As we honor Ramadan, the holiest month in the Muslim calendar, it’s important to look back at the history of Muslims in America to guide the context of fighting increased anti-Muslim bigotry in the U.S. today.
Anti-Muslim hate crimes are five times more common today than they were before 9/11. In 2014, we saw the chilling murder of 15-year-old Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein, who was run down outside his mosque in Kansas City, Mo., by a man who had expressed his hatred for Muslims. In February 2015, the Chapel Hill shooting took the lives of three American-Muslim college students and shook the entire Muslim community. Last month there was an armed protest in Arizona outside of a mosque, and a Muslim community in New York was targeted by a man who plotted to burn down a school and mosque. The media is also filled with negative stereotypes about Muslims.
My concerns mirror those of so many Americans: As a parent to a rambunctious 3-year-old girl, I am concerned with her getting a quality education in a safe school, and I want her to live to her fullest potential and to have a positive self-identity. Yet when I taught an anti-racism workshop to 11-year-old girls last fall and asked about stereotypes, almost all of them answered that they faced some level of anti-Muslim bias. This reflects a recent survey from Muslim ARC, an organization that I co-founded, in which 82% of respondents said that they experienced racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination from society at large.
American Muslims with roots in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia face anti-Muslim bias mixed with a heavy dose of xenophobia. African American Muslims are often judged on two fronts: on the basis of religion and on the basis of race. But this native Muslim population has historical roots that go back hundreds of years. Around the time of the American Revolution, a large community of Moroccan Muslims lived and thrived in Charleston, S.C. Slaves in the Antebellum United States—nearly 15% to 30% of whom were Muslim—celebrated Ramadan in the South. From Thomas Jefferson owning a Quran to the mass adoration of Muhammad Ali to the reverberating social impact of Malcolm X, African American Muslims have always been a part of the American tapestry. The latest spate of hate crimes—both from white supremacists and from Islamophobes—belies this history.
Muslim Americans in America are a diverse group. The American Mosque Study breaks down the ethnicities of mosque participants in 2011 to 33% South Asian, 27% Arab, 24% African American, 9% Sub-Saharan African, 2% European (i.e. Bosnian), and about 1% each for white, Southeast Asian, Caribbean, Turkish, and Latino. This multi-ethnic community puts Muslims in North America in a unique position to build bridges.
This Ramadan, I abstain from drinking and eating during daylight hours and break fast at sun down with people from all walks of life. I have celebrated with Muslim Americans from Vietnam, Albania, Bangladesh, Morocco, and Mexico, and each exchange has helped me develop greater understanding of myself and empathy for others. As part of the African Diaspora, I feel a connection to African Diasporic communities in India, Brazil, Haiti, and Europe. As a Muslim, I have felt a closeness to Muslims from Eastern Europe, Yemen, Indonesia, and Azerbaijan. By celebrating our plurality, we demonstrate that there is no one single narrative for what it means to be Muslim and to be American.