Stereotyping still painful for Muslim Americans
DEC 19 — The day the Fort Hood shooting occurred, Kassem Allie fielded a call from a reporter who said he wanted to ‘gauge’ his reaction to the case of the Muslim army major turning his gun on his brother-soldiers and killing 13.
At this, Allie, a senior official at the Islamic Centre of America in the town of Dearborn, Michigan, erupted.
“What do you mean by gauge?” he said. “That we condemn this strongly enough? What do you want me to do - stand on my head and say I’m sorry?”
Defensiveness, the reflexive reaction of most Muslim Americans when co-religionists are in the public eye for involvement in terror-related activities, sometimes gives way to anger.
It is unfair: the average Muslim American is decidedly American in income, education and attitudes, including faith in the American dream. Still, he bends double under the burden of guilt by association.
Add to that burden the new propensity of security experts to point to parallels with the European phenomenon of the ‘home-grown’ terrorists.
Indeed, there have been two occasions for Muslim Americans to wince painfully since the Nov 5 Fort Hood massacre.
Earlier this month, a Chicago man went on trial for allegedly casing the Mumbai hotels that were attacked by terrorists last year. More chilling was the discovery last week that five young men from the Washington suburbs had been arrested while trying to join fundamentalist outfits in Pakistan.
Experts tally the other incidents over the past several months — Najibullah Zazi, an airport shuttle driver charged with testing explosives for an attack; Bryant Vinas, a Hispanic American convert received training from Al-Qaeda in Pakistan; and the Minnesota Somali American youths accused of joining an Islamist insurgency in Somalia — to point to a “trend” of the “apple-pie” jihadi.
Dr John Esposito, a professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University and the editor-in-chief of the four-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, thinks the parallel is totally off-mark.
‘Each of these cases is not connected to another case; each involves a very small number of radicalised individuals with no apparent connection to domestic Al-Qaeda networks,’ he says.
In fact, no Al-Qaeda related terrorist networks have ever been found in the United States. Also, in a population of some six million Muslims, the number of arrests and convictions for terrorism has been minuscule.
Consider, in addition, how much the average Muslim American differs from his European counterpart.
Muslims mostly arrived as blue-collar workers in Europe and remain educationally and economically disadvantaged. In contrast, most Muslim Americans came to the US with education or with the intention to acquire the degrees and abilities they needed to become more integrated.
Unlike in Europe, there are no “Muslim ghettos” in America. After the Jews, the Muslims are the most educated religious community in the US.
As far as attitudes go, a Pew study two years ago found that most Muslim Americans reject extremism by larger margins than Muslim minorities in Europe.
Economically, the Muslim Americans are better off than the average citizen.
A recent Gallup report found that 70 per cent of Muslim Americans have a job compared with 64 per cent nationally. Muslim men have one of the highest employment rates of religious groups. Muslim women are as likely as Catholic women to say that they work. The impressive statistics have not altered perceptions, however, and as many as one in four Americans has a hostile attitude towards Muslims. Muslim organisations and the US government stress often enough that those handcuffed, glaze-eyed individuals on TV are in no way the face of the community.
But an ordinary Muslim American who encounters stereotyping and worse in the neighbourhood, the school, the university and workplace sees little hope that the suspicion and scrutiny received since the Sept 11, 2001, attacks will recede any time soon.
Incidents of racial profiling, illegal arrests and detentions, surveillance, and wiretapping of Muslims and undercover infiltration of Muslim civic and religious organisations continue to be reported.
Samina Sundas, 54, a Pakistani American who leads a non-governmental organisation based in Palo Alto, California, says the Sept 11 attacks were a major setback for the community.
“In the year 2000, over 700 Muslim Americans were candidates in elections nationwide from school boards to federal levels. In 2002, the number dropped to 100 and has never touched the pre-Sept 11 high again,” she notes. Her approach has been to change one heart at a time.
Her NGO, American Muslim Voice, holds events such as “peace picnics” in backyards to promote inter-community relations. A few weeks ago, she led a vigil in front of the White House in the hope of drawing President Barack Obama’s attention to the need to dismantle Bush-era practices that single out Muslims for heightened scrutiny.
At the Washington-based Council for American-Islam Relations, Ibrahim Hooper notes that perceived injustice in American foreign policy towards the Middle East is often a sore point with the Muslim youth.
His organisation, the largest Muslim civil liberties advocacy in the US, is championing the idea of the Muslim Peace Corps, modelled on the American Peace Corps, to be a positive way through which young disenchanted Muslims can channel their energies.
The Muslim Americans, Esposito says, are a long way off from being “mainstreamed”, but the hope is that they will eventually take their place in society in the manner that the once-alienated groups like Italian Americans or the Catholics have. — The Straits Times