Eight years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the latest survey from the Pew Research Center for People and the Press shows an unmistakable trend of Americans slowly but surely beginning to appreciate the challenges and aspirations of its fellow Muslim citizenry. Perhaps this trend is a result of nearly half of Americans saying that they personally know someone who is a Muslim. The fact that so many Americans profess knowing a Muslim is surprising given the fact that American Muslims makeup fewer than 2 percent of the overall U.S. population. The latest Pew poll shows the percentage of Americans who view Islam to be a violent religion is at its lowest level in recent years although not lower than the 25 percent mark recorded in the first Pew poll on this subject shortly after the terrorist attacks on 9-11. The biggest change in attitude came among surprisingly conservative Republicans, a 13 point decrease in the view that Islam is violent.
Coinciding with this positive trend are the findings that show more Americans, nearly 6 in 10, saying that Muslims are subject, “to a lot of discrimination.” While the empathy factor for Muslims have increased, knowledge about Islam and Muslims remain pitifully low. Two-thirds of people who are not Muslims find Islam to be “very different or somewhat different” from their faiths. The Pew report states that, “slim majorities of the public are able to correctly answer questions about the name Muslims use to refer to God (53%) and the name of Islam’s sacred text (52%).” Only four-in-ten correctly answered both “Allah” and “the Quran.” Those who know a Muslim are least likely to see Islam as encouraging of violence and most likely to express favorable views of Muslims.
The change in attitude towards Islam and Muslims are undoubtedly the result of more American Muslims than ever before taking the time to and making the effort to reach out to their neighbors and colleagues trying to explain away the misunderstandings about their faith. In recent days and months, major American leaders have also taken extraordinary steps in reminding fellow Americans about the valuable contributions being made by American Muslims. “I saw….a photo essay …of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave….you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards — Purple Heart, Bronze Star — showed that he died in Iraq….. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone …. it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. ….. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life,” observed General Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Secretary of State in while being interviewed on Meet the Press.
More recently President Barack Obama speaking at a Ramadan iftar noted, “And like the broader American citizenry, the American Muslim community is one of extraordinary dynamism and diversity — with families that stretch back generations and more recent immigrants; with Muslims of countless races and ethnicities, and with roots in every corner of the world. Indeed, the contribution of Muslims to the United States are too long to catalog because Muslims are so interwoven into the fabric of our communities and our country. American Muslims are successful in business and entertainment; in the arts and athletics; in science and in medicine. Above all, they are successful parents, good neighbors, and active citizens.” Perhaps the President stated the obvious but if more American opinion leaders find the courage to do just that then the trend towards a more positive view Islam and Muslims will undoubtedly accelerate. And America will be better for that.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently noted that U.S. military is bungling its outreach to the Muslim world and squandering good will by failing to live up to its promises. Adm. Mullen’s views are backed by data that shows opinions about America and America’s intentions remain alarmingly poor in much of the Muslim world. To change the hearts and mind, American rhetoric will have to be backed by American action. Adm. Mullen went on to say, “Our messages lack credibility because we haven’t invested enough in building trust and relationships, and we haven’t always delivered on promises.” One reason we have failed to build trust relationships with the Muslim world, is because so few Americans understand Islam and Muslims.
American Muslims will have to increase their efforts to reach out to their neighbors and colleagues. Americans of other faiths will have to reciprocate. Undoubtedly understanding is a two-way street. Muslims must also increase their efforts to understand the faiths of other people. Given today’s global political tensions, economic unease, and ecological concerns, the need for identifying our common ground and working together for the common good is urgent.
(Photo: Liz Cantu)
Parvez Ahmed, Ph.D. is currently a U.S. Fulbright Scholar visiting Bangladesh. He is associate professor of finance at the University of North Florida. He is also a frequent commentator on Islam and the American Muslim experience. To read his articles visit, http://drparvezahmed.blogspot.com.