GUY RAZ, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
No one's really sure how many Americans are Muslim. The estimates range anywhere from one to seven 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-Islamic sentiment is on the rise. And 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.
Unidentified Man #1: We want America back. That's all we're asking for.
Unidentified Group: No more mosques.
Unidentified Man #1: No more.
Unidentified Group: No more mosques.
RAZ: 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 towards the idea of building a mosque in a specific location is so pronounced.
Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Former Speaker of the House): You know, Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. There's no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.
Ms. SARAH PALIN (Former Alaska Governor): This is an insensitive move on the part of those Muslims who want to build that mosque in this location. It feels like a stab in the heart to, collectively, Americans who still have that lingering pain from 9/11.
RAZ: The voices of Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin. In a few moments, we'll find out why Muslims in one grassroots movement have decided to remind their fellow Americans that, well, they're Americans too. But first, some voices from Muslims across the country.
Mr. FAWAD SHAIKH(ph): My name is Fawad Shaikh. And I live in Los Angeles, California.
Ms. BARBARA KHANDAKER(ph): Barbara Khandaker, and I live in Cumming, Georgia.
Ms. ZIYA NASIR(ph): My name is Ziya Nasir. And I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Mr. SHAIKH: Over the last few weeks, I've been unsettled by this rising tension or hostility towards Islam and Muslims in the U.S.
Ms. NASIR: You feel a connection to the greater American community. And then when that community itself is saying, well, we don't really like you, you don't belong here, I think that that it's both disheartening and a little frightening.
Mr. SHAIKH: Previous to this, even after 9/11, there had been, I guess, a fair amount of anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. But it hadn't ever bothered me on a personal level.
Mr. HUSSEIN NAGAMEA(ph): My name is Hussein Nagamea. I have no time since my immigration to the United States felt that I was unsafe in this country until now, recently.
Ms. KHANDAKER: I am careful about who I talk to in public, not so much just talking to them, but other Muslims that I greet, I don't automatically go say, hi, assalamu alaikum, because I don't want to draw attention to myself that I'm Muslim or that they're Muslim, just in case someone out there might be crazy.
Ms. NASIR: You kind of feel afraid that everyone thinks that way, you know, everyone who's not Muslim believes that. That is probably the most frightening out of everything.
Mr. SHAIKH: It always eventually passes. So in my mind, I have no doubt that eventually, we will be accepted because we are American Muslims. But given all of the stuff that's going on, I have the feeling that it might take much, much longer.
RAZ: Voices of a few American Muslims who spoke to us this past week.
In his column today, 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.
Rabiah Ahmed and a group of Muslim leaders thought their community had to do the same today. So this week, they launched an online video campaign called "My Faith, My Voice." And the message is simple. Here's a clip.
(Soundbite of "My Faith, My Voice" Ad)
Unidentified Woman: I am an American.
Unidentified Man #2: I am a Muslim.
Unidentified Man #3: This is my faith.
Unidentified Man #4: This is my voice.
RAZ: Rabiah Ahmed says they wanted to first address the fears of some people about the proposed Islamic center in Manhattan.
Ms. RABIAH AHMED: 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 the sensitivities of Americans or trying to build mosques all over and therefore, you know, trying to take over this country in some fashion.
And we as a community, 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. That's not who we are, and that's not what we're about.
RAZ: Rabiah, how did it get to this point, you know, where, in a sense, you're stating what should be painfully obvious, that people who practice the Muslim faith in America are Americans just like anyone else?
Ms. AHMED: You know, it is sad that it has to be said, but it's necessary nonetheless because this rhetoric, these anti-Muslim feelings, they're not just coming from the usual right-wing or agenda-driven circles.
Polls indicate that these fears are widespread. They're in the hearts of average Americans, moderate Americans. And that's what's so concerning about this.
In the post-9/11 climate, there was anti-Muslim backlash, but it wasn't so open. It wasn't so hostile, and it wasn't so widespread. And whatever the Muslim community has been doing in the past 10 years, it's been a good effort, but for some reason, it's not achieving its goal.
RAZ: Do you think, as a society, we're in the midst of maybe a passing storm, you know, something that we will look back on in 10 or 20 years from now and wonder how it ever came to this?
Ms. AHMED: I hope so. I hope it is a passing storm. I hope that it's just a matter of time where Muslims are seen as part and parcel of the society.
You know, if we look back at our history, other communities have faced this kind of discrimination or these kinds of feelings, and they've been able to overcome. But it's not going to happen by itself.
The Muslim community is going to really have to reach out in different ways, you know, through interfaith relations, through public service announcements, through whatever way that people can contribute and try to address these issues because if it's not done, then there's a potential of it just getting worse.
RAZ: That's Rabiah Ahmed. She's one of the people behind a new online video campaign called "My Faith, My Voice."
Rabiah Ahmed, thank you so much.
Ms. AHMED: Thank you for having me.
RAZ: Historian Edward Curtis has written a book called "Muslims in America." He says Muslims have been in this country since the very beginning.
Professor EDWARD CURTIS (Author, "Muslims in America: A Short History"; Religious Studies, Indiana University-Purdue University): They were slaves. They were forced here as part of the Middle Passage, and perhaps as many as 20,000 or 30,000 were in the 13 colonies and in the United States until 1865.
They came from West Africa, which had been undergoing a very gradual process of Islamization since the 11th century.
RAZ: And where were those first mosques?
Prof. CURTIS: So these would have been informal places. One was in Kent Island, Maryland, where the first Muslim American celebrity of the 18th century was brought in 1731. His name was Job Ben Solomon. He later went on to co-author a very important African-American slave memoir, was taken to England.
Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, bought his bond, and he was sent back to West Africa to be a financial representative for economic interests from Britain.
RAZ: But it wasn't until 1921 that the first purpose-built mosque came about. That was in Detroit. Why did it take so long?
Prof. CURTIS: The number of practicing Muslims faded among African-Americans by the late 1800s. There's no evidence, with just one or two exceptions, that Muslims passed on their religious traditions to their children.
African-American slaves tended to practice West African traditional religions or Christianity in the 19th century. But as that population of Muslims was declining, the population of Muslims from the Middle East and Southeastern Europe was increasing.
Immigrants came from Turkey, from Syria, and today the countries of Palestine, Jordon, Israel, seeking opportunity like the Southern Italians and the Greeks of the same era. And they were the ones who first began to pray together, probably as early as the 1880s or 1890s. But we just haven't found any archeological or documentary evidence that would establish for us that there was an actual gathering of prayer at some sort of mosque space.
RAZ: Now, today, I think most Americans would be surprised to learn something that you've written about - you write a lot about the myths of Islam in America that far and away, the single largest Muslim ethnic group in America are African-Americans, not Arab-Americans, not South Asians.
Prof. CURTIS: Yeah. And, of course, that goes back to decades, almost a hundred years now. The first African-American indigenous groups of Muslims who were not slaves, they began in the 1920s, even before W.D. Fard Muhammad established the Nation of Islam, which was later taken over by Elijah Muhammad.
In the 1920s, we already had several different groups of African-American Muslims practicing what is often referred to as Orthodox Islam well before World War II.
RAZ: Edward Curtis, based on your research, can you assess what the kind of the mainstream American perspective was on Muslims throughout most of American history? I mean, how did Americans see Muslims?
Prof. CURTIS: Muslims have been important players in the American national consciousness since the days of the Puritan. Cotton Mather thought that Muslims were a sign of a Christian schism. That kind of misunderstanding or negative view of Islam has been with us always, and it's kind of come and gone in cycles.
RAZ: When did we first sort of start to see really pronounced anti-Muslim sentiment in America? I mean, is what we're seeing today pretty new?
Prof. CURTIS: Well, it's really hard to compete with Cotton Mather and some of the Protestant evangelicals of the 1820s and '30s who go on and on about Muhammad and Muhammadans, or Muslims, being the antichrist.
So in terms of that viciousness, I don't think, you know, that it's gotten any worse since then. But I would say that until there was a significant population of Muslims here, then sometimes that kind of prejudice didn't lead into discrimination and hate crimes until really pretty recently.
RAZ: That's Edward Curtis. He is a religious studies professor at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis and the author of the book "Muslims in America: A Short History."
Edward Curtis, thank you so much.
Prof. CURTIS: Thank you, Guy.