No one's really sure how many Americans are Muslim. The estimates range anywhere from 1 million to 7 million. But what's clear is that over the past few weeks and months, almost every poll that's been taken on Muslims has pointed to one conclusion: anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise.
The majority of Americans — including New Yorkers — oppose the construction of an Islamic cultural center near the former site of the World Trade Center. In towns across the country, the voices of those who don't want mosques built in their neighborhoods are growing louder.
The open expressions of hostility have become so loud in recent months, that a coalition of Muslim groups is taking steps to remind people that American Muslims are Americans — the same as anyone else.
This week, they launched an online video campaign called "My Faith, My Voice" — and the message is simple:
"I'm an American. I'm a Muslim. This is my faith. This is my voice."
In his Sunday column, New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof points out that in 1940, 17 percent of the population considered Jews to be a "menace to America." Almost every ethnic group in this country has gone through a period of transition when they had to fight to prove that, indeed, they were Americans. Now, it seems Muslim Americans have do the same today.
Fear Of An Islamic Takeover
Rabiah Ahmed, one of the creators of the online video, tells NPR's Guy Raz the video is intended to counter the fears Muslims hear from their fellow Americans.
"Many of the arguments that are made in opposition to the mosque have to do with the fear that Muslims are trying to impose their faith on Americans or are ignoring sensitivities of Americans," Ahmed says.
"When we hear these things, we want to just reach out and say, 'Look, if that's what you're worried about, you don't have anything to worry about,' " she says. "That's not who we are, and that's not what we're about."
It's sad that it has to be said, Ahmed acknowledges, but it's necessary. "This rhetoric, these anti-Muslim feelings, they're not just coming from the usual right-wing or agenda-driven circles. Polls indicate these fears are widespread. They're in the hearts of average Americans — moderate Americans." And those feelings seem stronger than ever.
That's not necessarily so, says Edward Curtis of Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. He wrote Muslims in America: A Short History, and says the anti-Muslim sentiment in America goes back to the days of the Puritans.
A History Of Anti-Muslim Sentiment
"Cotton Mather thought that Muslims were a sign of a Christian schism," Curtis says. The New England minister, known for his role in the Salem witch trials, saw the Prophet Muhammad as the Antichrist.
"That kind of misunderstanding or negative view of Islam has been with us always," says Curtis. "It's kind of come and gone in cycles."
Curtis points out that it's only relatively recently that the face of Islam in America has been associated with Middle Easterners or South Asians. The first Muslims in America were actually slaves from West Africa, and African-Americans are still the largest group of Muslims in the nation, even today.
Through much of that history, Islam was associated mostly with civil rights and black subversive movements, he says. Considering the rhetoric of those eras, today's expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment aren't quite so singular.
"It's really hard to compete with Cotton Mather and some of the Protestant evangelicals of the 1820s and '30s," says Curtis. "In terms of that viciousness, I don't think that it's gotten any worse since then."
"But," he says, "I would say that until there was a significant population of Muslims here ... that kind of prejudice didn't lead into discrimination and hate crimes until really pretty recently."
In a public service announcement on myfaithmyvoice.com, children announce, "I'm an American. I'm a Muslim. This is my faith. This is my voice."
Perhaps most alarming is that in a country where religious tolerance is venerated — even held up as an example to a world where that isn't always the case — the level of hostility toward the idea of building a mosque in a specific location is so pronounced.
"In the post 9/11 climate, there was anti-Muslim backlash, but it wasn't so open. It wasn't so hostile. It wasn't so widespread," Ahmed says. "Whatever the Muslim community has been doing in the last 10 years, it's been a good effort. But for some reason, it's not achieving its goal."
In 2001, Ahmed says, she mostly only saw the impact of anti-Muslim sentiment on her own life. Ten years later, she has two children and new concerns. "I'm worried about the environment that they're going to be raised in and how they're going to be perceived by their peers."
She hopes the current turmoil is a passing storm, she says, "but it's not going to happen by itself."
"The Muslim community is going to really have to reach out in different ways," she says. "If it's not done, then there's a potential of it just getting worse."