On 9/11, I didn’t watch the World Trade Center collapse on television like most people. I witnessed that tragedy a few blocks from where it occurred, standing motionless at 8th Street and 6th Avenue in lower Manhattan.
Images from that day are still seared in my mind. The South Tower buckling. A sobbing woman running by. An NYPD police car racing uptown covered in debris. A crystal blue sky.
Once we learned that al Qaeda was responsible for the attack, I knew there would be a backlash against Muslim and Middle Eastern Americans. But what I could’ve never predicted was that, 13 years later, my fellow Americans would view Muslims far worse today than in the months after 9/11.
The numbers tell a distressing tale. In October 2001, an ABC poll found that 47 percent of Americans had a favorable view of Islam. By 2010, that number had dropped to 37 percent.
And today, alarmingly, only 27 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Muslim Americans. This last poll is the most concerning because it shows how my fellow Americans see my Muslim friends, colleagues and even me—because I’m Muslim.
How did we get to this place? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself over and over.
There are a few key factors. Undisputedly the horrible acts committed by radical Muslims have had a big impact. In the last year alone we’ve seen the Boston Marathon bombing, the Boko Haram kidnappings of schoolgirls, and now ISIS rampaging through Iraq and Syria.
Another reason is that many Americans tell me they don’t see Muslims publicly condemning these terrorists. They want to be convinced that the radicals are truly the exception and not “true Islam.”
Of course, condemning terrorism and getting media coverage for it are two different things. A grisly beheading results in days of media coverage. Muslim leaders holding a press conference denouncing terrorism, which they have done extensively in response to ISIS, will result in two to three minutes of media coverage on cable news, if they’re lucky.
Making our efforts more challenging is that we are a small minority group, comprising only 1 to 2 percent of the nation. Unsurprisingly, a recent Pew poll found that more than 60 percent of Americans don’t even personally know a Muslim.
If you only see news stories that present Muslims in a negative light, and you have no personal connection to Muslims to offer a counter narrative, I can understand why many hold negative views of us.
Compounding this issue is that there are few positive images of Muslims or Muslim Americans in American entertainment media. In fact, the exact opposite is true as Hollywood has made millions furthering the worst image of Muslims. And I can tell you firsthand as someone who has pitched film and TV shows that would depict Muslims in a positive light, there’s little appetite in Hollywood for such projects.
But there’s something else causing this. And it’s something truly despicable. There are people who intentionally stoke the flames of hate against our community.
Some do it because they simply detest/fear anyone who doesn’t pray or look like them. For some, Muslim bashing is their career. They make a living writing books and giving lectures about how Muslims want to destroy America.
And then there are the politicians, almost exclusively Republicans, who gin up hate of the “other” for political gain. The anti-sharia law measures passed in states like Florida and North Carolina are a prime example.
The proponents of these laws will demonize Muslims while making the case for these measures. Yet they publicly admit there are zero instances of Muslims trying to impose Islamic law in their respective states. For example, Florida State Senator Alan Hays conceded as much but argued the anti-Shaira law legislation was needed as a “preemptive measure,” similar to when your parents would “have you vaccinated against different diseases.”
And worse, we have seen unmitigated hate spewed by some Republicans that could inspire hate crimes. For example, just last week Oklahoma State Representative John Bennett wrote on his official Facebook page that Christians should be “wary” of Muslim Americans because they are planning to kill Christians. Not only did Bennett refuse to apologize for his comments, the Oklahoma state Republican chair defended Bennett.
What a difference from the words President George W. Bush offered our nation in the days after 9/11. Bush, with the World Trade Center still literally smoldering, visited the large Islamic Center in Washington, D.C., and denounced those who were demonizing Muslim Americans: “Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.”
Bush added: “America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect.”
So what’s the future for Muslim Americans? Will we see even more hate crimes against Muslims? And Sikhs, whom many misidentify as Muslims? These numbers have spiked in recent years. And just last week my friend Linda Sarsour, a hijab-wearing civil rights activist, was attacked on the streets of New York City by a man who shouted that he wanted to behead her and then chased her into traffic. Thankfully, Linda was not injured and the assailant, a white male, was arrested.
Will we see an even higher number of employment discrimination claims filed by Muslim Americans? Currently over 20 percent of the claims filed with the EEOC are from Muslims, even though we comprise just 2 percent of the country.
I want to be optimistic. I want to be able to say in a few years it will be better. But I don’t know if that’s true.
What I can say with confidence is that American Muslims are not going anywhere. Yes, we will denounce those who commit horrible acts in the name of our faith to make it clear their actions don’t represent us. However, our focus is pursuing our American dream just like every other American. We will become doctors, deli owners, teachers, parents, and maybe even one day, President of the United States.
And what I can also say to the bigots is that we will continue, together with the good people who stand with us, to fight your efforts to demonize and marginalize us simply because of our faith. We won’t do that because it’s demanded of us as Muslims, we will do that because it’s demanded of us as Americans.