Calling Muslims ‘Un-American’ Is Un-American
“Un-American” distills the anti-Muslim script of this year’s election season into a single word.
The latest example was presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump claiming that American Muslims weren’t “assimilating.”
Many have denounced his statement but few have questioned why a number of Americans see me and other Muslims as not part of “us”?
Some inevitably will point to terrorism. Muslims can’t be counted as “us” if they want to kill us, they argue. This ignores the fact that the majority of American fatalities due to terrorists are at the hands of white supremacist or antigovernment extremists, the types of groups that support the Republican presumptive nominee. While most conservatives surely condemn these group’s actions, their “American-ness” is rarely questioned.
Yet Trump made headlines by calling for the closing of mosques to curb terrorism, suggesting that Muslims are more likely to promote violence than members of other religious communities. The evidence tells a different story.
According to several polls, including one released last week by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, for which I am director of research, American Muslims reject targeting and killing civilians at least as often as American Jews, Catholics and Protestants, whether by a military or individual action.
Whether a Muslim goes to the mosque every day or never sets foot in one makes no difference to his or her views of violence. As Police Chief J. Thomas Manger of Montgomery County, Md., recently remarked, “Radicalization is not occurring in mosques. It’s going on in a basement or a bedroom somewhere, with an individual sitting in front of a computer.”
Where mosque-going Muslims stood out, according to the same Institute of Social Policy and Understanding study, was not in their acceptance of terrorism but in their engagement in democracy — the peaceful means of political change groups like the Islamic State seek to destroy.
Muslims who attend a mosque at least once a week were more likely than those who attend less often to be registered to vote (74 versus 49 percent), to intend to vote (92 versus 81 percent) and to report cooperating with others to solve a problem in their neighborhood (49 versus 30 percent, respectively).
I learned why this is so important when an American imam told me about a young woman he was counseling against joining the Islamic State group. She wasn’t radicalized by reading the Quran, he explained. She was radicalized by reading the newspaper. Terrorist groups exploit these frustrated young people’s alienation and sense of moral outrage at the injustice they see in the world and insist that only violence can bring about a different reality. Civic engagement and community involvement — activities that mosques promote — are the counter-narrative.
The other rationale often leveled against including Muslims is that Islam stands in contradiction to American values. Ben Carson, the former Republican presidential candidate, exemplified this position when he said a Muslim could not become president unless he or she denounced tenets of Islam. Muslims must choose, he claims, between devotion to their faith and loyalty to their country. The data point to a different reality.
Muslims are as likely as Jews, Catholics and Protestants, according to the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding poll, to identify strongly with being an American. At the same time, as other Americans of faith, the majority also identify strongly with their religion. And the two identities aren’t trade-offs. In fact, the opposite is true. Muslims who identify strongly with their religion are more likely to identify strongly with being American (91 percent) than Muslims with a weaker faith identity (68 percent). Muslims can be both pious and patriotic.
Still, none of these realities will convince some people because Muslim otherness for them isn’t about Islam’s theology but about America’s demography. For these ideologues, membership in the “us” of America is not about shared values or a common investment in national progress. It is not about condemning terrorism or cleaning up sidewalks. It is determined by color and creed, with Muslims as permanent outsiders. For them, America is not a concept but a caste. And herein is perhaps the most un-American belief of all.
This article originally appeared on June 21, 2016 in the San Fransisco Chronicle.