commentary

(Al-Ahram Weekly)

March 25, 2005

The Muslim Ghetto

by Geneive Abdo and Steven Simon

“Why do they hate us?” Americans have been asking that question about Muslims since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. And now a growing number of Muslims in America are asking the same question about their fellow Americans.

We hear nearly every day about efforts by the Bush administration to overcome anti-American feelings in the Muslim world. But we hear far less often that many of the six million Muslim Americans are retreating into their communities in response to increasingly hostile American attitudes.

Thirty-two per cent of Americans polled by the Pew Foundation in 2004 had an unfavourable view of Muslims, while 44 per cent believed that Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions. And now the problem is getting worse. A poll released in December by Cornell University indicated that nearly half of all Americans believe the US government should restrict the civil liberties of Muslim Americans.

The Cornell poll also revealed that 27 per cent of 1,000 respondents supported requiring all Muslim Americans to register their home addresses with the federal government. In addition, 29 per cent believed undercover agents should infiltrate Muslim civic organisations.

This came as no surprise to Muslim Americans. Since 11 September, their mosques have been vandalised routinely. Their children have been the targets of racist remarks in public schools. They've faced discrimination in their jobs. And they have been singled out for searches at airports and other public places.

Non-Muslim homeowners have fiercely opposed Muslim petitions for licenses to build mosques in their communities, based on fears of homegrown terrorists. At the same time, the Justice Department has stoked Muslim fears by undertaking high-profile prosecutions based on meagre evidence, flawed procedures or misidentification.

Yet Muslims' most significant burden may be media coverage that dwells on the violence associated with radical Islam, and ignores the respectable way in which the vast majority of American Muslims live. In addition, conservative Christian rhetoric that tends to cast the war on terrorism as a clash of religions contributes to the public's misunderstanding of Islam.

The failure of many Americans to distinguish terrorists from their law-abiding Muslim neighbours is driving some Muslims to adopt an unwholesome form of the identity politics that has already eroded the melting pot ideal of the post- war period.

Younger Muslims in particular are increasingly choosing not to assimilate into American society. Young women are deciding to wear headscarves even if their mothers did not. Muslim Students' Associations on college campuses are growing rapidly as a barrier for Muslims who prefer not to interact socially with non-Muslims.

To counter their discomfort in public schools' system, Muslims are building Islamic schools as an alternative. To thwart media bias, Muslims are developing their own radio programmes and publications. Radio Islam, the first Muslim daily radio programme in the US, debuted in Chicago in September.

These initiatives resemble those taken by other religious and ethnic groups in the United States since the 19th century. But the American Muslims' plight differs in that they perceive their nation's foreign and domestic policy agenda as being at war against their faith.

The societal danger arises when defensive behaviour by Muslims intended to promote acceptance and assimilation is transformed into a separatist impulse fuelled by discrimination. This creates the potential for political violence, fanned by the readily available radical ideology on the Internet that emphasises the irreconcilability of Muslims and non-Muslims.

In this respect, Americans are about a decade behind Europeans in the challenges they are likely to face living side by side with their Muslim neighbours. An estimated 13-15 million Muslims live in 25 countries in the European Union. From the headscarf debate in France where Muslims are demanding the right to cover in public schools, to Germany where Turks have lived for three decades with only guest worker status, Muslims are ever more dissatisfied with their marginalised position in European society.

According to Pew, 29 per cent of German respondents and 46 per cent of French hold unfavourable views of Muslims. As a result, young Muslims are increasingly likely to identify themselves not as French, German or European but as Muslims. For these young people, the perceived requirements of Islam take priority over those of the state and society. When these priorities are defined by militants, confrontation can spiral.

Muslims' increasingly tense relationship with Europe, emblemised by the toxic aftermath of the 2 November 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic militant, should be a warning sign to America. Three generations of discrimination against Muslim residents have brought Europe to a perilous tipping point. The problem with tipping points is that you don't know you've reached one until it is too late.

America needs to show more tolerance towards its Muslim citizens to avoid following the path of Europe with an even further deterioration of relations between Muslims and non- Muslims. Efforts to convince Muslims not to hate Americans need to be combined with efforts to convince Americans not to hate Muslims.


Geneive Abdo, author of No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam, is currently writing a book about Islam in America, and is a research fellow at the Centre for Muslim- Christian Understanding, Georgetown University. Steven Simon is co-author of The Age of Sacred Terror and is a senior analyst at the non-profit RAND Corporation.

This commentary originally appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly on March 25, 2005. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.