In August 2007 the New York Police Department released a report called “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat,” claiming that the looming danger to the United States was from “unremarkable” Muslim men under 35 who visit “extremist incubators.” The language sounds ominous, conjuring up Clockwork Orange–style laboratories of human reprogramming, twisting average Muslims into instruments of evil. And yet what are these “incubators”? The report states that they are mosques, “cafes, cab driver hangouts, flophouses, prisons, student associations, non-governmental organizations, hookah (water pipe) bars, butcher shops and book stores”—in other words, precisely the places where ordinary life happens.
But the report wasn’t based on any independent social science research, and actual studies clearly refuted the very claims made by the NYPD. The Rand Corporation found that the number of homegrown radicals here is “tiny.” “There are more than 3 million Muslims in the United States, and few more than 100 have joined jihad—about one out of every 30,000—suggesting an American Muslim population that remains hostile to jihadist ideology and its exhortations to violence,” Rand’s 2010 report found. “A mistrust of American Muslims by other Americans seems misplaced,” it concluded. This year, an analysis by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security also described the number of American Muslims involved in domestic terrorism since 2001 as “tiny.” “This study’s findings challenge Americans to be vigilant against the threat of homegrown terrorism while maintaining a responsible sense of proportion,” it said. And a 2011 Gallup survey found that American Muslims were the least likely of any major US religious group to consider attacks on civilians justified.
Every group has its loonies. And yet the idea that American Muslim communities are foul nests of hatred, where dark-skinned men plot Arabic violence while combing one another’s beards, persists. In fact, it’s worse than that. In the past few years, another narrative about American Muslims has come along, which sows a different kind of paranoia. While the old story revolves around security, portraying American Muslims as potential terrorists or terrorist sympathizers, the new narrative operates more along the axis of culture. Simple acts of religious or cultural expression and the straightforward activities of Muslim daily life have become suspicious. Building a mosque in Lower Manhattan or in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, or in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, becomes an act of “stealth jihad.” Muslims filing for divorce invokes the bizarre charge of “creeping Sharia.” A dual-language Arabic-English high school in New York is demonized as a “madrassa.” The State Board of Education in Texas determines that reading about Islam is not education but indoctrination. Changing your Muslim-sounding name to one with a more Anglophone tenor triggers an NYPD investigation, according to the Associated Press. Even the fact that some Butterball turkeys are “halal” was enough to fire up the bigotry last Thanksgiving, the most American of holidays.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll taken in October 2001 found that 39 percent of Americans held unfavorable opinions of Islam. After dipping for a few years, the number rose to 46 percent in 2006 and reached 49 percent—basically half the population—in 2010, the last year the question was asked. (Other recent polls show similar results.) Such anti-Muslim attitudes are not merely absorbed by law enforcement and the military or reflected on the airwaves and in the words of our politicians. Rather, the idea that American Muslims are to be feared or loathed or excluded from the United States is being actively promoted.
This past September, Wired broke the story that the FBI tells its counterterrorism agents in training that mainstream American Muslims are probably terrorist sympathizers, that the Prophet Muhammad was a “cult leader” and that the religiously mandated practice of giving charity in Islam is no more than a “funding mechanism for combat.” The training materials, which stated that FBI agents had the “ability to bend or suspend the law and impinge on freedoms of others,” identify other insidious techniques Muslims use for promoting jihad, including “immigration” and “law suits”—in other words, the ordinary uses of the American political system. The revelations forced the FBI to remove 876 pages from its manuals.
Another egregious example that recently came to light is that the NYPD, as part of its training, screened The Third Jihad, a film that claims “the true agenda of much of Islam in America” is “a strategy to infiltrate and dominate” the country. The film ran on a continuous loop for somewhere between three months and a year of training and was viewed by at least 1,489 officers. Yet another example involved Army Lt. Col. Matthew Dooley, who taught a course at the Pentagon’s Joint Forces Staff College that informed senior officers that the United States would have to fight a “total war” against the world’s Muslims, including abandoning the international laws of war that protect civilians (deemed “no longer relevant”), and possibly applying “the historical precedents of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki” to destroy Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Claiming “Islam is an ideology rather than solely a religion,” the class taught that the United States was “culturally vulnerable” to this threat because of its “‘judeo-christian’ [sic] ethic of reason and tolerance.” The Pentagon canceled the course in the wake of the revelations, and Dooley maintains a nonteaching position, pending an investigation.
The consequences of these efforts to promote anti-Muslim beliefs and sentiments influence how American Muslims practice their faith, engage with their neighbors, cooperate with law enforcement, work at their jobs and study at school. Anti-mosque activity, according to the ACLU, has taken place in more than half the states in the country. And American Muslims, who make up 1–2 percent of the population, account for more than 20 percent of religion-based filings with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Republican politicians, meanwhile, have been falling all over themselves to vilify Muslims, especially during the presidential primary. Herman Cain proclaimed that “a majority of Muslims share the extremist views,” initially vowing not to appoint any Muslims to his cabinet. Rick Santorum endorsed religious profiling, saying that “obviously Muslims would be someone [sic] you’d look at.” Newt Gingrich compared Muslims to Nazis in 2010, when he opposed building an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan. “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington,” he said. And, in 2007, Mitt Romney said, “Based on the numbers of American Muslims [as a percentage] in our population, I cannot see that a cabinet position would be justified. But of course, I would imagine that Muslims could serve at lower levels of my administration.” Whatever happened to the matter of qualifications? But hey, if you’re a Muslim, that’s all you’ll ever be. Romney has hired Walid Phares, part of the active anti-Muslim network, as a foreign policy adviser, and GOP voters continue to consider that President Obama is a Muslim in large numbers (52 percent of Mississippi GOP members thought so in March).
It gets stranger still. When media portrayals of everyday American Muslim life are produced, the very ordinariness is attacked as a lie. TLC’s show All-American Muslim premiered in November to favorable reviews. The show, which focused on five Lebanese-American Shiite Muslim families in the Dearborn, Michigan, area, was a bit of a yawner for racy reality TV, but it was a useful kind of ethnography for Americans unfamiliar with the stuff of daily American Muslim life. Immediately, the organized anti-Muslim network kicked into gear. The Florida Family Association, basically a one-man show run by David Caton, led a boycott of the show via e-mail that was quickly picked up by the extreme right-wing anti-Islamic blogosphere, and led to Lowe’s and Kayak.com pulling their ads. Caton’s e-mail read, “The show profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish.”
Follow the logic. The only thing accepted as “normal” for a Muslim is to act like an extremist. Ordinary Muslim folk appearing to live ordinary Muslim lives? That’s just plain suspicious.
Does this mean that the United States is an Islamophobic country? Of course not. Large support for American Muslims exists in many quarters [see Laila Al-Arian’s essay in this issue, page 31]. Polls may suggest that about half the population is anti-Muslim, but that leaves half that isn’t. In many quarters of the country, there is genuine, not suspicious, interest in American Muslims and the realities they face, as evidenced by the fact that TLC produced All-American Muslim. Aasif Mandvi’s contributions to The Daily Show routinely deflate the power of this contemporary prejudice, and libraries, museums, classrooms and houses of worship across the country now regularly include Muslims and Islam in their programming in an attempt to further understanding and combat bigotry.
American Muslims have responded to events over the past decade and the expansion of an anti-Muslim network largely by being more, not less, visible. The number of mosques grew 74 percent over the past decade, despite the opposition Muslims sometimes confront in their construction. Even if a 2011 poll found that 48 percent of American Muslims reported experiencing discrimination in the previous twelve months, they also showed more optimism than other Americans in the poll that their lives would be better in five years (perhaps, in part, because of today’s discrimination). The guiding belief in the American Muslim community today is that the country will recognize that Muslims have always been and will continue to be a part of America.