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United States: Islam Growing, But Subject To Misperceptions

  • Charles Recknagel



Prague, 17 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States and today includes an estimated six to eight million adherents. That means that American Muslims are well on the way to becoming the country's largest non-Christian denomination. But even as the number of Muslims in America increases, analysts say that Islam is widely misunderstood in the country, where many continue to view it as a foreign religion.

Jack Shaheen, a professor at Southern Illinois University and a former associate of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., has spent years studying the growth of Islam in America and how the faith is portrayed in American popular culture. On a visit this week to RFE/RL in Prague, he spoke with our correspondent about some of his findings.

Shaheen says that the majority of American Muslims are African-Americans. The religion has grown among African-Americans -- who remain overwhelmingly Christian -- since the 1960's when the community sought a number of new ways to mobilize and achieve greater civil rights. In recent decades, the American Muslim community has also shown significant growth from immigration into the United States, particularly by Muslims from Asian countries.

Shaheen, who himself is Christian, says his research shows that most American Muslims are Sunni and that they are attracted to Islam by its values of modesty, non-violence and prayer.

"To be extremely modest in the way that you dress so that you are not perceived as a sex object, I think many women like that. The non-violence aspect, of course, which is [also] present in Judaism and Christianity and all the faiths. The praying five times a day. [And] a retreat from the commercialism which is so prevalent. What Islam does is it sort of takes you away from that."

But Shaheen says that even as some Americans embrace Islam for its values of modesty and non-violence, the religion's image as perceived by the larger society is often just the opposite.

He says that the American media, when it reports on Islam among African Americans, tends to focus on its most extreme leaders. Among American Muslim leaders most frequently mentioned in the press is Louis Farrakhan, who has raised tensions with other religious groups by directing inflammatory language against them. Shaheen says this gives rise to a public misconception that American Muslims are extremist, even though he estimates only 20,000 to 30,000 Muslims in America follow what are seen as extremist leaders.

Shaheen says that how mainstream Americans view Islam internationally is equally beset by misperceptions. One of these misconception is that Islam is a majority Arab religion, when in fact most of Islam's some 1,000 million adherents are outside the Arab world. Another misperception is that Islam is synonymous with violence and terrorism.

Shaheen says that equating Islam with Arab anti-U.S. violence has long been accepted fare in sensationalist action films. He cites as one recent example last year's film "The Siege," in which Arab terrorists seek to blow up New York City.

"I was a consultant on that film working with an Islamic organization trying to convince the producers of that film when they were shooting the film in New York to please not associate violence with Islam. Yet in the film you would see the Muslim villain prays and then kills innocents. And this is prevalent in scores of films."

The film images gain power by their links with international news events. Among these have been plane hijackings by the Palestine Liberation Organization during the 1970s, the seizing of U.S. diplomatic hostages in Tehran in 1979, and most recently the twin bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania last year.

The analyst says that the American inter-faith National Council (formerly known as the National Council of Christians and Jews) recently polled Americans and found that almost 50 percent perceive Islam as a religion which embraces terrorism and threatens the United States. Shaheen says that he believes most of the misperception of Islam in America is due to the fact that American Muslims have yet to become a sufficiently established presence in the United States to begin defining by themselves how their religion is seen by the popular culture.

"We need to see American Muslims on television, in films, acting like everybody else and to date we don't. They are invisible. And I think that is part of the problem. They are not part of the cultural mainstream, they are not visible in popular culture and therefore they do not exist."

Shaheen says that a change in how many Americans view Islam will take time but there are already some signs it is beginning to take place.

He says that Islam today is part of academic curricula for the study of religion in almost all universities and is studied seriously by increasing numbers of scholars in fields ranging from comparative religion to international relations.

But Shaheen says that far greater change will come as the American Muslim community itself increases in size in coming decades. He says its members will then be able to provide a commonplace enough example of Islam within American schools to rid the religion of the many misperceptions surrounding it now.

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