Anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States has risen to unprecedented levels. A recent Washington Post poll found that almost half of all Americans have a negative view of Islam, nearly a 10-point jump from a similar poll taken shortly after the 9/11 attacks.
Many reasons have been given to explain this surge in anti-Muslim hysteria in the U.S.: economic anxiety, weariness with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, heightened fears of a “homegrown” terrorist attack.
Yet a more revealing reason emerged in a study last August by the Pew Research Center, which found that nearly one in five Americans believe President Barack Obama is himself a Muslim — up from 11% a year ago. Indeed, the more a person disagrees with President Obama’s domestic policies, the poll found, the more likely that person is to consider Obama a Muslim.
Islam in the United States has become “otherized.” It has become a receptacle into which can be tossed all the fears and anxieties that Americans have about the faltering economy, unfamiliar changes to the political order, a shifting racial landscape — everything that is fearful, seemingly foreign and beyond individual control.
This development is neither new nor unexpected. In fact, everything that is currently being said about America’s vast and diverse Muslim population — that they are “foreign and exotic and un-American” — was said about Jewish immigrants nearly a century ago.
Back then, politicians like Louis McFadden, religious leaders like Father Charles Coughlin, business tycoons like Henry Ford and political groups like the America First Committee warned Americans about a Jewish conspiracy to take over the country’s financial and political sectors. Jews were explicitly blamed for forcing the U.S. into World War II. Anti-Jewish ideologues openly spoke of an attempt by American Jews to fundamentally alter the “Christian foundations” of the country, and they exploited anti-Semitism to pass draconian immigration restrictions in 1924.
It is telling that we now look back at such anti-Jewish rhetoric with shame, derision and mockery. Indeed, that is precisely how we view the anti-Catholic “Know-Nothing” movement in the 19th century, which viewed Catholics as immutably alien. That history makes me confident that, a few decades from now, we will both regret and ridicule the bigoted words that people like Newt Gingrich and the Rev. Franklin Graham (today’s McFadden and Coughlin) spew about America’s Muslim community.
But for that to happen, American Muslims must learn a valuable lesson from the American Jewish experience about how to reframe perception of their religious community. Rather than apologetically trying to strip away the veil of exoticism and otherness that had formed about their faith and culture — as so many Muslim leaders (myself included) are so desperate to do when it comes to Islam — American Jews plunged ahead in becoming business and political leaders themselves. Even more significantly, they took the lead in the arts: literature, music, film. Jewish ideas, Jewish mores and Jewish stories became a deeply ingrained part of the American cultural landscape, refashioning the mainstream. The same right-wing religious groups, which a century ago would likely have joined in the anti-Jewish chorus issuing forth from pulpits across America, now speak proudly of the country’s “Judeo-Christian” foundations.
This is the path to acceptance that American Muslims must walk, a path that cannot be paved simply through greater education about Islam but rather through greater Muslim participation in business and government and, more importantly, through the arts.
Greater knowledge about Islam is not enough to change Americans’ perception of Muslims. Perceptions are not altered through acquiring data or information. (If that were the case, it would take no effort to convince some on the right that Obama is, in fact, a Christian.) The lesson of the Jewish experience in America is that minds are changed solely through the slow and steady building of relationships.
That is where the arts come in. For it is only through the universal language provided by art and literature, music and film that the story of Muslims in America can be told. These cultural forms can show that, within their particularity, Muslims in this country have the same dreams and aspirations, and struggle with the same economic and political anxieties, as everyone else. It is through the lens of the arts that Muslims in this country will stop being viewed as the “other,” and start being viewed as what they are: Americans.
Reza Aslan is the author of the international bestseller “No god But God” (Random House, 2005) and editor of “Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes From the Modern Middle East.”