Eleven Things You Need to Know About Islam in America Today

Most Americans tell pollsters they know little or nothing about Islam. Today, however, America’s security and the vibrancy of our democracy depend on Americans learning about Islam and understanding this religious tradition that is becoming an ever more visible part of our religious and civic life.

Conservatives such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin are undertaking a widespread and well-orchestrated effort to paint all Muslim Americans as a potential threat, and even aliens in their own country. They and other conservatives are circulating wildly inaccurate views of Islam. Their take on the religion is distorted and poses a threat to our national security. What’s more, the marked increase in Islamophobic rhetoric coincides with the midterm-election campaign season, raising serious questions about its political intent.

Since the fall of 2009 the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at CAP has been engaged in a Young Muslim American Voices Project that attempts to lessen the gap between public misperceptions of Islam and the reality of the rich and varied lives of young Muslim Americans. We’ve worked with a talented and diverse group of young Muslim-American leaders to educate the public through video, written pieces, Twitter, and online interviews.

We are expanding the project this year and increasing our efforts to push back against Islamophobia by promoting practices that have proven effective in combating extremism. We are working with young Muslim leaders in specific policy areas such as immigration, the environment, national security, arts and culture, and more. And we are connecting these leaders with CAP policy experts to learn from their work and help strengthen their efforts.

Here are some of the thoughts and views of the young Muslim-American leaders in our project excerpted from their writings and interviews. Together they comprise a list of 11 things the American public should know about Islam. Their voices are the “real Islam” in America and the best antidote to the toxins promoted by those who know little or nothing about authentic Islam and who may have a political bias.

1. “Instead of seeing an Islamization of America, I am witnessing, and indeed consider myself a part of, the Americanization of Islam.”

Asma Uddin, attorney at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and founder and editor-in-chief of Altmuslimah.com

“Islam exhorts us to help those who are in trouble. … Humanity comes first.”

2. “Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare [is] an Islam that is pluralistic, that is tolerant, that is interfaith-oriented, and that is seeking peace.”

Sohaib Sultan, Muslim life coordinator at Princeton University and author of The Koran for Dummies

3. “There’s always a preconceived notion that when you say ‘Muslim’ you’re thinking South Asian, Pakistani, Indian, or Arab; but in fact the majority of American Muslims are native born. … Many times you’ll ask young Muslims where they’re from and their first response is, ‘America.’”

Safiya Ghori-Ahmad, foreign affairs officer at the State Department in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

4. Muslims raised millions to help Haiti after the devastating earthquake. “Islam exhorts us to help those who are in trouble. … Humanity comes first.”

Wajahat Ali, playwright, attorney, and journalist. His blog is at Goatmilk.

5. “[T]rue piety” for Muslims is not only right ritual, but also “belief in a set of foundational articles of faith and good works.”

Rami Nashashibi, executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, reflecting on a passage from the Qur’an, Sura 2:177, for Ramadan

“Islam is a faith, something that is internal. … So how can you identify who a Muslim is unless you know that person?”

6. “I want to represent what the hijab [headscarf] really is about—that a woman should be taken for her mind and intellect, for her contributions to the world rather than just for her body. The symbolism of the hijab as a tool of modesty, a tool of equality, and empowerment was very powerful and led to my decision.”

Edina Lekovic, director of policy and programming for the Muslim Public Affairs Council

7. “Muslim identity is not monolithic. I use the phrase ‘putting a face to it’ because that is what we need to do. Islam is a faith, something that is internal—a relationship, a mindset, a worldview. So how can you identify who a Muslim is unless you know that person?”

Hazami Barmada, founder and president of the American Muslim Interactive Network, or AMIN, and social entrepreneur

8. Muslim Americans “worry that fear and divisive rhetoric will be used to undermine the mutual trust and cooperation that has been painstakingly built over the past two years between American Muslims and law enforcement agencies.”

Wajahat Ali

9. “The idea of justice is central to Islam and while we may not hear about them in the news, many Muslims are proactively living out that core value through their work as environmentalists, community organizers, and public advocates. Muslim Americans are just as invested in our country as every other American.”

– Zeba Khan, writer and new media consultant for nonprofits

“Muslim Americans are just as invested in our country as every other American.”

10. “Muslims see plants and animals much like other faith traditions, especially indigenous traditions, as being fellow worshipers or seekers. They are in this constant state of remembrance, so that we can go back to nature to re-inspire us—to be whole again. Those are all Koranic concepts around faith and the environment.”

Mohamad A. Chakaki, doctoral student in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT and senior fellow with the Environmental Leadership Program

11. “I have been grateful for being an American because to me that has always meant an enshrined freedom to worship, to assemble, to be a Christian, a Jew, or Muslim, without calling into question one’s citizenship.”

– Faisal Ghori, founder of MUPPIES and principal at Middle East Ventures

Young Muslim Americans, in their own voices, are telling their fellow citizens that there is a distinctly American Islam emerging—particularly from their generation—that is tolerant, creative, questioning, green, interfaith oriented, concerned about keeping our country safe from violent extremists, and supportive of women. Indeed, what you need to know about Islam from these young people is that mutual trust and cooperation among Americans of all faiths is our greatest security in the world today.

Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is a Senior Fellow and Eleni Towns is a Special Assistant to the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at American Progress.