Muslims Mark End Of Ramadan Amid Tensions In The U.S.
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, the Barbershop guys have their say about the week in the news. And as Muslims celebrate the festival of Eid ul-Fitr, we take a fresh look at a traditional treat in many of the cities and towns that African-American Muslims have called home - the bean pie. That's coming up a bit later.
But first, we want to talk more about the controversy that has somehow come to dominate discussions throughout this holy month of Ramadan. And this ninth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, which is tomorrow. We're talking, of course, about that threat by a Florida pastor, Terry Jones, to burn dozens of copies of the Muslim holy book, the Quran.
After a confusing day of conversations yesterday, he has backed off on that threat, at least for now. Obviously, many questions arise from this whole controversy about the role of the media and the blogosphere and political leaders in responding to these kinds of provocations.
But the question we want to take on today is whether Jones represents some sort of fringe or whether he is actually on the leading edge of attitudes about Islam and Muslims in this country, especially as many communities are debating the question of whether and where local Muslim communities can build houses of worship, for example, as many people know.
A Christian church near Memphis has welcomed its Muslim neighbors as they construct a new mosque nearby. But similar projects in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and Temecula, California have faced emotional protest. And of course there's the fight over the Islamic center, New York ground zero.
So, free speech, tolerance, public attitudes, these are all matters we'll take up in our weekly Faith Matters conversation on matters of religion and spirituality. With us to talk about all this, Congressman Andre Carson. He's a Democrat who represents Indiana's 7th District in the Indianapolis metro area. He and Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison are the only two Muslims currently serving in the U.S. Congress. Welcome Congressman Carson, Eid Mubarak to you.
Representative ANDRE CARSON (Democrat, Indiana): Eid Mubarak. Thank you for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: Also joining us, Edward Curtis, author of "Muslims in America, a Short History." He's professor of religious studies and American studies at Indiana University, Purdue University Indianapolis. Thank you so much for joining us.
Professor EDWARD CURTIS (Indiana University, Purdue University Indianapolis): Greetings. Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: And here with me in our Washington studios, Alan Cooperman, associate director at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Welcome to you also. Thank you for joining us.
Mr. ALAN COOPERMAN (Associate Director, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life): Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: Alan Cooperman, let's start with you, because you have some very recent research, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life's most recent polling shows that Americans' opinions of Islam are less favorable than they were in 2005. How much of a change are we talking about and why do we think this is?
Mr. COOPERMAN: We're talking about a 10 percentage point drop in the number of Americans who say they have a generally favorable opinion of Islam. It's now 30 percent. Five years ago, it was about 40 percent. I'll say also, right after 9/11, it was around 40 percent. And interestingly, the 9/11 terrorist attacks resulted in more favorable attitudes toward Islam in the United States.
That is, in the aftermath of those attacks, when President Bush and other American leaders were making concerted effort to tell the American people that Islam was not the enemy, that Islam was being hijacked by terrorists, that Islam is a religion of peace, et cetera. At that time, we had a higher favorability ratings of Muslims and of Islam than we had before 9/11 and higher than we do today.
MARTIN: So what is your sense of it? Is it your sense that attitudes about Islam and about Muslims are driven by events or are they driven by leadership?
Mr. COOPERMAN: Very hard to say what public opinion is driven by -events, leadership, lots of different things get involved. And it's very tough for us looking at polls at a couple of different time points to say exactly what's happened, especially as we look at polls that are a few years apart. Awful lot of things have happened.
One of the things that's interesting though is that big events sometimes move public opinion in ways you might not expect. We also see a question that we ask often and I like, a question that says, do you think that the Islamic religion encourages violence more than other religions do? Or does it not encourage violence more than other religions do?
And opinion on that question became more favorable to Islam in the wake of the 7/7 bombings, that is, the London 2 bombings in 2005. And so if we look at that question over time, we see that back right in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Americans by a 2-to-1 margin said, no, Islam does not encourage violence more than other religions do. Fifty percent of the public say it doesn't, 25 percent said it did.
Since then, public opinion on that measure has gotten more mixed, but it's bounced around. It is today 35 percent of Americans who say Islam encourages violence more than other faiths do. But that number has been higher. Three years ago it was 45 percent. So the number has bounced around. It hasn't been a straight line since 9/11. And the events, yes, in leadership, yes - lots of different things get involved in public opinion.
MARTIN: Congressman Carson, can we ask, what - you're a relatively new member of Congress, but you've been in public life, and I'd like to ask what has your experience been. Do you find that today you face more questions about your religion than you did initially or more skepticism, or has it not changed?
Rep. CARSON: Well, I think for me, because I've been in public life, even prior to being a member of Congress, I had more questions about my faith in the past than I do now as a quote, unquote, "public figure." I think people in Indiana or Indianapolis specifically have a familiarity with me because of my grandmother and myself. I get questions probably now when I'm out, but not as many as I used to.
I think people are happy with the work that we've been able to do in our district. And so it presents an opportunity, quite frankly, for me to really dispel any misperceptions about Muslims. I mean Muslims have been here since the inception of this country. And there's always been some Islamic presence, as Dr. Curtis and I were talking about before we went on the air - in freemasonry.
And particularly in the African-American Muslim tradition, there has always been this attitude of public service, cleaning up crime. And so Muslims have been a part of that, particularly through hip hop, through social elements and the movements of - starting with the 1930s, '20s on to the '50s and '60s. Muslims have always had a presence.
And my presence as a Muslim member of Congress has created a greater opportunity for dialogue, quite frankly, but I don't get as many questions as I once did when I was in law enforcement or even with city council.
MARTIN: And just to clarify for those who may not know, your grandmother, Julia Carson, also served in Congress. She preceded you, or rather, I should say, you followed her to representing the seat that she held before.
But I did want to ask, though, do you feel as a public official who is a Muslim, do you feel, you know, you have different ways you could address this. On the one hand, you could be very assertive about asserting your faith and talking about it publicly as a teaching tool, if you want to call it that. Or you could take the John F. Kennedy approach and just say, you know, this is not relevant to the way I govern. And I'm curious if your approach has changed over time, how you approach this question of how much you talk about your faith.
And we appreciate the fact that you're willing to talk about it today, for example, because sometimes people aren't.
Rep. CARSON: Well, I am who I am. I mean it's no secret. I don't make it secret. I'm a proud Muslim. I'm a proud American, certainly, but it's not a secret. I practice - I don't allow anyone to tell me how to be a Muslim. When people ask me questions, I answer, I'm a very proud Muslim. But at the same time, you may see my wife and I stepping out on the dance floor on the weekends, you know what I mean? But I am who I am. And I think when I was younger, I probably had a greater temptation to be influenced by people's thoughts and opinions.
But I'm a proud Muslim and I walk like a Muslim, whatever that means. I have my chest poked out. I don't try to hide who I am. I don't wear it on my sleeve. I mean, but I am who I am. I think that people have to follow their path of truth. If it means wearing a kufi for some, if it means wearing a sol(ph) for others. That's who they are.
But for me, you'll catch me in a suit with a tie on trying to look clean, trying to look respectful, trying to be congressional, but at same time accepting and asserting who I am not only as a Muslim, as an American, as a proud black man, and just a proud human being who's trying to bring resources back to the district and unite all of humanity as we move forward in these perilous times.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the history of Muslims in America and questions about how Americans overall view their Muslim neighbors and friends, whether the question of anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise or not.
To have that conversation I'm joined by - you just heard him - U.S. Congressman Andre Carson, a Democrat from Indiana. He's one of two Muslim-Americans currently serving in the U.S. Congress. Previously, we heard from Alan Cooperman from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. And now we're going to hear from religious and American studies professor, Edwards Curtis, who's done extensive work on the history of Muslims in America.
So, Professor Curtis, we've been talking about the relatively recent history of American perceptions of Islam. Can you just give us a longer view? How long - Representative Carson just told us that Muslims have been in America for centuries - tell us a little bit more about how Muslims have been viewed and accepted, if you don't mind my using that term, by their neighbors of other faiths.
Prof. CURTIS: Just as Muslims have been here since before the republic, so has anti-Muslim sentiment been a part of the American experience since the first Europeans settled the Eastern coast of what was to become the 13 colonies of the United States. Perhaps the most eloquent Islamaphobe of the colonial era was Cotton Mather, who associated Muslims with the anti-Christ. So it goes back deeply to our roots as Americans. And it comes and goes in cycles depending on domestic and foreign politics.
MARTIN: We need to take a short break here. And when we come back, we will return to this conversation about whether or how recent events may be affecting attitudes toward Islam or Muslims in this country. And we'll also take the long view about how attitudes toward Islam have developed over time.
And later in the program, we asked, bean pie, anybody? And, no, I am not talking about some kind of burrito. I am talking about the dish made popular in many black neighborhoods by the nation of Islam.
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Ms. HASSANAH THOMAS-TAUHIDI (Documentary Filmmaker, "Bean Pie, My Brother?"): At the time he said he didn't want to call it bean pie because no one knew what that was. So he called it Southpark Special. And then when they started really liking it, then he's, oh, it was made out of beans. And that's his version of it.
MARTIN: The full story behind the bean pie. We'll hear from a documentary filmmaker. Yes, there is a documentary about the bean pie. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
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MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is NPR News.
The Barbershop guys are making their way to their chairs. We'll hear from them in a little while. We'll talk about President Obama moving into campaign mode. And we're going to continue our conversation about anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, whether indeed that exists and is on the rise.
Our guests are Edward Curtis, author of "Muslims in America: A Short History." He's professor of religious studies and American studies at Indiana University, Purdue University Indianapolis.
Also with us, Congressman Andre Carson. He's a Democrat who represents Indiana's 7th District in the Indianapolis metro area. He and Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison are only two Muslims currently serving in the U.S. Congress.
And also with us, Alan Cooperman, associate director at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Before we took our break, Professor Curtis, we were talking to you about cycles of sentiment and attitudes around Muslims in the United States. What is your sense - do you think that attitudes are driven by events or by leadership?
Prof. CURTIS: Well, the two are related for me. I see U.S. foreign policy as being one of the major drivers of sentiment about Muslims at home. So if you recall, back in the early '70s, most Americans associated terrorism with Arabs. But in 1979, a coalition of Iranians overthrew the U.S.-backed shah of Iran. And as part of that, some Iranian students took dozens of Americans hostage at the U.S. embassy. They were held for over a year.
Americans blamed the Islamic revolutionary Ayatollah Khomeini for their captivity. That represents the beginning of a shift, where a class of interests between various Muslim majority countries and the United States foreign policy began to really shape domestic opinions of Muslim-Americans. And I think we're still very much in that era.
MARTIN: I'd like to ask about the question of the building of the community center in New York, which is near ground zero and the way that this story has unfolded. And the question I have is whether that controversy is leading public opinion or is it informed by existing public opinion? And so, Alan Cooperman, the question I'm curious about is if you see that recent polls suggest that a majority of Americans polled object to the placing of that community center, which will have a prayer space in it. Is that opinion informed by existing sentiment? What's the chicken and what's the egg there?
Mr. COOPERMAN: Chicken and egg, very difficult to separate. But public opinion on this is mixed. And, yes, in our polls and others, more people say they object to the building of the Islamic Center and mosque near the former World Trade Center site, than say they support it. But first of all, there is not any substantial levels of support.
In our poll in August, we found 51 percent object to it. But 34 percent, a full third of the American people support the construction of that mosque in our poll. Also, it's important to separate out the reasons that people say they oppose it. So if we ask a separate question, do you think that in general Muslims should have the right to build houses of worship around the country, or do you think that communities should have the right to prevent the building of mosques in Islamic community centers if they don't want them?
We find overwhelmingly by more than 2-to-1 margin Americans say, yes, Muslims should have the rights as other groups to build houses of worship. And I've seen some other polling that suggests that in the New York City context, a fair amount of the opposition, people will say, is to the location rather than in principle to the construction of a new mosque. So public opinion is mixed on that, just as public opinion is mixed in general attitudes toward Islam.
MARTIN: You know, what's curious to me, though, is the poll found - your poll found that among those who have unfavorable attitudes toward Islam, there was a sharp partisan divide on this that Republicans were noticeably more likely to have unfavorable opinions than Democrats and independents. In the August poll, 54 percent of Republicans had unfavorable opinions about Islam versus 27 percents of Democrats and 40 percent of independents. Why is that?
Mr. COOPERMAN: That's because partisanship really drives a lot of the opinions.
MARTIN: And we'll link to this study on our site. So if people are interested in these numbers and want to dig into it for themselves...
Prof. CURTIS: Michel?
MARTIN: Professor Curtis?
Prof. CURTIS: Yes, if I might, I think this goes back to your question about leadership. One of the differences between 2001 and today is that, as Alan pointed out, in 2001 you had President Bush going to a mosque in Washington, D.C. proclaiming that Islam is a religion of peace.
Today, we have Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio of New York all associating Islam with violence and becoming leaders of anti-Islamic sentiment among their fellow party members. So I do think there is a marked contrast between today and 2001 in terms of Republican leadership's approach to the issue of religious tolerance.
MARTIN: In fact, I have that clip from then-President George W. Bush, if you'd like to hear it. Let us play that just so that those who don't remember his remarks can understand in part what we're talking about. Here it is.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Terrorists are traitors to their own faith. Trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends, it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.
MARTIN: So, Congressman Carson, this strikes me as a question for you is do you feel that President Obama should be making similar statements? Has he led aggressively enough, in your view, on this question in a way that President George W. Bush did?
Rep. CARSON: I think President Obama has gone beyond the call of duty, starting with his famous speech in Cairo and given his numerous statements recently, particularly at the Iftar several weeks ago. I think the president gets it. But, you know, at the same time, Muslims have to be careful not to place all their faith on a president, member of Congress such as myself, Keith and others.
I think Muslims have to take control of their own destiny, if you will. We could use the help of politicians and bureaucrats. But I think it's past the time for American Muslims to step forward and let it be known what our faith teaches us. We need to remind our fellow Americans that we have the same concerns as everyone else in this country, that Muslims are certainly concerned about the economy, we're concerned about failing school systems, we're concerned about excessive government spending and, in many cases, a lack of transparency in government.
And so I think the more and more people get to see that we're deeply concerned about this country and we are just as patriotic as anyone else, the better we will be perceived.
MARTIN: And finally, congressman, if I could just ask you as a final thought to - I am going to ask you to speculate, do you think that -what is your sentiment about how things are now? Is your sentiment that you're in for the long haul in terms of trying to persuade your fellow Americans that as you just said, that Muslims are loyal, patriotic Americans who should not need to defend themselves or their faith, or you think - are you in a this-too-shall-pass mode? That this is kind of a temporary intensity, a feeling related to a lot of things and that it's not a long-term issue. What is your sense?
Rep. CARSON: For me, it's not about a conscious and active attempt at persuasion. I think for me it's about doing my work as a member of Congress and just really letting my life and work be an example to others to show that Muslims are people just like anyone else.
MARTIN: Alan Cooperman, you're not in the prediction business, so I'll pass you by on this question. So, final thought from Professor Curtis -what is your sense of the cycle we are now in, based on your reading of history?
Prof. CURTIS: It seems to me that we will continue to see anti-Muslim sentiment so long as there is a serious conflict of interest between some Muslim majority countries and Muslim groups abroad and the United States government. But that's not to say that the kind of coalition building that Muslim-Americans are doing right now won't continue to bear fruit. And it seems to me that just as Islam's unfavorables can go up, so can its favorables, to use Alan's language in his polling. And that those favorables will continue to go up as Muslim-Americans continue to be successful at reaching out to others and as others reach back to them.
MARTIN: And final thought from you, Alan Cooperman?
Mr. COOPERMAN: Well, absolutely. I won't make a prediction, but I'll give you a statistical correlation. People who say they know a Muslim have more favorable attitudes toward Islam.
MARTIN: Alan Cooperman is associate director at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio.
From Indianapolis, Congressman Andre Carson. He's a Democrat. He represents Indiana's 7th District. And also joining us from the studio there, Edward Curtis, professor of religious studies and American studies at Indiana University - at Purdue University Indianapolis. He's the author of "Muslims in America: A Short History" and editor of the "Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History." It's the definitive historical work about the Muslim-American experience.
Gentleman, I thank you all so much for speaking with us today.
Rep. CARSON: Thank you.
Prof. CURTIS: Thank you.
Mr. COOPERMAN: Thank you.