Get to know your Muslim neighbors.
That's a simple, yet realistic way for Americans to begin defusing the pervasive and damaging stereotypes about Muslim-Americans that have spread since 9/11.
Muslim-Americans shared America's horror at the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. Yet, this highly professionalized and patriotic group has been unfairly swept under the specter of suspicion, said Middle East scholar Amaney Jamal, who spoke before a capacity crowd at the Eastern Michigan University's Student Center Jan. 25.
Jamal, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University, gave a talk, entitled "Muslim Americans after 9-11: Eight Years Later." She spoke before a crowd of about 200 people in Ballroom B of the Student Center.
Jamal, who earned her doctorate at the University of Michigan, started the talk with some positive news. Then, in contrast, Jamal outlined the difficult problem of reconciling the reality of the mainstream, contributing Muslim community with what she called "the prism of terror" that distorts perceptions and slows understanding.
Farah Pandith's recent federal appointment as a special liaison to the Muslim community is an important step toward greater understanding, Jamal said.
Muslim-Americans are advancing professionally and socio-economically in the United States as well as any other demographic group, and the same percentage of Muslims earn more than $100,000 in annual salary, said Jamal, who has been interviewed by national media, including The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN.
Muslim-Americans are politically engaged, according to various polls, including the Pew Poll, Jamal said. Eighty six percent of Muslim-Americans polled say it's important to participate in politics; 73 percent say they are registered to vote; and 63 percent are active in youth and sports programs.
Yet, for most Americans, knowledge of Muslim-Americans remains sketchy. Muslims have suffered from a reflexive stereotyping that links regular citizens with a tacit advocacy of terror.
In a nation that claims to have shed such narrow thinking, 43 percent of Americans polled acknowledge personal prejudice against Muslims, but not against other primary minority groups, Jamal said.
"Whereas racism is no longer tolerated in the U.S., anti-Muslim rhetoric is acceptable and, is in fact, a measure of U.S. patriotism," Jamal said.
Sources of that attitude include government policies, such as the Patriot Act, along with statements of leaders and mainstream public opinion. For example, some government leaders and opinion makers promoted an unsubstantiated link between mosques and terrorist intelligence. Yet, the 9/11 terrorists and others like them are decidedly not mosque-goers, Jamal said, noting such attendance would draw unwanted attention to terrorists' plans.
In addition, concerns over terrorist links in mosques or over Islamic fanaticism conflict with the fact that Muslim-Americans' religious observance mirrors patterns of other American faiths such as Catholicism. Polls show Muslims attend religious services at levels similar to other American religions, Jamal said.
Then Jamal asked a thought-provoking question: Have you ever seen a positive portrayal of a Muslim-American in movies or on TV? Answer: Almost never.
Such negative perceptions spiked after 9/11, then revived sharply in the wake of the recent, murderous attack by the soldier at Fort Hood and the Christmas Day attempt to blow up a plane that landed at Detroit's metro airport from a flight originating from Amsterdam. A common view is that these were crimes committed by Muslims using Islamic thinking to justify their actions, Jamal said.
Yet, in reality, the two horrific incidents represented massive intelligence failures that failed to recognize the two perpetrators' sharp disengagement from mainstream Muslim life. For instance, the airplane bomber's father notified authorities of his grave concern over his son's disappearance and radical development, and the soldier from Fort Hood had been visibly active in jihad chat rooms.
Ninety-five percent of Muslim-Americans hold a negative opinion of Al Qaeda, with the remaining 5 percent amounting to "random noise" that is considered statistically insignificant in such polls, according to Jamal.
Eighty nine percent of Muslim-Americans supported President Obama, yet when questions arose over whether he was a Muslim, no prominent figures, other than Colin Powell, noted that it was a meaningless distinction.
It got to be a joke in the Muslim-American community, Jamal recalled. "If we want Obama, we should endorse McCain," the thinking went.
These stereotypes permeate everyday life. Jamal has been patted down three times at airports since Christmas.
"Why not have a Muslim-only line at the airport?" she asked, with a touch of sarcasm.
Interestingly, women endure greater scrutiny and scorn because they wear the traditional Hijab (scarf) and are so easily identified, Jamal said, adding that such safety issues reinforce Muslim womens' need for support from their men and others.
Healing the anger over such treatment is tougher with second-generation Muslim-Americans, who were born in the U.S., are assimilated into mainstream culture and wonder why they should be marginalized or suffer any stigma.
"9/11 has already put the Muslim-American community back decades," Jamal said.
The solution is increased understanding, which comes through strong and visible spokespersons and coalition building among groups with a level of empathy, such as gays, Jews, African-Americans and Catholics, Jamal said.
Nobody is listening right now. But, the more you know about Muslim-Americans, the more your view will improve, she added. "You need to have a consumer wanting to consume that message."
Jamal's books include: "Citizenship and Crisis: Arab Detroit After 9-11", "Race and Arab Americans After 9-11: From Invisible Citizens to Visible Subjects", and "Barriers to Democracy: The Other Side of Social Capital in Palestine and the Arab World."
The talk was part of an ongoing lecture series entitled "Perspectives on the Middle East." It was sponsored by the EMU Division of Academic Affairs, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Muslim Student Association, the department of English, the department of communications, media and theater arts, the department of economics, the department of history and philosophy, the department of political science, the department of sociology, anthropology and criminology; and the department of women's and gender Studies.