Faith Wrapped in Fear

There is no doubt that Sept. 11 led to a significant transformation in American society. This change was reflected in public discourse, politics, art, literature and music, just to name a few. Americans-regardless of race, creed, or gender-were all deeply disturbed by the events that unfolded on that tragic day. Fear and uncertainty clouded the minds of many and these elements still dominate today in public thought. One of the groups that was obviously heavily impacted was the Muslim community in the United States.

The image of Muslims and the Islamic faith had been defiled and Muslims were viewed as a threat to the country’s overall welfare. Some Americans saw Muslims, their fellow citizens, as “enemies” of the country and as people who should not be trusted because they may have sinister motives.

These opinions are appealing to many, especially after more tragic events took place in Islam’s name around the world after Sept. 11. Each year, the negative feelings toward Muslims and Islam have risen. In April of this year, CBS polled citizens about American attitudes toward seven different faiths.

Islam was deemed “favorable” among 19 percent of those who were polled and 45 percent saw it as “unfavorable.” In that same poll, Islam was seen more favorable only to Scientology. Another survey, conducted by USA Today/Gallup Poll at the end of July of this year, found that 45 percent of those polled believed that Islam taught its adherents to disrespect the beliefs of non-Muslims versus the 41 percent who believed the faith did not.

The attitude toward Islam definitely worsened after the arrests of Muslim Britons, almost all of Pakistani descent, who this summer were involved in a trans-Atlantic terror plot. There were soon calls to racially profile Muslims, especially from neo-conservative commentators and the political pundits from the unbalanced Fox News Channel.

How come influential Muslim Americans, such as Sheikh Hamza Yusuf and Ingrid Mattson, are not invited to Fox News to speak about Islam and the Muslim community in the country? How come “Islam experts” who perhaps have read a book or two on Muslims and Islam are given more priority over the latter? This is like asking a podiatrist about the state of one’s teeth.

Although there is tremendous fear of Islam and its followers in the country, there is also fear exhibited by Muslim Americans that still remains firm after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. Muslims are afraid for their own personal security and liberties. Isn’t it ironic that non-Muslim Americans and Muslim Americans are afraid of each other for the very same reason? That “the other” is threatening the other’s liberties and security? It is certainly a sad and tragic truth of the post Sept. 11 American society.

Perhaps the biggest fear of Muslim Americans is that their loved ones may be victims of a backlash. As Ingrid Mattson, the professor of Islamic studies at the Hartford Seminary and president of Islamic Society of North America, wrote about fear in her essay entitled, “Faith, Justice and Terrorism.”

“As details of the terrorist attacks became public,” Mattson explains, “my fears of the long-term negative effect on our community were eclipsed by more imminent fears. I began hearing of Muslims, Arabs, even Sikhs and other brown-skinned people being attacked. What should I do about my 12 year-old daughter who had decided a year ago to wear a head-scarf as a symbol of modesty and piety? What about my husband, who was away for the week on business, and whose Middle Eastern features would only be more evident if he did not sport a beard? I was afraid, confused, and felt guilty that I had to worry about potential threats to my family and friends, when all I should be doing was grieving for those who had died. I felt a deep sense of loneliness.”

If one contemplates about the Muslim community in America and the American society in a bigger picture, it will be realized that both non-Muslim Americans and Muslim Americans are afraid of one another for the exact same reason. They both feel that the other will threaten their security.

Certainly there is a huge misunderstanding here that must be resolved. Instead of Americans being afraid of their fellow citizens who are Muslims and vis-à-vis, they should both take time to understand one another and use a language that will free them from fear and hate. Instead they should instill a sense of understanding, appreciation and unity.

Editor’s Note: Omer Shahid is the President of the Muslim Students Association