For many American Muslims, since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, being identified as an observer of the religion has become an albatross.
In a nation founded on a creed that all are created equal, Muslims say they have been victims of stereotyping and hate speech while being viewed through a lens that ignores their existence or treats them as “the other,” ignoring, questioning or minimizing their contributions to society.
And the ongoing political bickering about the place of Muslims in America today is even widening the divide.
Take, for example, the diabolical comments reported last week of Jeff Sieting, the Kalkaska village president in northern Michigan, who in a Facebook post called for “every last Muslim” to be killed and then refused to apologize for his comments.
A new study by the Washington-based Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, however, is seeking to counter that divide and the hatred spewed by the Jeff Sietings of the world by spotlighting the contributions of Muslims in Michigan.
The study, titled “Muslims for American Progress,” was launched “to provide a more accurate and dynamic portrayal of Muslim American life, and we do so by focusing specifically on the contributions of Muslims in Michigan,” said Rebecca Karam, principal investigator for the project.
“Coverage of Muslims has largely been determined by security issues and terrorism at the expense of stories about everyday religious and social life and therefore do not accurately portray the lived experiences of Muslim Americans,” she said. “This project begins re-writing these narratives.”
“We selected Michigan’s Muslim community to serve as a case study for the rest of the nation, and the findings from this project are in many ways indicative of Muslim contributions across the United States,” Karam explained. The state’s Muslim communities “closely follow national averages in terms of socioeconomic status, ethno-racial diversity, nativity status, and other demographic markers,” she added.
The Pew Research Center “estimates that Muslims comprise approximately 1 percent of the nation’s total population. In Michigan, we estimate that approximately 2.75 percent of the population are Muslim,” she said.
The study examined the roles of Muslims across the following areas: medicine, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), civics and democracy, philanthropy and nonprofit; education, economics, arts, entertainment and sports.
“In the field of medicine, for example, Michigan Muslims comprise more than 15 percent of the state’s medical doctors and more than 10 percent of the state’s pharmacists,” Karam said. “What’s more, many of Michigan’s Muslim doctors and nurses use their skills and expertise to remedy injustices by providing charitable medical care to those without insurance.”
The study found that in 2015 alone, Muslims in Michigan gave $177 million in charity, and donated 1.3 million pounds of food, 14,000 gallons of water and 45,300 articles of clothing. In addition, Muslim household consumer spending that year totaled $5.5 billion, while Muslim-owned businesses employed an estimated 103,000 workers.
Fatima Salman, a member of the Michigan Muslim Community Council board of directors, welcomed the project as a critical step to begin a dialogue.
“Dialogue building conversations and going out of our comfort zones to meet others of different faiths and races is going to be critical in countering stereotypes,” Salman said. “I can tell you that Muslims sure feel like they are doing a lot to counter these stereotypes.
“However, we as Americans need to realize that when hatred affects any group of people, it will start affecting other groups as well.”
Salman said it is time for all people of conscience to stand up and speak out against stereotypes that are being propagated.
That is exactly the example that former boxing great Muhammad Ali, widely seen as America’s greatest Muslim ambassador, whom Nelson Mandela once described as “an inspiration to me, even in prison,” set for many in this nation to follow.
Upon his conversion to Islam decades ago, Ali declared: “I believe in Allah and in peace,” and since then there was never any question that Ali proved that being American and Muslim are not antithetical concepts.
Years later, Ali would go on to be a champion of peace and tolerance, condemning the 2001 terrorist attacks as cruel acts by murderers.
“People say a Muslim caused this destruction. I am angry that the world sees a certain group of Islam followers who caused this destruction, but they are not real Muslims,” Ali told Reader’s Digest magazine at the time.
“They are racist fanatics who call themselves Muslims, permitting this murder of thousands.”
The MAP project is sure to ignite debate about the prism through which Muslims are seen. But let’s hope that the debate helps us separate fact from fiction as Ali sought to do.
Let us also hope that the debate becomes an enlightenment process, not the opposite, because all religions — whether Christian, Islam and others — uphold the indispensable value of humanity.
When asked about the religions of the world, Ali said they are like “rivers, ponds, lakes and streams. They have different names, but all contain water. Religions have different names but all contain truth.”
All the more reason we should anticipate that this instructive study reveals a truth that provides a stark contrast to the typical depiction of Muslims often seen in the media.
Because its findings reaffirm that Muslims also are part of the greater American experience, and, in the words of Langston Hughes, “I, too, sing America.”
The writer hosts “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.