As our country and her people marked the tenth anniversary of the horrific attacks of September 11, an obvious question came to mind: what is the status of the American Muslim community? Are they a supportive minority which loves the country and is committed to fight against extremism in all its forms? Or are they a subversive “fifth column,” seeking to destroy the country with their “Sharia law”? The answer to that question, it seems, depends on whom is being asked.
According to two recently released Pew Research polls, there seems to be two different American Muslim communities. In one Pew poll, 40% of Americans think there is at least a fair amount of support for extremism among Muslims in the United States. When separated by party affiliation, 55% of Republicans have this belief, while 33% and 39% of Democrats and Independents, respectively, think the same. Moreover, 35% of Republicans think Islamic extremism is on the rise, compared with 18% of Democrats and 25% of independents.
Ask Muslims these very same questions, and the answers are quite different. 21% of American Muslims think there is at least a fair amount of support for extremism in the Muslim community. Indeed, 21% still seems like a high number, but it is nearly half the number of non-Muslim Americans who think the same. Only 4% of Muslims think that Muslim support for extremism is increasing, contrasted with 24% of the public. When asked if they think Muslims who come to the US want to adopt American customs, 33% of the general public said yes, while 56% of American Muslims said the same.
In fact, support of extremism within the Muslim community is “negligible,” in the words of the Pew researchers. Only 8% of American Muslims believe that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets are often or sometimes justified to defend Islam from its enemies. In contrast, 81% of American Muslims believe suicide terrorism is never justified. There is a very small number (5%) who have very or somewhat favorable views of Al Qaeda. Again, these numbers are still too high, but it is not consistent with the perception by some in America that extremism is rampant and increasing among American Muslims.
Why the disconnect? Are American Muslims “lying”? Are they practicing “taqiyya,” or dissimulation? This is laughable. The truth of the matter is, and research has consistently confirmed this, that American Muslims are loyal, patriotic, and mainstream. In fact, despite a belief by a majority of Muslims that life has become more difficult since 9/11, many more American Muslims believe life is going well in the United States compared to the general public (56% vs 23%). So, again, why the disconnect between perception and reality?
Despite the laudable work of American Muslims since 9/11, there still remains an enormous lack of knowledge about Islam and the Muslim community on the part of the general public. A Gallup poll indicated that 62% of Americans do not personally know a Muslim. This number must be made smaller, because the more people get to know their Muslim fellow Americans, the better they feel about them: “People who know a Muslim tend to be less likely than others to see a connection between Islam and violence,” says Gregory Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum. Furthermore, the concerted and well-funded effort by a very small number of Islamophobes to smear Islam and Muslims has worked to some degree. The constant focus on only negative stories by the media, especially when it comes to Islam and Muslims, does not help, either.
Yet, that should not discourage the American Muslim community at all. It should only serve to increase its effort to reach out and get to know their neighbors. The Qur’an says:
“But [since] good and evil cannot be equal, repel thou [evil] with something that is better and lo! he between whom and thyself was enmity [may then become] as though he had [always] been close [unto thee], a true friend!” (41:34)
And it should never be for the sake of good “PR.” Never. Rather, it must be out of a desire to fulfill God’s challenge to the Muslim community: to be the “best nation put forth for humanity” by “enjoining what is good” and “forbidding what is wrong.” It must be out of a desire to help without “recompense from [fellow Americans], nor thanks.” This is because we, as a community, ”stand in awe of our Lord’s judgment on a distressful, fateful Day!” (76:9-10)
Yes, as the next decade unfolds, those who do not want to see American Muslims succeed will most surely continue their efforts. In fact, they will act as Abu Lahab, the Prophet’s uncle, once did: following the Prophet (pbuh) wherever he went and telling the people, “Do not listen to him! He is a lying sorcerer!” But, just as this did not stop the Prophet (pbuh) in his effort, neither should the screams of “taqiyya” from the Islamophobes stop us. Our responsibility is to our Lord to do good on earth as much as possible for His sake.And when our people see us for who we truly are: Americans just like them, who believe in the very same God as they, and love and care about this country just as much as they do, they will realize that they have nothing to fear. Already, a majority of American Muslims (80%) believe that their fellow Americans are either friendly or neutral toward them. That number can always be bigger, and it is incumbent upon American Muslims to make it so. There will always be Islamophobes who scream into the wind, but with God’s help, those screams can and will, one day, fade completely into oblivion.