Just six days after terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush had a point to make:
"The faith of terror is not the true faith of Islam; that's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace."
But nine years later it's as if Bush never uttered those words. A recent ABC News poll about American attitudes on Islam revealed some troubling trends. Check out the highlights below:
- 55% of Americans don't have a good understanding of Islam.
- 31% of Americans believe that mainstream Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims.
- 49% of Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam.
So, let's get this straight. Although more than half of respondents admit to not understanding Islam, a staggering amount harbor negative feelings about the religion. These numbers, along with attacks on mosques in California, Wisconsin and Tennessee; the near Koran-burning session in Florida; and the controversy over the Islamic Center by Ground Zero; put Muslim Americans at great risk.
"I think there's definitely an increased level of fear because it used to be that we'd just walk around and we'd be a normal citizen, a normal part of American society, and now you've got a lot more suspicion," an unidentified Muslim woman told ABC News.
Anti-Islamic sentiment and racism go hand-in-hand. After all, people typically deduce that someone else is Muslim based on cultural markers such as the hijab or on physical appearance. If someone is brown and has certain facial features, they must be Muslim, right? That's why everyone from Sikhs to Mexicans have been victims of anti-Muslim hate crimes in the U.S. They appeared "Muslim" to their attackers. But because I'm black, no one who meets me in person mistakes me for a Muslim. In contrast, those who know my name but not my race do assume that I'm of the faith.
Recently, I received a letter from my local assemblyman letting me know that he serves and represents the Muslim community with "great pleasure." "Part of my goal as an assemblyman is to reach out to every group represented in my district, including individuals of the Islamic faith," he wrote.
When I got the letter, I laughed because I'm actually a practicing Christian--born to an African-American Baptist mother and a Nigerian Muslim father. While the letter my assemblyman sent me was a mix-up, it's no laughing matter in retrospect. He surely sent it to reassure me that in today's hostile climate for Muslims he was willing to be an ally. And now more than ever, Muslims in America need allies. Although the overwhelming majority of Muslims are peaceful, law-abiding citizens, they live in fear that those who view them as bloodthirsty terrorists will attack them, their loved ones or their places of worship.
On ABC's "This Week" Sept. 12, White House interfaith advisor Eboo Patel recalled a recent conversation with his mother about her fears living in America as a Muslim. She told him:
"Eboo I've been in this country for 35 years as a Muslim, and I've never been scared to say I was fasting. I've never been scared to say that I called God, 'Allah,' but I'm scared now, and I'm scared for your kids, Eboo. I'm scared that their names might be too Muslim. I'm scared that they might be bullied in school."
Legions of Muslims with the same fears as Patel's mother live throughout the United States. So, the next time you're tempted to paint all of Islam's followers with the same terrorist brush, remember her. Remember George W. Bush's words the week after 9/11. And if you don't understand Islam, read a book such as John Esposito's The Future of Islam to get a better idea. Do anything but let your prejudice and intolerance fester.