Directly after the March 22, 2016 terrorist bombings at the Brussels International Airport and in downtown Brussels, an American friend sent me an urgent email. “Now,” he wrote, “I hope you understand why we must restrict and diminish the Muslim presence in the United States…..Those people are evil.”
I am a committed Christian and an historical theologian. I have worked for decades, promoting inter-religious dialogue and understanding, especially with men and women belonging to one of the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Nevertheless, Islamophobia is hard to combat. It is often true that if one calls for a factual and well-researched understanding of Islam in our contemporary world, that person is often labeled “unChristian” or “unpatriotic,” or simply “dangerous.”
“Islamophobia” warns Georgetown University researcher Nathan Lean. “is sort of like the ocean. It is working, it is churning, it is ebbing, it is flowing, even when we are asleep. There are larger systems of power and structures of power in place.” I recommend his most recent book: The Islamophobia Industry.
According to a 2016 estimate, there are about 3.3 million Muslims living in the United States, and most see no contradiction between being American and being Muslim. About 1% of Americans, therefore, are Muslim, compared to 70.6% who are Christian, 22.8% unaffiliated, 1.9% Jewish, 0.7% Buddhist, and 0.7% Hindu.
Interestingly, in this election year, 63% of Muslim Americans identify as Democrats or say they lean Democratic. About one-in-ten (11%) identify as Republican or lean Republican, and 26% say they are unaffiliated.
Given the recent “Islamic terrorism,” it is not surprising that Muslims have become the target of attacks by people who feel anxious and insecure in a world of tremendous cultural change. It reminds me of nineteenth century anti-Catholic discrimination in the United States, when Catholics were perceived as foreign infiltrators and the pope was seen as an evil emperor out to destroy “Christian” America.
After seeing and reading a lot of anti-Muslim political rhetoric, I started thinking: just what are the truths and the falsehoods behind entrenched beliefs that Muslims simply do not belong in the United States; and that they threaten U.S. security?
1. The first falsehood is that American Muslims are not truly Americans.
In fact, Islam was in America even before there was a United States; and Muslims didn’t peaceably emigrate to America. Slave-traders brought them to the New World.
Historians now estimate that up to 30% of enslaved blacks were Muslims. The West African prince Abdul Rahman, liberated by President John Quincy Adams in 1828 after 40 years in captivity, was only one of many African Muslims kidnapped and sold into servitude in the New World. Muslim runaway slaves were among the pro-USA soldiers in the Revolutionary War. Muslims later fought to preserve U.S. independence in the War of 1812; and they fought for the Union in the Civil War. There are currently two Muslim members of Congress and thousands of Muslims on active duty in our USA armed forces.
2. The second misunderstanding is that American Muslims are ethnically, culturally, and politically one solid block, who all think and act the same way.
Actually, the American Muslim community may very well he the most diverse Muslim community in the world. U.S. Muslims believe and witness to their faith in different ways. A great many American Muslims, for example, have absolutely no problem with an historical-critical understanding of their sacred scriptures. Contrary to a popular misconception, the majority of Muslims in the United States are not Arabs. At least one-quarter, for example, are African American.
Muslim Americans are also diverse in their beliefs and religious affiliation. They range from highly conservative, to moderate, and to secular in their religious beliefs and practices — just like members of other American religious traditions.
With above-average median household incomes, American Muslims are also an integral and important part of the U.S. economy.
3. One still hears the false claim that American Muslims oppress women.
According a Gallup study, American Muslim women are more educated than Muslim women in Western Europe, and also more educated than the average American woman. More U.S. Muslim women report incomes closer to their male counterparts than do American women, belonging to other religious traditions. American Muslim women hold key leadership positions in religious and civic organizations, such as the Arab-American Family Support Center, the Islamic Networks Group, and the American Society for Muslim Advancement.
4. A fourth major falsehood is that American Muslims often become “homegrown” terrorists.
Many American Christians condemn Islam as an evil religion. Why are those Christians so silent when confronted with terrorism in the name of their own religion? Why can’t they acknowledge that parts of their religion are used for evil, just like any other religion? In fact, most of the terrorist activity in the U.S. in recent years has come not from Muslims, but from radical Christians, white supremacists, and far-right militia groups.
According to the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, more non-Muslims than Muslims have been involved in terrorist plots on U.S. soil.
In 2011, for example, analyst Daryl Johnson of the United States Department of Homeland Security said that the Hutaree Christian militia movement possessed more weapons than the combined weapons holdings of all Islamic terror defendants charged in the US since the September 11 attacks. In 2015, Robert Doggart, a member of a private militia group, informed an FBI source (and was later indicted) that he intended to gather weapons for an attack on a Muslim enclave in Delaware County, New York. In November 2015, Robert Lewis Dear, a member of the Army of God, killed three and injured nine at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. Dear had often expressed his support for radical Christian views and interpretations of the Bible, saying he was doing “God’s work.”
Feisal Abdul Rauf, a Kuwaiti American Sufi imam, who worked with FBI agents on countering extremism right after September 11, 2001, has expressed strong fears that identifying Muslims with terrorism threatens American Muslims’ civil liberties and promotes the perception that Islam is a terrorist religion.
5. American Muslims do not want to impose Sharia law on the United States.
In the contemporary United States there is a strongly-promoted “Sharia Scare.” It is part of a larger Islamophobic campaign sponsored by an organized network of conservative foundations, religious leaders, media outlets, and politicians.
Sharia is the Muslim ideal of justice and compassion, similar to the concept of natural law in the Western tradition. Sharia is characterized by flexibility depending on the context and the people interpreting it. Yes radicals exist on the fringes of Islam, as they do in every religion. Most Muslim jurists, however, agree that the principal objectives of Sharia are the protection and promotion of life, religion, intellect, property, family, and dignity. None of this includes turning the United States into a caliphate.
For centuries, Muslim scholars around the world have agreed that Muslims must follow the laws of the land in which they live. American Muslims have no scriptural, historical or political grounds to oppose the U.S. Constitution. Muslims already practice Sharia in the United States, as they worship freely and follow U.S. laws. Muslims in the United States follow Sharia in the same way that Americans of other religions (Jews, Catholics, Mormons, etc.) follow their sacred laws and traditions. The First Amendment allows complete freedom of belief and freedom of religious practice, so long as believers respect other people’s rights.
Today some people falsely equate Sharia with criminal or hudud laws, which are centuries-old specific punishments for major crimes such as killing, adultery, or theft, which are generally not applicable in a modern context. (One can find similar archaic laws in the Old Testament.) Unfortunately, contemporary Muslim fanatics in the Taliban and ISIS generally contradict both the letter and spirit of Sharia and have given it a bad name. In their ignorance, some American politicians and religious leaders continue as well to give it a bad name.
6. Historically, people wishing to exercise authoritarian control over other people have misused their religions.
One cannot defend the religious fanatic misuse of Muslim belief or Muslim scriptures to justify killing or torturing other human beings. Christians of course have to humbly acknowledge what fanatic Christians have done over the centuries in the name of Christ.
A couple weeks ago I was in the South of France, doing some research on French Protestantism and my paternal grandmother’s family. In 1562 “Riots of Toulouse” Roman Catholics battled members of the Reformed Church of France (the Huguenots). The violence, taking place in about a week, ended with the deaths of at least 3,000 (some researchers say 5,000) citizens of the French city of Toulouse. About three hundred years earlier, in 1209 in the nearby town of Béziers, 7,000 Cathar heretics were killed on orders from the pope in Rome. The Papal Legate, Arnaud-Amaury, wrote to Pope Innocent III: “Today your Holiness, twenty thousand heretics were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age, or sex.”
7. Yes we need to combat terrorism and fanatic religion.
It is a complex issue; and it will take time to effectively deal with issues of economics, politics, group identity, cultural change, religious and ethical values, and feelings of lost self-worth or inferiority. Here religiously healthy Muslims need to work to combat Muslim fanaticism. And all of us, coming from a variety of religions and humanist perspectives, need to think, probe, research, and work together.