Muslims in the US: A Brief Sketch of an American Microcosm The American Muslim community is arguably the most diverse demographic in the country. Numbering approximately 3.3 million, or about 1% of the total population, the Muslims of America constitute every race, ethnicity, culture and career imaginable. It is also the most diverse Muslim community on the planet. Although it is a mere fraction of the 1.7 billion Muslim population worldwide, there is no place on earth that has every sect, denomination, ethnicity and culture represented in one locale.
Many consider Islam to be a foreign, recent arrival to America; in fact, its presence predates the independence of the country. From their role as navigators on Columbus's voyages to their forced migration as West African slaves, to their immigration through the past 150 years, Muslims have been a constant in the American social fabric. Dispelling the myth that Islam is only an “immigrant” religion in the country, Muslims have a deeply rooted “indigenous” population; over one-third is African American, and the overwhelming majority is non-Arab. As they are a microcosm of the global Muslim presence, Muslims are also a microcosm of America, intersecting every aspect of society and its diversity.
Muslims in the United States tend to have comparable income spectra to the broader society and attain higher education levels than the national average. Many are pioneers and leaders in their respective fields. Since 9/11 American Muslims have gained a heightened awareness of the importance of political activity. In light of legislation that targets the community, such as the USA Patriot Act, and increased surveillance of Muslim spaces, American Muslims have intensified their efforts to register the community to vote and to become better informed about issues and politicians who impact the community and its needs.
Given its relatively small size and its diffuse presence throughout the country, the American Muslim community may be energized, motivated and active but it still occupies a marginal presence in the country’s civic and political space. American Muslims in the aggregate are far behind the other demographic groups that make a difference in the public landscape, e.g. Hispanics, LGBTQ and women, in the amount of social and political capital they wield. Despite its relative prosperity and access to resources, the amount of political and influence lags well behind other groups that are similarly situated. At the same time, Muslims are continuously confronted with offering explanations of a variety of complex topics and issues, in response particularly to media coverage of those subjects. This has compelled Muslims to become “experts” in theology, philosophy, law, economics, politics and culture, an unfair and unreasonable expectation for any community.
Media Framing and its Risk of Harm Despite its considerable obvious diversity, the American Muslim community is often reduced to a monolith and a caricature. The lens through which it is perceived casts Muslims as a perennially foreign entity, a hostile, alien and dangerous presence that at best is a dormant threat and at worst, an existential one. Statistics show that media accounts on Muslims are overwhelmingly negative in depiction. Muslims are one of the few, if not only, groups in the country to be perceived primarily by the actions of their fellow Muslims overseas, thus reinforcing the misperception that Muslims are connected to foreign lands. As a result of such framing, they are also held accountable in the court of American public opinion for what occurs elsewhere in the world, being compelled to explain, disavow and condemn such actions upon demand, despite having no connection apart from belonging to a common faith tradition. Such framing of the American Muslim community also facilitates securitization and surveillance policies targeting the community and gaining public support for such measures.
False Flags and Fallacies Media depictions of American Muslims often distort images and realities of the community, dangerously risking demonization and discrimination against it. Improper reporting has led to a significant pigment of the American public believing that Muslims seek to implement Sharia as a legal system in the country by subverting the US Constitution, despite no such efforts by the community. Similarly, many Americans believe that Muslims have created “no-go” zones in certain parts of the country that have large Muslim populations, and that such locales are allegedly hostile to non-Muslims coming to them. Such representations and the lack of coverage of community condemnation of acts of extremism have damaging consequences for the Muslim community that is then forced to disprove the negative or the untrue.
Terminology Challenges and Cultural Literacy A key challenge in developing an accurate depiction of the American Muslim community is the deployment of terminology used to describe and define it. This involves two critical and related aspects: The actual word choice and whether such terminology is used in a standardized, equitable manner. The word, terrorist, for example, appears only to be used when an act of extremism or violence has a Muslim perpetrator. The term's definition is subjective in its construction, oftentimes developed with a political motivation, and arguably politically used. Ironically, the term is framed to describe the suspect's political motivation, while there is a political motivation to have it apply nearly exclusively to Muslims. This has implications in the ability to adequately combat violent extremism as resources and public attention are limited by the scope of suspicion as set by the media. At the same time, media coverage rarely, if ever, frames offenses with Muslim victims as being motivated by hate, bigotry and/or Islamophobia.
Cultural Literacy and Resource Allocation and Use: Where are the Muslims? Media depictions of American Muslims often conflate and equate cultural practices with religious doctrine and obligation. There is also the tendency to essentialize a particular ideology or practice, fringe though it may be, upon an entire community of 3.3. million in the US and 1.7 billion globally.
This lack of cultural literacy and journalistic precision distorts an already warped lens through which the American Muslim community is perceived.
Media representation of American Muslims also faces the challenge of the use of certain resources and so-called “experts” that lack the requisite knowledge of the subject matter at hand and/or possess distorted, biased perspectives. In addition, in many media discussions and analyses about Muslims, there is a disturbing absence of the Muslim voice, or at least, the credible Muslim voice. American Muslims constitute one of the few communities that lack the appropriate agency and representation when they are the topic of debate and examination.
American Muslims: Canaries in the Coalmine By most statistical indicators, the United States will become a majority-minority country by the year 2043. The latest US Census data and studies by the Pew Center for the Study of Religious Life confirm that the White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant majority population will become the minority population within a generation, replaced by one that is increasingly brown, Hispanic and Catholic. The rising visibility of certain demographic groups, characterized by race, ethnicity or national origin, gender, sexual orientation, labor status or religion, simultaneously affirms the demographic shift underway in the country and evokes backlash among a certain segment of the population eager to slow or even reverse the natural process of greater political and legal enfranchisement these groups are gaining. The rise of “alt-right” hate groups and individuals highlights a reaction to this process through its demonization and targeting of these demographic groups.
While white nationalists and nativists may identify certain “enemies of the state,” American Muslims may be the most convenient target given their numbers and relatively weak social and political status, combined with their representation in the media. Improper and inaccurate media depiction of the American Muslim community has the dangerous consequence of feeding into nativist anger that then targets both Muslims and other groups alike.
Recommendations: The American Muslim community is in many ways the “canary in the coalmine” for other diverse groups. Social and political attitudes, policies and legislation are often a precursor to or concomitant element in such actions taken against groups based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender or religion. An attack against one group of diversity may be an attack on all. In light of these facts, this brief recommends that media specialists:
1. Expand the framing of American Muslims to a representation that goes beyond securitization to reflect the broader diversity and contributions of American Muslims to society.
2. Collaborate with credible and qualified Muslims to formulate an accurate terminology when discussing the American Muslim community and that can be applied in a uniform, standardized manner for similar situations involving non-Muslims.
3. Increase the presence and participation of credible and qualified American Muslim voices when conducting discussions on topics related to the American Muslim community.
4. Increase the presence and participation of credible American Muslim voices and expertise on issues and topics that are extend beyond the so-called “Muslim community.” The inclusion of American Muslim experts in a range of fields enables the acceptance and normalization of American Muslims as full participants and contributors to broader society.