An American face of Islam
- 16 September 2010
- From the section US & Canada
Opinion polls show Americans are deeply conflicted over Islam and favourable views of the religion are declining, prompting many Muslim Americans to question how they can address the growing hostility.
"We were expecting a backlash around the anniversary of 9/11 - but this year it's been enormous," says Sarah Thompson, communications director of the Indiana-based Islamic Society of North America.
"The proposed Koran burnings in Florida, the controversy over the planned Islamic Centre near Ground Zero and the arson attack on the mosque in Tennessee have made the situation critical. Creating a positive image of Islam has to become our priority."
But finding a unified voice and a clear identity is hard because of the diversity within the Muslim community itself.
America's 7.5 million Muslims speak many different languages, come from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds and even have different interpretations of Islam.
"Our narrative here [in the US] is really a collection of narratives, multiple identities and communities," says 26-year-old Alejandro Beutel, a counter-terrorism analyst and government liaison expert for the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC).
MPAC is one of more than two dozen national organizations promoting Muslim American interests. But like the communities they serve, there is no single approach.
Some, like the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), focus on interfaith dialogue and religious understanding.
Others, such as MPAC, seek to shape US government policy while encouraging Muslim Americans to become more civically engaged.
But even within this organisation's tiny office overlooking the Capitol in Washington DC, the staff who are trying to present an American face of Islam represent a wide range of views and backgrounds.
Mr Beutel was born in the US but his parents are immigrants from El Salvador and Italy.
His colleague, Jihad Saleh Williams, 36, converted to Islam, but comes from a long line of Californians of African and Mexican descent. His mother is a Baptist and his father is Catholic.
"I know African Americans whose families have been Muslim for several generations," he says. "Some Muslims were brought here as slaves and small pockets of them survived."
Their co-worker, 28-year-old Fatma Hocaoglu, was born in the state of New Jersey and owes her Muslim faith to her parents who were originally from Uzbekistan but emigrated to Saudi Arabia and Turkey before settling in America.
"I'm considered a moderate Muslim," she says. "I don't cover my head and I guess I'm liberal and progressive. But I don't really drink and I haven't dated that many boys."
Ms Hocaoglu was brought up in Germany and lived there for many years. She says she sometimes struggles with her own sense of identity and questions what being American or Muslim really means.
But 21-year-old Karam Hijji has no such doubts. His parents are from Palestine, and while he retains strong links to a country where American foreign policy is often blamed for conflict elsewhere, he is unequivocal about what it means to be a Muslim American.
"We're Muslim in our beliefs but American in our values. There's no conflict of identity. Being Muslim American is about highlighting this diversity and being proud of it, but still holding on to the American values," he says.
But as America continues to debate the nature of Islam and the limits of religious freedom, these Muslim Americans say their voices are being lost amid polarising rhetoric, while their identity is being hijacked by extremists.
"We are part of this society and are heavily invested in this society, but that has not been made clear because there are those outside our community who are seeking to distort that message," says Mr Beutel.
Ms Hocaoglu blames the American television media for promoting hysteria and making factual errors when discussing Muslim issues.
"It's almost like a weapon that can be used in such negative and manipulative ways and if people are that susceptible to it, that's how their thoughts and opinions are influenced," she says.
That's forced many Muslim organisations to seek new ways of communicating. Social media plays an important role in reaching both Muslim communities and the wider American public. Videos are posted directly on the internet and some groups have Twitter and Facebook accounts.
However, that doesn't appear to have addressed the perception that moderate Muslims in America have not been sufficiently vocal in condemning atrocities committed in the name of Islam.
"It is one of the most dangerous myths circulating in American society - that Muslim Americans and Muslims in general do not condemn terrorism and that we do not take a stand on this. It's absolutely false," says Mr Beutel.
"We have been extremely vocal in condemning terrorism, which is evident if you look at the phenomenon of home-grown terrorism. Al-Qaeda's home-grown terrorists have a near perfect track record of failing in almost every single terrorist attack - because the only people they're able to recruit now are idiots."
A lack of resources is part of the problem for groups trying to promote understanding, says ISNA's Sarah Thompson, 27, and a recent convert to Islam.
"When we have so many different community needs - such as helping children who face discrimination at school - our resources are often overwhelmed," she says. "But we are now trying to work with different organisations to co-ordinate our message."
Mr Saleh Williams says individual Muslim Americans also have a responsibility to make their voices heard.
"Those who have a positive perception of Muslims and Islam are those who actually know a Muslim. So it puts the imperative on individual Muslims to get out and be more pro-active in their community," he says.
Mr Hijji believes much of the opposition to Muslims in America has been exacerbated by ongoing tensions over immigration.
"There is always a cultural barrier when you have immigrant parents and I think that has more to do with race than faith," he says.
Most Arab Americans are assumed to be Muslim, but according to figures from the Muslim Public Affairs Council, two-thirds are Christian.
Islam is not the first religion to face discrimination in the US. When John F Kennedy ran for president, some influential commentators expressed fears that his Catholic faith posed a threat to the constitution, freedom of speech and American culture in general. He addressed the nation's concerns in a 1960 speech that articulated his hope that religious intolerance would one day end.
But today Muslim Americans are still trying to convince a sceptical public that religion and patriotism need not be mutually exclusive.
"Being a Muslim is not in conflict with the values of America," says Mr Beutel.