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 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.
While white nationalists may identify certain “enemies of the state,” American Muslims may be the most convenient target given their numbers and weak political status. The gravamen of most white nationalists may not be the Muslim community; rather, it may be some of the very groups who comprise part of the emerging and eventual majority- women, Hispanics and the LGBTQ communities. While battling these groups may be politically and financially impractical, Muslims may become the secondary targets to compensate for frustrations that would have been pointed at the other suspect groups. At the same time, many members of groups of diversity have knowledge about the Muslim community that is either incomplete or distorted by the misinformation that is commonplace when discussing and depicting Muslims in the media or in policy making circles.
Muslims as a Security Issue Despite its considerable obvious diversity, the American Muslim community is often reduced to a monolith and a caricature. It is perceived to be 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 public perception of Muslims is overwhelmingly negative, the result of media framing and coverage as well as policies that cast the Muslim community as primarily or solely as a security issue. 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 a foreign entity. 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 Perceptions of American Muslims are often the product of distorted 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 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. A similar selective use of terminology exists regarding “hate crimes,” where acts of violence perpetrated against Muslims are seldom designated as hate crimes. There is also the danger of misperception of impact on the American Muslim community if laws prosecuting hate crimes are seen as unevenly or unequally applied when Muslims are the victims of such offenses. 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 policy makers.
Cultural Literacy and Resource Allocation and Use: Where are the Muslims? Policy development and implementation that affects 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.
Policy development concerning 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 policy circles 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.
Recommendations: The American Muslim community is a diverse, multifaceted, complex group of 3.3 million people, representing a wide array of doctrinal, ideological, ethnic, cultural and political perspectives. At the same time, the Muslim community is often reduced to a monolithic entity, usually perceived as a foreign, hostile and dangerous threat to American society and is viewed almost exclusively through a securitization lens. Effective policy making and implementation requires both deep knowledge of the subject and/or community in question as well as sustained, constructive engagement with that community. In light of these facts, this brief recommends that the policy makers:
1. Develop a strong knowledge base of Muslim culture and the Muslim community in America. Credible resources exist that can increase cultural literacy and that offer concrete empirical data about American Muslims. This may also be done be achieved by developing ties with the Muslim diaspora as well as the African American Muslim communities.
2. Collaborate with credible and qualified Muslims to formulate an accurate terminology when discussing the American Muslim community.
3. Increase the presence and participation of credible, qualified and recognized American Muslim voices when conducting discussions on topics related to the American Muslim community.
4. Facilitate capacity building for the American Muslim community to develop programs that empower community growth.
5. Facilitate American Muslim civic and political engagement by creating new opportunities for participation in policy development.
6. Develop strategies to expand the narrative of American Muslims beyond the securitization lens to accurately reflect the community’s diversity and contributions to society.
7. Create a common terminology and methodology by which both Muslim and non-Muslim communities and their actions are examined and analyzed, and which can serve as a common template for policy development.