With anti-mosque rallies of late and the on-and-off again Quran burning on 9/11, the airwaves are thick with prejudice against Muslims, but rarely are American Muslims offered an opportunity to speak for themselves. Strangers jeer at their notion of a Muslim, but few have actually met one. It time that we view American Muslims as fully American and fully Muslim, and to give them a voice.
When I grew up in Iowa, ours was the only Muslim family in Marion County (to the best of our knowledge). While astonishing to some, I never felt victimized because of my faith. We practiced our faith fully and freely. Our closest mosque was a converted house near Des Moines. My friends invited me to their places of worship and many of my Sunday mornings were spent at the Pentacostal church.
When I was in high school, the first Gulf War erupted. Islam was prominent in the news. Concerned friends and neighbors reached out to make sure that we were not subject to any anti-Muslim backlash. The local newspaper ran a piece on the Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan, and featured our family. Politics is local goes the adage. In the 90s, I learned that friendship is local. We had had our proverbial three cups of tea and our village had accepted us as family.
A recent TIME magazine poll showed that less than one-third of Americans have ever met a Muslim. There are about as many American Muslims as there are Iowans: about 1% of the US population. With Muslims as a faceless entity, talk radio and TV news demagogues and divisive politicians have fanned the flames of intolerance.
This has happened in our past with religious prejudice against Catholics and Jews, writes Eboo Patel in USA Today. Americans were told that the pope and canon law, not the president and the Constitution would hold sway with the “alien Romanists”. Leading up to WWII, hate organizations spun conspiracy theories about Jewish domination of our nation. Now, lieutenant governor Ron Ramsey of Tennessee suggests that Islam – with its 1,400 year history and 1.5 billion adherents – could be a cult, not a religion. Therefore, constitutional religious guarantees may not apply. There is a national spike in hate crimes against Muslims while mosque expansion opposition is raging across the nation.
As a sort of perverse rite of passage, Muslims are going through what their Catholic and Jewish cousins have had to: allegations that their faith was antithetical to the US constitution and that they need to be thwarted from their veiled invasion of American society. It does not need to be this way. There is no contradiction in being Muslim and American. Indeed, Muslim Americans are protecting the US from terrorism in some of the most courageous ways. And the shariah discussion, as explained by Sumbul Ali-Karamali, has been taken out of context and been blown out of proportion.
Trust takes time and requires personal contact. Muslim Americans, like myself, need to do a better job of explaining our faith and our ‘Americanness’. We need to raise our profile. The rest of America needs to remember its lofty founding principles, core to which is the freedom of religion. Equally important is giving Muslims a chance to talk. Invite Muslims to your churches and temples to listen and to speak. Ask us what their faith means to us. Believe me, we have something to say.
Khizer Husain is a global health consultant whose work helps faith-based organizations improve healthcare in the Middle East and South Asia.