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What is it like to be a Muslim in America and what are the challenges?

Haider Gildred

Woman wrapped in an American Flag

On social media people from other countries frequently asked me, what is it like for me to be a Muslim in America and what are the challenges Muslims face here? The first part is a tough question to answer. For one, I am an Islamic revert, so my experience is only the last five years. Additionally, I don’t look like the stereotypical Muslim I am light complexion causation with brownish blond hair and beard. If anything I appear morn English or German in appearance, as my heritage is Northern European. Secondly, I am a male, and like most American Muslims by birth or reversion, we dress as typical American men unless attending the Masjid or a religious event or social gathering. Even Muslim men who are Arabic or Eastern such as Pakistan are often thought to be either Latino or from India.

So what is it like for me? It is no different than before I accepted Islam. I expect this is true for most Muslim men because you can’t tell a person’s faith unless they dress differently than the average American. It was not always the situation, though. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, it was a different story; there was a lot of scrutiny, and anyone that even remotely appeared to be Arabic or Eastern came under tremendous pressure from the government, some businesses. We witnessed some narrow-minded, uneducated individuals, who out of hatred and fear or just overreaction to that horrific period strike out against anyone they knew to be Muslim or suspected to be. Often the persons attacked were not even Muslim; they were Sikhs or Hindi or just appeared to be Eastern or Arabic.

STERLING, VA - DECEMBER 11:  Hidayah Martinez Jaka, a young Venture Scout, wearing an American flag hijab is seen as U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley speaks following a noon service at the ADAMS Center Mosque December 11, 2015 in Sterling, Virginia. O'Malley is the first 2016 presidential candidate to a visit a mosque in the wake of last week's shooting in San Bernardino and condemned anti-Muslim rhetoric by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during his remarks. (Samuel Corum - Anadolu Agency)

STERLING, VA – DECEMBER 11: Hidayah Martinez Jaka, a young Venture Scout, wearing an American flag hijab is seen as U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley speaks following a noon service at the ADAMS Center Mosque December 11, 2015 in Sterling, Virginia. O’Malley is the first 2016 presidential candidate to a visit a mosque in the wake of last week’s shooting in San Bernardino and condemned anti-Muslim rhetoric by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during his remarks. (Samuel Corum – Anadolu Agency)

In the current climate, those that see the most negative response are women who dress in a traditional modest Muslim fashion covering their hair with a scarf or hijab. Even women of other faiths that dress similar get stared at or may hear comments or whispers. Indeed a result of last the presidential election, with it’s right wing anti-Muslim rhetoric there has been a marked increase in reports of violence and prejudice toward Muslims and their places of worship. Marking the highest levels of intolerance since the period following 9/11. Cases of bigotry toward Muslim’s, Latino’s and other minorities have been on the rise with the election of Donald J. Trump as the next U.S. President.

However, for the most part, Americans have been respectful and deplore the bigoted actions of those few others. But I would be lying if I didn’t respond that hate crimes towards Muslins have increased significantly. I have not witnessed any issues myself nor have anyone personally disparaged me. The Masjid I attend is fuller than ever, and the vast majority are foreigners or naturalized citizens from abroad. Most Muslim children, even those born on American soil typically attend Muslim schools in this region that I reside. Cases of abuse often though go unreported unless perpetrated by a Muslin, in which case the media makes the most of it unfortunately and only reports the most glaring attacks on Muslims or it is only published locally not nationally.

I am fortunate to live in the Northeastern part of the USA known, as New England comprised of six States, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. New England is a region of high academic learning and more liberal leanings acceptable to diversity. Although there are pockets of bigotry as with any area of the globe, New England is a haven to live regardless of your spiritual faith. Unfortunately politically the governors of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine, with Republicans as is President-elect Trump have refused to accept refugees from Syria. Connecticut and Vermont openly welcome them and Rhode Island is not committal either way. All of the New England States have a Muslim population though it is a minority. Maine has accepted a significant number of Somalia refugees who live peaceful there mostly in the city of Lewiston and accepted openly by the community.

According to estimates, 3.3 million Muslims reside in the United States, which is 1% of the population; as compared to nearly 1.9% Jewish faith, and 0.7% Hindus. The majority, of course, are Christians that make up 70.6% of the population. Projections indicate Muslims will make up over 2.1% of the population and exceed those of Jewish faith by 2050. Research finds that Islam is the largest non-Christian group in twenty of the American states, most located in the South and Midwest. However, California has the most Muslims with an estimated 1 million, followed by New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Indiana, and Michigan.

The Muslim community in the United States, in general, has a high literacy rate, a high percentage of women attending college, one of the lowest rates of crime, and typically a higher income bracket than most other minorities. There is a wide diversity of Muslims from nations all over the globe with the largest percentage of Muslims coming from Pakistan.

DEARBORN, MI - APRIL 21: The Islamic Center of America, site of a planned Good Friday protest by the Florida koran-burning Pastor Terry Jones is shown April 21, 2011 in Dearborn, Michigan. Jones burned a copy of the Koran, the religious text of Islam, last month.  (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

DEARBORN, MI – APRIL 21: The Islamic Center of America, site of a planned Good Friday protest by the Florida koran-burning Pastor Terry Jones is shown April 21, 2011 in Dearborn, Michigan. Jones burned a copy of the Koran, the religious text of Islam, last month. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

According to the Pew Research Center, American Muslim’s reject extremism and there is no evidence of support for Islamic terrorism. In an overall public opinion, a survey of Muslims in America showed no indications of increased anger in response to concerns about homegrown terrorism. In fact, the majority of American Muslims are as concerned about extremist terror here and abroad as is the average non-Muslim. There is a greater concern by American Muslims over the attitudes of non-Muslims toward their communities and the lack of understanding, by non-Muslims, in general about the Islamic faith.

Clearly, the greatest challenge for Muslims in America is public awareness and outreach. More needs to be done in short order to educate the local communities, make connections at the grass root level, partner with law enforcement and with politicians to partake in the political process. The Muslim community as a whole has been one of the least active in politics and one low voter turnout. Although in this last presidential election voter registration and the political voice of Muslims was greater than at any point in the past including that following 9/11. The time is ripe for activism by the Muslim community in the U.S to bridge the gap that has existed and to make their voices and concerns heard and most importantly to stand up to those who would label them as scapegoats.

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