People go through events that normally form most of their experience of daily life. They may feel happy, joyful, or even dismayed by what they see and sense. Such experience affects human identity which is one of the things most prone to the influences of the surrounding environment. However, before we come to talk about Muslim identity in the United States we need first to shed some light on what identity means, how could American Muslims maintain their religious identity amid successive events targeting them, especially after 9/11, how media played a key role in stigmatizing Muslims, and the challenges that prevent their integration.
Identity has many different definitions depending on the context, including political, social and religious ones. Overall, identity includes the many relationships people cultivate, such as their identity as a child, friend, partner, and parent. It involves external characteristics over which a person has little or no control, such as appearance, race, or socioeconomic class. It also encompasses political opinions, moral attitudes, and religious beliefs, all of which guide the choices one makes on a daily basis.
American Muslims After 9/11
The 9/11 events represented a major milestone in the contemporary history, since the world is totally different before and after the events at various levels and contexts. This is not because of the large number of victims of the events or how horrendous they were, but because the perpetuators targeted one of the greatest superpowers around the world, making Muslims, especially American ones, suffer the consequences, directly or indirectly, in spite of the great deal of Muslim condemnations coming from inside and outside the United States.
Shortly after the events, Islamophobia index increased and human rights campaigners began to document the anti-Muslim incidents. The Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, collected a list of anti-Muslim hate crimes and bias incidents form news reports since 9/11. According to FBI Hate Crime Statistics, hate crimes against Muslims rose 1617% from 2000 to 2001, marking some of the highest numbers of Islamophobic hate crimes ever in the U.S.
The American media has contributed to the making and promotion of this distorted image of Muslims. There is no difference in that sense between the written press, including articles, news, and cartoons, and audio visual content on the internet and social media. Despite the development of social media today, through which many false images of the Muslim can be corrected, the dominance of the conventional media is still able to present this false image of Muslims in Western societies, and American communities in particular.
A recent study by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) found that perceived Muslims accused of a violent crimes received seven times of the media attention than their non-Muslim counterparts, despite similarities in their alleged crimes. Similarly, Muslim-perceived perpetrators accused of violent acts were referenced in the media at a rate four times higher than that of their non-Muslim counterparts.
This policy of double standards significantly influenced American Muslims in terms of integration and coexistence. It created an atmosphere of horror and panic to the extent that some Muslims came to hide their religious identity, fearing that showing it will back them in the corner and increase their stigmatization. The Media also played a key role in fueling the biased public perception against American Muslims, portraying them as a group of immigrants who stole American jobs and who will islamize the United States over time.
The rising wave of Islamophobia has reinforced Muslims’ feeling of alienation, especially since terrorism has placed Muslim communities within the circle of implicit accusation. One of the significant challenges is that large segment of the American right-wing movements maintain negative attitudes towards all issues related to Muslims, including immigration, and labelled them as diseases transmitters, especially during the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition, hate speech against Muslims has become a means far-right figures depend on to gain votes during elections. Such an attitude fueled normal Americans feelings of hate and bigotry against Muslims, reinforcing their sense of alienation and isolation.
Although the Muslims in the United States went through a difficult period in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, feeling trapped between accusations of disloyalty, statements linking Islam to terrorism, and laws limiting their civil liberties, they are trying to persevere and face challenges with gradual success. There are countless numbers of Muslims who were able to overcome all the challenges they faced in their daily life and reflect the proper teachings of Islam in the U.S. They did their best to coexist with their fellow citizens and maintain their religious identity at the same time.
It is worth noting here that Al-Azhar has frequently called on Muslims around the world, especially those living in non-Muslim majority countries, to integrate and positively participate in the prosperity of their countries while maintaining their religious identity. Prof. Ahmed El-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, and Pope Francis represented one of the most outstanding examples of wise religious leaders who urged all people of different religious backgrounds to live peacefully and thwart the radical voices attempting to divide people based on their religious affiliations.