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: email@example.com.