American Suspicion Of Muslims Grows Robert Siegel speaks with Zareena Grewal, professor of American studies and religion at Yale University, about reaction from the Muslim community to the controversy surrounding the proposed mosque in New York and the canceled Quran-burning event.

American Suspicion Of Muslims Grows

American Suspicion Of Muslims Grows

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Robert Siegel speaks with Zareena Grewal, professor of American studies and religion at Yale University, about reaction from the Muslim community to the controversy surrounding the proposed mosque in New York and the canceled Quran-burning event.


At his news conference this morning, President Obama was adamant in his defense of American Muslims and his criticism of anti-Islamic outbursts in the country.

President BARACK OBAMA: I've got Muslims who are fighting in Afghanistan in the uniform of the United States armed services. They're out there putting their lives on the line for us and we've got to make sure that we are crystal clear for our sakes and their sakes - they are Americans.

SIEGEL: The president was asked why he thought now, nine years after 9/11, there seems to be more anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. than ever. He alluded to frustrations and anxieties in these tough times. That's the question we're going to put now to Professor Zareena Grewal, an American Muslim who teaches American studies and religious studies at Yale. Welcome to the program.

Professor ZAREENA GREWAL (American and Religious Studies, Yale University): Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: How do you understand what's going on right now, what seems to be more suspicion of Islam today than back in 2001 when protestations of brotherhood and tolerance were the order of the day?

Prof. GREWAL: Yeah, well, I would agree with that. I mean I have to say that I lived in Manhattan for six years after 9/11, a little over six years after 9/11, and I worry more about the future of my country and the safety and the rights of my community and even of my family than I did when I lived in Manhattan. And I think, you know, there's a number of factors for why things seem to be worse now and not least among them is the economic crisis.

SIEGEL: Is one possible factor here that Major Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood gunman, Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, are American Muslims? And there's a warning out from the bipartisan group that grew out of the 9/11 Commission today that the U.S. has been slow to take the threat posed by homegrown radicals seriously. There's a message there saying: Beware your Muslim neighbor.

Prof. GREWAL: Certainly, you know, we have seen these cases over the years since the September 11th attacks of Muslim Americans who commit what is now termed homegrown terrorism. But, you know, I do want to bring our attention to the ways in which the definition of what we consider terrorism is narrowing and narrowing in the lay usage, to the extent that it's almost assumed that when we talk about terrorism we must be talking about Muslim culprits.

I mean we also have to be aware of the fact that hate groups across the country are also growing. They've committed their own acts of violence against civilians, innocent civilians, you know, those include attacks on Muslim places of worship, mosques. And we no longer - or it's unusual to refer to those kinds of attacks as terrorist violence, even though they are intended to terrorize a population.

SIEGEL: How would you describe the response to all of this on the part of leadership in the American-Muslim community or, I guess, part of my question is, what is the leadership? Or is there leadership of the American-Muslim community?

Prof. GREWAL: I think that the Muslim-American organizations - and there really isn't like a central institution, but the umbrella organizations, the advocacy groups, the local mosque on the corner, I mean, overwhelmingly they are constantly saying, we are opposed to terrorism. We're Americans. We stand with our fellow American citizens against terrorism. But it just never seems to satiate the appetite for the disavowal of terrorism.

SIEGEL: This is a holiday. This is the end of Ramadan. Was this a discussion today? I mean, after prayers, was it - for you at the mosque, was it something people are talking about?

Prof. GREWAL: What Muslims are talking about in mosques on Eid is this sense of an increased hostility towards Muslims in this country and what that means for us. I mean, for example, the sermon that I attended today, the imam was very clear that Muslims should not think of themselves as victims. That this is, you know, one more chapter in a long history of civil rights struggles in this country. I mean we know that just as these days one in five now, Americans think that Obama is Muslim, well, you know, people thought FDR was a Jew. And people thought Lincoln was a Catholic.

And, you know, so we are - it's part of American history that when times are tough, Americans project their anxieties about racial, ethnic and religious minorities on their presidents. And so we have that today.

SIEGEL: Is it, by the way, is it a fact of contemporary American-Muslim life that you assume in the mosque that the law enforcement authorities have been asking somebody to keep an eye out for any radical in the congregation?

Prof. GREWAL: Oh, absolutely. I mean, that, you know, the culture of surveillance is now a normal part of American mosque culture since 9/11. And if you look at a place like Detroit, all of the mosques in this area have a relationship with the local FBI. I mean, actually, Dearborn, Michigan, got the first office of Homeland Security, even before New York did.

And what you've had is, really, leaders very eager to cooperate with the FBI and the, you know, these very public - the relationships and, you know, collaborations with the FBI. And yet there's still - there is this sense that we're trying to work with you and yet you continue to treat us as though we're criminals. Like, what else can we do? You know, that comes up.

And, you know, we need to have this very healthy and very honest and very difficult debate about what it means to be a religious minority in this country. What it means to reconcile the laws of this land and our own legal tradition, theology, et cetera.

SIEGEL: Professor Grewal, thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. GREWAL: Thank you so much for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: Zareena Grewal is a professor of American studies and religious studies at Yale. She spoke to us from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Happy holiday to you.

Prof. GREWAL: Thank you.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.