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Muslims have been stereotyped and mischaracterized in the United States.

When most
Americans think about Muslims, they probably think of Arabs. After the terrorist attacks of
September 11, there have also been associations with the words Muslim and Islam with
terrorism. So-called “jihadists” kill in the name of Allah and do not represent the entire Muslim
population in the United States. Although Islam has existed in the United States since the 1600s,
most Americans were not familiar with the religion until the September 11 attacks.
Some people have claimed that Muslims came to America before Columbus did, and
there are many people (linguists, historians and archaeologists) that believe that Musilms came to
the Americas in the seventh century [2]. Between 7 and 30 percent of Africans brought to
America as slaves were Muslim.
Islam is the second largest religion in the world, with an estimated 1.3 billion believers.
In America, 34% of Muslims are South Asian, including Pakistanian, Indian, Bangladeshian and
Afghan ethnicities. Only 26% of America Muslims are Arab-American, 20% are native-born
African-Americans (most of whom are converts) and 20% come from Africa, Iran, Turkey and
other countries. According to one source2, the total percentage of African-American Muslims is
40%. There are two main subgroups in Islam, the Sunni and Shiite. 85% of Muslims are Sunni
and the other 15% are Shiite1. A small percentage of Muslims consider themselves Sufis,
followers of Sufism, which is a spiritual and mystic denomination of Islam. Some Muslims do
not consider Sufis to be Muslims, although many Sufis consider themselves to be Muslim. Islam
is also the fastest-growing religion in the world, but there are no specific numbers to back up the
statement. Several private surveys have been conducted by various organizations, but the
numbers do not agree. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, only 10% of Muslims
were Shiites, as of 2002. A Muslim group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, say there
are at least six million Muslims in the United States, while other surveys estimate that there are
only half that number or even less.
American Muslims are more educated than other Americans (59% have college degrees,
while only 27% of others have college degrees) and earn more money than other Americans.
According to a 2004 survey by the University of Kentucky, the median family income for a
Muslim family is $60,000, $10,000 higher than the national median1. The majority of Muslims
live in big cities and their suburbs, just like other Americans.
However, unlike other Americans, Muslims, especially those of Arab descent, in the United
States have faced specific issues and challenges ever since the September 11 terrorist attacks.
While the Muslims of African descent have faced problems and challenges throughout their
existence in American history from other Muslims and non-Muslims, the Arab Muslims have
faced bigger problems from the American government.
According to Michelle Cottle, the senior editor for the New Republic, African American
Muslims are treated like second-class citizens. African-Americans have faced discrimination
ever since Africans were brought as slaves to the Americas. However, the religion did not gain
recognition until 50 years ago, with the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam was based on the
traditional religion, but its purpose was to overcome the white power than serving Allah, which
is the purpose of Muslims in traditional Islam.
When most Americans think about Islam, they associate the religion with Arabs despite
the distribution of different races that practice the religion. The September 11 terrorist attacks
may have something to do with this issue; Islam gained much recognition after the terrorist
attacks. Perhaps this is why Americans turn to immigrant Muslims for information about the
religion. This was seen after 9/11, when the community who went ot the White House to
represent Islam was the immigrant Arab community. Even when Oprah, the African-American
talkshow host brought Muslims on her show to discuss Islam, not a single Muslim on stage was
African-American. One African-American Muslim, Muhammad Abdul Rahman, revealed that
immigrant Muslims would enter mosques (places of worship for Muslims) and act as if they
should be the leaders and try to teach, as if the African-American Muslims were not equal to
them in their knowledge and history just because the Arabs could speak Arabic.
The Center for Immigration Studies also agrees that there are intra-Muslim tensions.
There are many differences among Muslims are different races and nationalities, most of which
are due to custom. Turks decorate gravestones with laminated pictures of the deceased while
Saudis do not even do so because they see both the gravestones and laminated photographs as
idolatry, which is forbidden in Islam. Also, the center also states that Arabs “sometimes display
an impatience bordering on arrogance toward the Islamic practices of non-Arabs.” A Muslim
interviewed by the center said that Muslim parents would not object to their son marrying a
white American girl, but they would object to their son marrying a Muslim of a different sect
(Shiite or Sunni) or a different tribe or race (such as Punjabi vs. Sindi or Arab vs. non-Arab or
Pakistani vs. non-Pakistani). Usually these objections to marrying outside of their race is due to
political struggles among countries. Iraqis and Iranians still remember their war from the 1980’s
and the Kuwaitis still have not forgiven Iraq for invading their country in 1990. All of these
differences seen in the Middle East and Asia can be seen in the United States, since most of the
Muslim immigrants come from these countries that have conflicts with each other despite their
common religion.
Another issue that Muslims in America face is the control of the mosques. According to
moderate Muslim leader Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, extremists have taken over 80% of the
mosques in the United States and the major Islamic organizations in the United states pursue an
Islamist agenda instead of trying to adapt to the American lifestyle. So, the main institutions are
not representative of most moderate Muslims in the United States. Three main institutions of
such nature are the ones who claim to represent Muslim political interests—the American
Muslim Council, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim Public Affairs
Committee. These organizations have four goals: win privileges for Islam (including the creation
of a White House Muslim advisory board), intimidate opponents of militant Islam, raise funds
for the militant Islamic groups aboard and sanitize militant Islam by promoting jihad as warfare,
instead of the peaceful moral struggle and self-improvement that most Muslims believe jihad to
mean. The media does not help other non-extremist Muslims deal with the last goal of the
Islamic organizations, since the media has publicized “jihadists” and defined the word jihad as
“holy war.” Most non-Muslims ignorant of the religion and its practices are lead to believe that
jihad means violence and attacks on non-Muslims, while Islam is a religion that promotes peace,
improvement of self and a life dedicated to serving Allah.
Latino Muslims are a minority in the Muslim community that can relate to the African-
American Muslim community. Since Latinos are a minority in the United States, they can relate
to African-Americans in their economic and social struggles. One challenge that they face alone
is their acceptance by the Latino population. Of the 40 million Latinos that live in the United
States, there are only an estimated 25000 to 60000 Latinos who are Muslim. Just as people
associate Islam with Arabs, people associate Latinos with a religion: Catholicism. While clearly
not all Latinos are Catholic, a vast majority are affiliated with the religion, so it is difficult for the
Latino Muslims to be accepted by the Latino Catholics. Although there are organizations such as
the Alianza Islamica, which offers programs to promote HIV awareness, GED programs and
organizes clothing and food drives, there are very few Latinos who are aware of their existence.
After the terrorist attacks, the FBI reported a 1600% increase in hate crimes against
Muslims and an almost 500% increase in hate crimes against Arabs and people who looked like
Arabs because the terrorists were from Saudi Arabia. Airplane pilots reportedly refused to fly
until Arab-resembling passengers left airplanes because they felt unsafe about flying. Airports
increased their security, and people resembling Arabs were searched more often. One could
argue that people who looked like they were of Arab descent were unfairly being targeted due to
their skin tone and physical appearance. Or, one could argue that since the terrorists were from
Saudi Arabia, the increased searches of Arabs and people who resembled Arabs were justified.
No hate crime can be justified, though, especially not the violent ones. Hate crimes have
included incidents through telephone, internet, mail, in-person encounters, vandalism, shootings
and bombings. Although law enforcement have prosecuted hate crimes, Arabs and Muslims still
face a lot of discrimination. To ease the communication between the Arab community and the
FBI, the Washington Field Office of the FBI and the Arab American Institute created the Arab
American Advisory Committee, which is being copied across the United States.
Despite the creation of Arab American advisory committees across the country, there are
still questionable actions that the government has taken against the Arab-Americans in the
country. In 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Justice Department targeted Arabs and
Muslims by detaining at least 1200 immigrants (who were mostly Arab or Muslim) and citing
relations to 9/11 as the reasons for the detentions. The Department of Justice refused to release
information about the detainees, which concerned many people. The next year, the Inspector
General of the Justice department released a report, in which it was revealed that 762 of the
detainees were considered to be ‘September 11 detainees,” but none of them were charged with
any offenses related to terrorism. Plus, the Justice Department did not even distinguish
adequately between terrorism suspects and immigration detainees. The Inspector General also
concluded that the detentions of the immigrants were “extremely attenuated” from the
investigation. Moreover, the detainees faced harsh conditions while in detention. The detainees
were kept in cells that were illuminated every hour of the day and they faced physical and verbal
abuse from correctional officers.
The Justice Department interviewed thousands of Arabs and Muslims through their
“Interview Project.” According to the Arab American Institute, the interviews caused fear and
suspicion in the Arab community and hurt the bridge between the Arab community and law
enforcement [2]. James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, spoke to FBI
officials who questioned the interview project’s usefulness, since the project needed a large
investment of manpower, did not produce much useful information and also damaged
community bridges.
In addition, the General Accounting Office reviewed the Interview Project and revealed
that half the law enforcement officers that they had interviewed were concerned about the quality
of questions that were posed and the value of the responses received. The General Accounting
Office also revealed that the attorneys and advocates that talked to them said that aliens who
were interviewed felt that they were singled out “and investigated because of their ethnicity or
religious beliefs.”
The Arab American Institute and Zogby International conducted polls and concluded that
the Justice Department’s efforts are “taking a toll in the Arab American community.” Although
the Arab American community felt reassured by the presidential support from George Bush right
after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the reassurance quickly dropped. An overwhelming 90%
of Arab Americans felt reassured in October 2001 and only 6% said they did not feel reassured.
However, just six months later, in May 2002, only 54% felt reassured and 35% did not. The
following year, in July 2003, the percentage of people who felt reassured dropped again, this
time to 49% and the percentage that did not feel reassured increased to 38%. Not surprisingly,
30% of Arab Americans reported some sort of discrimination against their race or religion and
60% are concerned about the long-term impact of discrimination against Arab Americans.

Center for Immigration Studies


Pipes, D., Duran, K.; “Muslim Immigrants in the United States,” Center for Immigration Studies,
August 2002.