Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Future of Faith in America: Islam. Read other perspectives here.
Today, over 70 percent of Americans say that they do not know a Muslim. At the same time, we know that knowing a Muslim is the single greatest predictor of a person's feelings toward Muslims and Islam. Our ability as American Muslims to flip that number so that the majority of American knows a Muslim (and hopefully counts them as a friend) could be the defining factor in our lives in 2020.
The odds certainly feel stacked against such a movement for progress, especially when we see violence committed in the name of our faith and it seems to erase hard-won progress in one fell swoop. Five years ago, it was Al-Qaeda and its offshoots. Today, it's ISIS and its growing network of affiliates plus acts of violent extremism in our own country. The best tool we have available to win the battle for Islam — theologically and in the public eye — is by sharing our stories and lives with people of all backgrounds, not just on social media but in real life.
In 2020, the first presidential election will take place where all Millennials (born from 1980-2000) will have reached voting age, making up just under 40 percent of all eligible voters not to mention half the American workforce. Today's young people will be a defining segment of the American landscape in just five years, and their values and worldview are markedly progressive across issues. This is also true for young American Muslims, who make up 40 percent of our community.
"Millennials support gay marriage, take race and gender equality as givens, are tolerant of religious and family diversity, have an open and positive attitude toward immigration, and generally display little interest in fighting over the divisive social issues of the past," according to research conducted by the Center for American Progress. "Almost two-thirds agree that religious faith should focus more on promoting tolerance, social justice, and peace in society, and less on opposing abortion or gay rights."
It should come as no surprise then that young American Muslims will make up the majority of our communities and they will increasingly share these attitudes and values. In fact, it's already happening. The last five years have seen the development of a generation of American Muslims who are confident in their identity and committed to defining their faith through their actions and contributions. Thanks to the tireless work of emerging leaders all around the country, a vibrant network of activists, artists, academics, and innovators are changing the public image of our faith one day at a time.
My mentor, Dr. Maher Hathout, used to say that our goal as American Muslims should be to become like a light bulb in a room. It doesn't take up very much room, you don't really notice it when it's working, but when it's gone you miss its contributions. There are hundreds of light bulbs — in the form of journalists, filmmakers, budding politicos, activists, and beyond — whose work today is lighting the path to broad acceptance of American Muslims. Looking to their efforts provides five hopeful clues about the state of Muslims and Islam in America in 2020.
1) Telling our stories. As they have done with other cultures and faiths, pop culture and social media will likely play the biggest role in normalizing Islam as an American faith. Today, we've got Aasif Mandvi, Aziz Ansari, and Dean Obeidullah on our TV screens. In five years, we could very well see a Muslim in a starring role (of a protagonist) in a blockbuster film or a hit TV show, creating the next Facebook, or running a major new media platform that bypasses the gatekeepers of traditional media. The result of more portrayals will hopefully be more diversity and realism in portrayals of Islam and Muslims.
2) An American Muslim renaissance rooted in human rights and critical thinking. Over the next five years, mainstream Muslims' displays of authentic Islam — both on social media and in real life — will reflect the core Islamic values of mercy, justice, and diversity. This is where the ideological battlefield for the soul of Islam will rest on our shoulders. More and more, American-born-and-trained imams and scholars are serving American mosques and universities. More and more Muslims are speaking out plainly in support of religious freedom, gay rights, and rooting out racial inequities and gender bias — all rooted in their diverse understandings of their faith. Sparked online, such critical debates will force imams and scholars to deal with real issues or become irrelevant, contributing to more Muslim Millennials becoming part of the growing segment who do not affiliate with any religious tradition.