Muslims in America: They Face Rising Public Suspicion but New Opportunities

By Patterson, Margot | National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2006 | Go to article overview

Muslims in America: They Face Rising Public Suspicion but New Opportunities


Patterson, Margot, National Catholic Reporter


Being an American Muslim means facing mountains of bad publicity. It also means discovering growing numbers of companions for the journey.

The American Muslim population continues to grow, even as polls show that Muslims in the United States today are facing a rising tide of negative public opinion. A Washingon Post-ABC News poll, taken during the controversy over the Dubai ports deal, found that 46 percent of respondents reported negative views of Islam, seven points higher than polls taken in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A recent survey by the Council on American-Islamic Relations found that about a quarter of all Americans think "the Muslim religion teaches violence and hatred." A CBS poll taken in April reports that fewer than one in five Americans have a favorable impression of Islam.

But if American Muslims live under a cloud of suspicion today, many say the new attention to Islam has also triggered a surge of American converts to Islam and greater knowledge of Islam among the population at large.

"There's a lot of anti-propaganda. Before Sept. 11, it was difficult to find any book on Islam in any mainstream bookstore. But now if you go to Borders or Barnes & Noble, you will find several books," said Dr. Zahid H. Bukhari, a fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

R. Kevin Jaques, an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Indiana, notes that more Latinos and Native Americans are now embracing Islam.

What's leading Americans to Islam?

Jaques said that as the United States is changing, churches are failing in their traditional role. Converts are looking for something the church isn't giving them, he remarked.

"Especially for second- and third-generation Latinos, they're looking for a religious tradition that gives them a bigger sense of community. One of the things you hear in mosques is community, community, community. That's a major attraction for a lot of people."

Dr. Jane I. Smith, codirector of Hartford Seminary's Duncan Black Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, says there is much in Islam that is similar to Latino culture, including a strong affirmation of the family, a sense of piety and a denial of the Western emphasis on individuality. Moreover, Smith said, Latinos who come to the United States encounter a church with European roots that is not always easy to integrate into or hospitable.

"For a number of Latinos who are Roman Catholic in background, the Catholic church has become problematic in a number of ways. They are looking to Islam for direct theology, no encumbering Trinitarianism, and for providing a welcoming community," said Smith.

A growing population

Statistical data is scant. Because of that, few actually know whether the talk among ethnographers and religion scholars of an upsurge in American conversions since 9/11 is just that or something more. But no one doubts that the Muslim population in the United States is growing,

Bukhari, a director of Georgetown University's MAPS (Muslims in the Public Square) project, said continuing immigration, often due to family reunification, and a higher birth rate among Muslims account for most of the increase in the Muslim population in the United States.

Dr. Ihsan Bagby, associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky, notes that in the late 1990s, 100,000 Muslims were immigrating to the United States annually. The population of Muslims in America has almost doubled roughly every decade since the 1950s, Bagby said, with the liberalized immigration act of 1965 opening the door to massive Muslim immigration.

Bagby is one of the few researchers who has hard data on the Muslim population in the United States. In 2000 Bagby conducted the first national survey of mosques in the United States, polling a third of the roughly 1,200 mosques. …

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