Muslims are misunderstood and former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants that to change.
Reid hosted a panel Thursday on "Islam in America," an event at UNLV featuring national and local experts. He previously participated in a similar event on anti-Semitism.
Reid began the panel by comparing passages from the Koran and the New Testament.
"Serve Allah. Be good to your parents, relatives, orphans, neighbors who are near and far," he said. "And from Matthew. 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.' That's what this is all about. This huge population we have in America, the Muslims, is something we must know and understand."
Reid noted 25 percent of Muslim Americans are converts.
"The 3.5 million don't come from someplace else," he said, referring to Pew Research's estimate of the Muslim American population.
Farid Senzai, assistant professor of political science at Santa Clara University, said misconceptions about Muslims abound.
"Many people assume Islam is a foreign concept, a foreign religion, yet Islam has been here since the founding of this country. Muslims have been here since the beginning when slaves were forced to this country," he said, noting many were forced to give up their religion and adopt that of their owners.
"The founding fathers were aware of the presence of Islam in America. Thomas Jefferson owned a Koran," Senzai said. "We refer to America as Judaeo-Christian. We should recognize it's a Judaeo-Christian-Muslim country."
That concept clashes with the perception of Muslim Americans as "others," a notion that has gripped much of America since September 11, 2001.
"All of us who were of age on 9/11 will never forget that day. I was a first-year law student at the University of Texas," Professor Sahar Aziz of Rutgers University Law School told the audience. "It was a jarring experience of going from being a relatively invisible minority that was racially ambiguous to being a hypervisible, racial minority."
Aziz describes the first years after the attacks as a "very harsh backlash."
"You had a large part of the population wanting revenge, wanting to punish someone," she says. "They did what most countries, and our country has done historically, which is find the people who look like the people who perpetrated the attack. For those five or six years you had sweeping national security practices that punished Muslims."
A period followed during which American Muslims wished the backlash would come and go. But it was not to be.
"Then you get this normalization. We are associating terrorism with Muslims," Aziz says. "You see this most starkly with the way we treat white, right-wing extremists and Muslim terrorists."
Security threats gave way to cultural threats, says Aziz — a Muslim ban, fears of an Islamic takeover of America, and of Sharia law (the rules governing the religious rites of Islam) replacing the Constitution.
Boyd Law Professor Michael Kagan runs the UNLV Immigration Clinic.
"Working with the immigrant community, I've felt I'm having to stare at a level of cruelty and hatred I never thought I'd have to see in my country," he said. "Certain communities are judged by their greatest problem or the worst person who can be associated with them."
Farhana Khera, president and founder of Muslim Advocate, traces modern anti-Muslim bigotry to the 9/11 attacks and the emergence of a "cottage industry" of hate that slowly took root and blossomed in 2010 when opponents of a planned mosque near Ground Zero in New York gained traction.
"Opponents started calling it the 'Ground Zero Mosque.' Fringes started getting mainstream press and were catapulted into seeing this rhetoric pick up, even by public officials who should have known better," she said.
Reid was among the public officials who opposed that planned mosque.
"The First Amendment protects freedom of religion," Reid's spokesman Jim Manley told the Las Vegas Sun at the time. "Senator Reid respects that, but thinks the mosque should be built some place else."
On Thursday at a press conference before the panel discussion, Reid says he still feels the same today.
"I thought they had the right to build a mosque but it was not the appropriate place there. Everybody in New York — the congressional delegation, local officials, said build a mosque but not there."