Snapshots of Muslims in America, Then and Now

“There is a long history of the West defining the Muslim ‘other’ in a way that would allow it to feel justified in its colonial practices, in retaining a self-image of itself as a superior culture. […] In a post-9/11 world, where the Muslim other continues to be defined pejoratively, many Muslim commentators end up once again taking their lead from an Orientalist source. Now we [Muslims] are called to defend ourselves, to define ourselves in opposition to what some are saying about us.” 
—Ayad Akhtar, playwright of Disgraced


What it means to be Muslim in America has changed rapidly over the last decade, and the voices of Muslim Americans have been vocal in combating stereotypes and challenging perceptions. Representations of Muslims in entertainment are shifting from the clichéd images of a taxi-driver, terrorist, or convenience store owner to central characters with particular struggles, dreams, and the never ending question: How does my identity fit into the narrative of contemporary America? In Disgraced, playwright Ayad Akhtar creates a multifaceted character of Amir, a successful Pakistani lawyer who grew up in a Muslim household. While he chooses to reject the religion he was taught as a child (like many Gen-Exers), he is one example of the individual choices and identity of an American born Muslim.

In a recent interview with the “Today” show, scholar Haroon Moghul states, “We’re a very small community in a huge country. We haven't really invested in explaining who we are and what we believe and what we don't believe.” Islam is a monotheistic, Abrahamic faith practiced by an estimated 1.62 billion people worldwide and, like Christianity, there is an astonishing diversity of belief and practice. In Islam, the primary tenant of belief is that there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, followers of Islam comprise 0.9% of the US population with the largest concentration of Muslims living in New Jersey (3%), New York (2%), and Arkansas (2%).

Most Muslims in America are Millennials (44%) but Akhtar is a member of Generation X (37%). Viewed generationally rather than ethnically, it makes sense that Akhtar makes a highly individualistic, politically incorrect, assimilated man the protagonist of the story. There is greater racial diversity in the Muslim community than in any other religious group in America: 38% white, 28% Black, 28% Asian, 4% Latino, and 3% other. Worldwide, Asians comprise the majority of Muslims.

In terms of belief in God, practice and, political leanings, Muslim Americans align fairly closely with US Christians. Large majorities believe in God (95%) and pray every day (69%). It is a generally middle and upper-middle class population attaining undergraduate and graduate degrees at a slightly higher rate than the general population, 23% and 17% respectively.

THEN (1492-2014):

“Muslims are absolutely integrated into the United States. Muslims are a part of the fabric of this country. By the way, they always have been, and more so now than ever.” 
—Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress

The history of Muslims in America goes back to our founding. Although some believe Muslim explorers made it to the New World before Columbus, nearly all historians are agreed that the first Muslims in America came here mostly by force, on slave ships. An estimated 10% of all Africans taken into slavery were Muslim. The most prominent African Muslim from the early American period is Omar Ibn Said (1770–1864), a Muslim scholar and trader from Western Africa who was captured and enslaved in 1807. Some Muslims of the era came to America as free men. Mohammed Ali b. Said traveled to the US in 1860, became a teacher in Detroit, and joined the 55th Regiment of the Massachusetts Colored Volunteers. He served in the Union Army until 1865.

During the era of immigration, 1878–1924, most Muslim immigrants came from Greater Syria, also known as the Levant. Many worked as laborers and settled in Detroit and Pittsburgh. That first wave ended with the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924. Arabs were designated Asians by the law. This law was reversed in the post-war era and resulted in a new wave of immigrants arriving from Muslim-majority nations, including Palestinians who fled after the founding of the State of Israel and refugees from South East Asia fleeing violence following the partition of Pakistan and India. After the Immigration Act of 1965 was passed, many highly skilled professionals from South East Asia and the Middle East migrated to America.

Islam in the African-American community has historically been allied with liberation movements and black nationalism, most famously in the figures of Elijah Muhammad, Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) and Louis Farrakhan. As the world has become smaller and with increased immigration from African nations, what began as a uniquely American form of Islam has become more closely aligned with Sunni Islam, the largest denomination of Islam.

The conversation about Muslims in America is constantly evolving in tandem with the negative media portrayal of Muslims around the world. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 hate crimes against Muslims in the US jumped from around 30 per year to 500. In subsequent years, that number is roughly five times higher than the pre-9/11 average at 100–150 attacks per year.

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