First Amendment topicsAbout the First Amendment
American Muslims face double threat
Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar

Muslims in America are now battling for religious freedom and personal safety on two fronts: prejudice from without and extremism from within.

How well they — and we — address both challenges will shape the contours of freedom and security for all Americans in the difficult years ahead.

On the first front, the Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a report last week indicating a 25% increase in complaints of anti-Muslim bias from 2005 to 2006. The incidents range from attacks on mosques to discrimination in the workplace and schools.

To put a human face on the statistics, consider the story of Osama Al-Naijar as reported by Reuters earlier this month. According to a legal complaint filed by his family, Osama suffered years of harassment from teachers and students at his New York City school — apparently triggered by his name and religion.

Things got so bad that last summer the 15-year-old Osama attempted suicide. In December he legally changed his name to “Sammy” hoping to avert more abuse.

Although the extremity of Osama’s plight may be rare among Muslim students in America, it illustrates the dangers of rising Islamophobia — defined as a blanket condemnation of Islam that paints all Muslims as potential terrorists.

Since 9/11, a small, but vociferous number of Americans — including some irresponsible religious leaders — have used the “war on terrorism” as an opportunity to demonize Islam.

In truth, however, the vast majority of American Muslims reject the appropriation of Islam by extremists and oppose terrorism with the same vehemence as other Americans. According to a poll released by the Pew Research Center on May 23, when Muslims in the U.S. were asked whether suicide bombing and other forms of terrorism that target civilians can ever be justified “to defend Islam from its enemies,” 78% answered “never.”

The same poll, however, signaled danger on a second front, the potential for extremism to emerge from within the American Muslim community: One percent of respondents said terrorist tactics “often” can be justified, and 7% said “sometimes.”

Although these percentages are probably no higher than the number of people who support extremist attacks on abortion doctors or endorse such racist groups as the “Christian Identity” movement, any level of support for terrorism is cause for alarm.

Whenever radicals use Islam to justify violence, all Muslim Americans are affected by the fallout. To cite the most recent example, last month’s arrest of six New Jersey men for allegedly plotting to attack soldiers at Fort Dix led to at least one attack on a Muslim woman, a bomb threat against the mosque where the men had prayed, and other incidents that spread fear in the local Muslim population.

This is a vicious cycle: Terrorist plots in the name of Islam fuel Islamophobia which, in turn, alienates young Muslims making them more susceptible to radical ideologies.

Breaking the cycle requires confronting the problem head-on. On May 8, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff took a positive step in that direction by meeting with four prominent American Muslim leaders to explore ways to prevent homegrown radicalism. The meeting was part of a larger initiative by Chertoff to work with a variety of ethnic and religious communities to counter extremist ideologies of all stripes.

As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Muslim leaders urged a number of strategies, including more social programs for Muslim young people and greater efforts to counter extremist ideology on the Web — where extremism often thrives unchallenged.

On both fronts — prejudice on one side, radical ideologies on the other — American Muslims have a critical role to play in educating the public about Islam while simultaneously reaching out to Muslim youth with an authentic vision of Islam.

But the twin threats of Islamophobia and homegrown terrorism aren’t Muslim American problems — they are American problems. After all, each of us has a stake in making sure that every American lives in a nation that is both safe and free.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:


Demonizing Islam threatens religious freedom

By Charles C. Haynes Americans must understand that most Muslims reject terrorism as un-Islamic. 08.06.06

Islam is not the enemy
By Charles C. Haynes We play into al-Qaida's plan if we succumb to the notion that Islam is no more than a terrorist ideology to be fought. 08.20.06

A Muslim in the House advances religious freedom
By Charles C. Haynes Election of Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., adds religious diversity to Congress, and that's a good thing. 01.07.07

Attacks on Islam aid terrorists, undermine religious freedom
By Charles C. Haynes Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week seems to be less an attack against Islamist terrorism than against Islam itself. 10.28.07

Danger signs for religious freedom in 2008
By Charles C. Haynes A presidential campaign overlarded with religion menaces religious freedom; so does Islamophobia. 01.06.08

Debate over separation of mosque and state sparks death threats
By Charles C. Haynes Minnesota charter school may go too far in accommodating Muslim religious practices, but it isn't a 'madrassah' as some have suggested. 05.11.08

'Must reads' 2007: best of the First Amendment Center Online

Analysis/Commentary summary page
View the latest analysis and commentary throughout the First Amendment Center Online.

print this   Print

Last system update: Monday, September 22, 2008 | 18:41:15
About this site
About the First Amendment
About the First Amendment Center
First Amendment programs
State of the First Amendment

First Reports
Supreme Court
First Amendment publications
First Amendment Center history
Freedom Sings™
First Amendment

Congressional Research Service reports
Guest editorials
FOI material
The First Amendment

Lesson plans
Contact us
Privacy statement
Related links