Where are the moderate Muslims?

Guest commentary by Whit Bodman

Incidents of vandalism at mosques are at an all-time high – 63 reported incidents as of this writing. Gunshots were fired into a mosque in Connecticut. A pig’s head was thrown at a mosque in Philadelphia. A mosque in Coachella, California, was firebombed. A Muslim woman in Tampa Bay was shot at and another was stoned. Two offices of a national Muslim organization received envelopes with white powder. In Dallas, armed protesters paraded in front of a mosque with threatening signs. These are but a few of the incidents occurring around the country as the rhetoric against Muslims intensifies.

Where are the moderate Muslims? This is a common question and an easy one to answer – everywhere. They are the norm in America.

Unlike the Muslim population in France, which is largely working-class, Muslims in America tend to be well educated – slightly above the American average, with incomes to match. About two thirds of Muslims in America are first-generation naturalized immigrants. The majority comes from South Asia – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Many others are from Arab countries, Turkey, Iran and North Africa. Their children are growing up in the American education system, jumbled in with children of a multitude of other faiths, heritages and languages. They are part of the extraordinary stew of American diversity.

Easily a quarter of all Muslims in America are African-American, coming from a long heritage that reaches back to Muslim slaves brought to these shores. Many came to Islam through the Nation of Islam under Noble Drew Ali and Elijah Muhammad, but then migrated into a more traditional Sunni Islam under W.D. Muhammad.

Estimates on the number of Muslims in America vary widely. The Pew Research Center estimates that there may be 3 million Muslims in the US, about 1 percent of the population. In spite of the recent anti-Muslim rhetoric, many Muslims say that America is the best place in the world to be Muslim. The opportunity to build mosques and schools and the freedom to worship as they wish and say what they want is not found in many other countries. They come here because of our values. More than 5,000 currently serve in the military. What often strikes me as ironic is that the Muslims I meet generally express more appreciation of this country than do many at the political extremes, especially the Tea Party wing.

However, this is not to say that there are not significant concerns. I was waiting at a bus stop in Damascus many years ago when I was approached by a group of young men, one of whom asked me, in Arabic, if I was Russian. I replied that I was not. He tried several other nationalities. Nope. Finally I confessed that I was “Amriki.” “Ahlan wa sahlan!” “Welcome!” he cried. We talked a bit and then he drew close and asked me with great seriousness, “Why do Americans hate us?” I do not know whether the “us” was us Syrians, us Muslims or us Arabs. Perhaps all. I could only answer, “Because we don’t know you.” And then he paid my bus fare.

According to Pew, most Americans (83 percent) say they know little or nothing about the religious practices and beliefs of Muslims. Sixty-two percent say they seldom or never have conversations with anyone they know to be Muslim. Even so, 47 percent overall say they believe the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life.

The recent flurry of anti-Muslim speech, most notably from leading politicians, makes matters worse. As former Bush advisor Karen Hughes says, proposals such as banning Muslims from entering the U.S. only affirms the claim of terrorists that the West is at war with Islam, a claim that is a powerful recruiting tool for the likes of al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. She writes, “Our best weapon against this warped worldview is the fact that we embrace people of every faith and allow people the freedom to worship according to their own consciences.”

Unfortunately, Islamophobia is an industry in the United States. A group of organizations with interconnecting boards and funding sources have been fanning the flames of fear for years. These include Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum, Pamela Geller’s Stop Islamization of America, Brigitte Gabriel’s ACT! For America, Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy and a number of others. A British report on what it calls the “Counter-Jihad movement,” released soon after the Paris bombings, says it “feeds the beast … in its most extreme form, it is encouraging violence and civil strife in the hope of provoking confrontation between Muslims and non-Muslims.”

The American Islamic community itself has every reason to oppose violent extremist Islamic groups. Every incident of terrorism brings greater suspicion and abuse. They are forced to issue denunciation after denunciation of Islamic groups with whom they share little more than a name, even though few pay attention to their denunciations or even hear them.

I was at a luncheon of religion reporters in Texas after the London bombings. Someone had asked in the local paper, “Where are the moderate Muslims?” I asked the reporter from that paper why there had been no reporting on Muslim responses to the bombings. She was unaware of any. I sent her 75 pages of condemnations of the Muslim bombers by local, regional, national and international Muslim organizations. “This is not Islam, indeed contrary to Islam,” was the uniform message. Nothing. Nothing appeared in the paper. It is a dilemma. The moderate Muslims speak, but are not heard.

Some Muslims do feel that their leaders have not spoken out forcefully enough against Muslims who take to violence. Others feel that speaking out makes no difference in people’s attitudes towards them or even further identifies them with the terrorists.

Thus, it is important that the Christian community speak out. We should not be among those who know little about Islam and judge it anyways; neither should we submit to fear. The moderate Muslims are everywhere, and we should come to know them.

Whit BodmanWHIT BODMAN is associate professor of comparative religion at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is also president of Texas Impact, a lobbying and public policy organization working on behalf of Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Unitarian religious organizations with the Texas State legislature. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, he pastored churches for 12 years has been involved in various interfaith dialogues with groups including the National Council of Churches and the Massachusetts Conference of Churches.