999 percent of the roughly 1.5 billion people in the world who call themselves Muslims.” Both Ali and Ghouse suggest that the best course of action would be to establish strong interfaith connections that will help to breed familiarity and comfort between groups that previously demonized each other because of a lack of mutual understanding. As Ali put it, “Of course my prayers and sentiments are with anyone affected by the tragedy. The same goes for any act of terrorism… But I’m not going to apologize or condemn them because I don’t need to prove my patriotism with some kind of McCarthyite litmus test.” And neither should anyone else from the American Muslim community that has absolutely nothing to do with such violence.
For the better part of its history, Islam has been known as a religiously tolerant faith, from the palaces of Cordoba, Spain to the temples of India (especially when compared to their medieval counterparts). An understanding of the faith, history and culture of Islam will reveal that reaching a mutually beneficent understanding between the faiths of Americans is possible. All we need to do is put the effort into it.
“People, we created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should get to know one another. The most noble of you in the sight of God are those of you who are most conscientious.” –The Qur’an, 49:13