Are Muslims in America to be considered a Minority

Mohammad Akhtar, Ph.D, Chairperson, Muslims Council of America

It is estimated that 20 % of peoples’ parents in America are from foreign lands. The mid 1960s , seems to have witnessed the start of a strong wave of migrants from Asia because of liberalization of the laws such as the 1965 Immigration Act. A good number of Muslim immigrants came shortly after and probably peaked towards the end of 1970s. The majority of these immigrants came from South Asia, followed by the Middle East and then the Far East. A significant proportion of them were admitted — not necessarily accepted, as immigrants on the basis of their professional qualifications. A point to note here is that these two differences are what set Muslims apart from Blacks, and tend to render their discrimination less severe. The total number of Muslims in this migrant group would approximate to 4 million while the number of Muslims from the indigenous group (Afro-American origin) would be a little less than 3 million The percentage of Muslims in the total population of America is about 2.5 %, similar to Jews, while Catholics are about 25% and Protestants are 55 % of the population with religious affiliation.

A search of the sociological textbooks (published by 1990s) dealing with Minorities in the US, failed to uncover a mention of Muslims as a minority. It was a surprise. Consider also the finding that Black Muslims –Nation of Islam, were mentioned rather frequently. The question arises as to why a sizable group of about 7 million Muslims has not found a clearer categorization as a minority? The answer may be varied and multifaceted. Perhaps, one key reason is that it has not been longer than 2 decades or so since white Americans have encountered this group in America. Of this period, at least for one whole decade, Muslims stayed in the background, withdrawn, isolated and totally silent. Only recently are they coming out, organizing and showing some activism.

On the date of September 11, 2001, America at large suddenly became aware of the presence of the Muslims’ group but only in horribly a negative way, unfortunately; it perceived a definite threat from this group. So far this group was discriminated against on the basis of skin’s color and foreign accent. Now came an overlay of religion covering the ethnic and racial features. American society worked up a collective consciousness to be vigilant and to discriminate against Muslims, to think of them as dangerous and perceive them as uncivilized and terrorists– allegedly to protect the country. This is a fear reaction rather than a rational response. If the IRA in Ireland resorts to terrorism, white America does not stigmatize all the Irish people or, more to the point, all Catholics living in America as suspects, yet all Muslims are suspect for what an outsider fanatic–allegedly Muslim group did. The Muslim phobia in the garb of anti-terrorist sentiment, that was fueled by the media, the pulpit, law enforcement agencies, departments of justice and a host of public machines, recently reached historical heights that were never witnessed before. Violations of Muslims’ legal rights and civil liberties that America normally safeguards for her citizens so passionately occurred frequently. Voices of conscience, such as from Jerry Fallwell and Reverend Billy Graham, were busy in the desecration of Islam as a religion and the defilement of her prophet as a human being. That was done openly using the national platform and public media. Yet the whole America, it seemed to be whole America, witnessed that spouting from their public leaders indifferently and even approvingly. That was all in the spirit of patriotism. There is even legislation now under the Patriot Act that was proudly accomplished at the national level. Its target towards the Muslim group was apparent. Mistreatment of American Muslims and putting Muslims through an inquisition was O.K and was given a legal framework. If that was the initial intent of the law is not known. But de facto, thousands of Muslims were arrested under suspicion and hundreds of them were put behind the bar without even one phone call that is normally allowed. “So what, we are in the state of war and not in normal times”, is the defense used by the dominant society. Former Vice-President of America, Al Gore, however, understood the plight of Muslims when he incorporated their concerns in one of his well known speech.(that was three years ago, the time when the majority of this writing was done. Presently that sentiment would have difficulty in finding expression from a high public office) The Muslims view point, however is straight forward .It is clearly to condemn terrorism, to disown any American Muslim –if one were found guilty of terrorism or of any other illegal acts committed against America, and to see that guilty Muslim is duly punished after one gets trial in the court. The problem that Muslims have is not with positive measures the country takes against terrorism but with the indiscriminate harassment and with wild chase of Muslims by the law enforcement agencies. This discriminatory treatment of Muslims is basically motivated by the intense fear experienced by the dominant society, which finds a sense of security and the cognitive sanction in the notion that all American Muslims are suspect. With that sanction, violating citizens’ civil liberties, that are so sacred for Americans otherwise (because of the safeguards in the Constitution), becomes a way for legal authorities to prove their efficient performance to the whole nation. Similarly, the American media showing the same spirit has been racing in order to be the first to flash the news about certain Muslim terrorists in America who later turned out only to have names — as popular as John — that resembled the ones who were on the authorities’ lists. In other words, the nation was willing to see Muslims persecuted by the authorities for any dubious and tangential reason. “An unequal treatment of the minority and unlawful use of power by the dominant culture for self styled protective reasons of the society (Marden,1992)”, a classic textbook definition of discrimination, revisiting in the 21st century in the land of America. A society with law, liberty, learning, and with the values of diversity cherished for herself, America could not help but yield to the anti-Muslim discrimination. One’s sadness is deepened by the recollection that America had valuable learning to benefit from her past experiences in discrimination that extended over centuries. That did not help, as it appears, in avoiding the present fallacious thinking that All Muslims are potentially guilty unless disproved otherwise.

Taking the other side, someone may retort: Why would America not discriminate? Is it not human to discriminate? The thrust of the present analysis is not to deny that humanness, but to point out the force and reality of anti-Muslim discrimination as a phenomenon. For that matter, the truth is that I believe that America comparatively considered, is probably one of the most sophisticated societies in the world that I feel proud to live in and be part of. .I understand the humanness in the fright reaction of the society to the attack that actually took place and was directed against America. Muslims should bear some responsibility for the fact that the people who attacked were allegedly Muslims or were Muslims in name. (I am glad that Muslim organizations in America are condemning terrorism categorically. This observation is reported in 2004, after 3 years when the article was written.). Yet to see strong human emotions against a minority group in America overwhelm the entire nation, is sobering., The memories of 1963 flashed back to this writer when the whole nation was seized by irrationality and was involved in lynching black and white people. There was similarity in the kind of the massive fear that America experienced in September of 2001, even though the nation was far more disciplined and the physical harm inflicted this time may have been by far in small fraction.

Yet this is a recoded fact that Muslims were indeed mistreated, threatened, assaulted and even killed throughout the country. Hate crimes took place throughout the land notwithstanding the Hate Crime Act legislated in 1998. All the psychological insights gained by Dr. Dunbar at University of California, L.A — as given below, were of no practical help to Muslim victims:

Most hate crimes are carried out by otherwise law-abiding young people who see little wrong with their actions “but the main determinant appears to be personal prejudice, a situation that colors people’s judgment, blinding the aggressors to the immorality of what they are doing.. One expression of this prejudice is the perception that society sanctions attacks on certain groups.” That perception of the sanction was widely available in the acts of the Law Enforcement agents and even in the form of legislation targeting Muslims… The daily San Francisco Chronicle, dated November 26, 2002, refers to the FBI report of the leap in the hate crimes during 2001 because of September 11: “The most dramatic change noted by the report was a more than 1,600 percent increase in reported hate crimes against Muslims — a jump from 28 hate incidents in 2000 to 481 last year”. The same Daily acknowledges that all incidents are not reported for the fear of reprisals. How could Muslims trust the FBI or other custodians of law when they see these agents raid the offices and homes of their esteemed leaders, who were mishandled and physically abused under the flimsy pretext that someone tipped them off. In none of these raids did they find anything illegal. The simple proof of this is that none of these cases were brought to the court for trial. Yet these raids succeeded in uncovering not terrorists but terrorized Muslims who had their families traumatized and had disruption in their lives for years to come.

These incidents are not isolated. American Muslims were harassed in 227 cases in conjunction with the World Trade Center bombings eight years ago. In the incident of Oklahoma City in 1995, Muslims were the prime suspects when they had nothing to do with it. This pattern of mistreatment has been repeated several times, has had persistence for a number of years, and has been widely extensive throughout the country. These are the criteria that can be used legitimately to qualify unfair treatment as discrimination and classify the victim Muslims groups as a minority.

Perhaps taking a rational perspective, when sanity is restored in the future, one would find it amusing when one reads, for instance, a case of three Muslim medical students heading to Florida for their internship assignments. They were arrested because of a report from a waitress based on a few words she overheard.. While sitting in a public restaurant these young men were conversing casually. She had listened to them partially, overheard a few words they said, filling in the bulk of the communication with imaginary elaborations of her own, projected them to be suspects for terrorism. It was no surprise that investigating officers would not probe into her basis of allegation, but instead would jump to conclusions and leave no stone unturned in searching these men to find any tangible link. Failing to find anything in a grueling search for 17 hours, these victims were released. Then someone accused them for not having paid the highway toll and wanted their arrest. That allegation was found to be untrue. It was not enough. Then someone came up with the charge of the theft of the car they were driving because they did not have the ownership papers; that was the case simply because they were renting the car. The charge of theft was found to be false. The only thing that was true as a running theme was that these students were Muslims.

Leave a Reply


Recent Posts

Recent Comments


issues of america