Around 1.6 billion Muslims inhabit the world today, and an estimated three to seven million reside in the United States. Despite the fact that Muslims are the largest unreached people group, only 2% of Protestant Christian missionaries are engaging the Muslim world. In fact, 86% of Muslims globally have not had personal contact with a Christian, which equates to only one in seven Muslims having met a Christian. Clearly, Christians who live in the United States have a tremendous opportunity to minister to the millions of Muslims residing in the United States. Thus, it is perplexing as to why the 257 million Christians in the US seem reluctant to engage this prime mission field even though it is in their own backyard.
For the most part, Muslims in America remained quietly under the radar until the events of September 11, 2001, when they were unwittingly thrust into the spotlight. The tragic events of 9/11 signaled a shift in American perception of Muslims around the world, and also highlighted an unprecedented focus on Muslims in America. Consequently, since 9/11, prejudice and discrimination against Muslims have escalated in the United States.
Yet, the Bible calls for Christians to love their neighbors, which rightly includes Muslims. Therefore, it is crucial to ascertain the basis for this neglect of Muslim ministry in the United States, and why Christians are ignoring this opportunity for outreach. Thus, this study will examine American Christians’ perception of Muslims, whether or not prejudice exists in the American Church, and also evaluate how Christians’ perception of Muslims affects ministry to Muslims. In order to resolve these questions, it is important to have an understanding of the history and key events surrounding Muslims’ presence in America. Significant factors contributing to this include Muslims’ immigration to America, their overall experience in America, and the factors that have shaped American Christians’ perception of Muslims. Most importantly, it is crucial to examine how American Christians can be prepared to engage Muslims who are figuratively, and, sometimes literally, on their doorsteps.
Muslim Immigration to America
Before examining the perception of Muslims in America, it is important to understand the historical journey of how Muslims first arrived in America. However, this cannot be accomplished without difficulty, as the historical reports of Muslim immigration to the United States vary widely and are not without dispute. Purportedly, the initial Muslim immigrants were actually forced by means of the African slave trade in the 1700s. Edward Curtis briefly traced the lives of a handful of slaves during colonial times that arrived in what is now the United States. He suggests that perhaps thousands to a million Muslims were residing in North America, but stops short of providing any evidence of this notion. He also claims that Muslims might have traveled in 1492 alongside Columbus, but, again, abstains from producing any evidence or sources for this claim. Ghulam M. Haniff provides a different assessment when he admits,
“The claim that Africans imported as slaves included Muslims, while quite plausible in view of the disparate evidence collected, has yet to be subjected to credible scholarly scrutiny. Unfortunately, slaves did not leave behind a community of any kind nor did they develop institutional structures in the form of mosques or graveyards that could have constituted tangible proof. However, some descendants of African slaves did embrace Islam during the first half of the twentieth century but their numbers never amounted to more than a handful.”
Similarly, other studies suggest a modest number of Muslims in America’s history. Mehmet Ugur Ekinci pored over Ottoman documents to discover the origins of Muslim immigration. He relates that the Ottoman state reported that it became aware of a small cluster of Muslims who fled to North America around 1890. Unfortunately, no legal records of this were maintained, so tracking the precise number of Muslims was impossible. The majority of this immigration was done surreptitiously, so the Muslims never “[grew] into a large or visible group.” By 1892, it was reported that there were around 200 Muslims in the United States, but three years later this estimate had diminished to a mere fifty. The majority of these immigrants desired to make a living and then return home with money to support their families. Most members of this initial Muslim community settled in Worcester, Massachusetts. Ekinci describes, “The earliest list of Muslims living in the United States, prepared by Topanelian in January 1892, is limited to Worcester. It includes the names of 28 men between the ages of 15 and 48.” Whether there were other Muslim immigrants living outside of Worcester at that time remains unclear. Ghulam M. Haniff’s report corresponds to this view of small clusters immigrating to the US toward the end of the 19th century.
Briefly, it is pertinent to examine how these early Muslims were considered in light of their early arrival in the US. Lawrence Davidson describes the attitude toward Islam and Muslims in their earlier days as one that was “friendly.” He explains,
“The presence of these early Muslims was recognized by the inclusion of the religion of Islam in the discussion of religious freedom in the early years of the nation’s history. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin all mentioned Islam in their arguments supporting the broadest possible religious freedom and tolerance. This was the position of almost all those supporting the adoption of the Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. Thus, from the very founding of the nation, a friendly regard toward individual Muslims was part of the American outlook.”
In the early colonial days, Muslims probably practiced Islam independently without an established community framework. Curtis points out, “There is no evidence to suggest that Omar [a slave in the colonial period] practiced Islam in a communal setting with other Muslim slaves.” Around 1919, the development of at least one mosque in Michigan signaled communal practice of Islam and a more widespread presence of Muslims. Four more mosques were built before World War II, which resulted in a total of around five mosques in the entire US by the end of World War II. Most of the early Muslim immigrants were predominantly Lebanese and Syrian with some, “Turks, Tartans, Yugoslavs, Albanians, and Indo-Pakistanis” adding to the diversity.
Regardless of the uncertainty surrounding the original Muslims who immigrated to North America, one element that is certain is that the arrival of larger groups of Muslims can be traced to 1965. Before then, only “light levels” of Muslims migrated to the United States before and through the 19th century. Immigration began to propel after World War I, and another significant influx was ushered in after World War II. By the 1950s, three significant factors contributed to Muslim growth in the US. Ghulam M. Haniff explains, “One [factor] was the founding of FIA [Federation of Islamic Associations], the second was the construction of a major mosque [in Washington, DC], and the third was the arrival of students from Muslim countries for studies on American university campuses.” In 1965, the immigration law was changed due to the Immigration Act of 1965. At that time, an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 Muslims resided in the United States. Thus, in the 1960s, Muslim immigration began to spike and the majority of Muslims in America today are “newcomers” who arrived after 1965. After 1980, immigration laws were once again relaxed, and another wave of Muslims arrived to embrace opportunities in the United States. Not only were students arriving, but also “professionals and skilled workers.” Of these first-generation immigrants, 45% of them moved to the US since 1990, 60% since 1980, and 85% since 1970.
In regard to modern times, a serious challenge exists in tracing Muslim immigration, because the U.S. Census Bureau does not count people based on religion. Other challenges involve which Muslims to include, such as whether Ahmadis should be considered Muslims. Thus, even today, there is a wide disparity in estimates of between four and eight million Muslims in the United States. Ghulam M. Haniff reveals the struggle: “Demographically, there are no official statistics on the Muslim minority population. Estimates of their numbers, based on data obtained through a variety of techniques, vary from four to eight million. The most frequently cited figure, reported widely in the media, is that of seven million.”
Figures are typically attained by means of the Census Bureau’s records of “immigrants’ nativity and nationality.” To put it simply, this method essentially equates to an educated guess. With that in mind, it is believed that since 2010, Muslims represent somewhere between 0.2-1% of the current population in the United States.
Furthermore, Muslims are attracted to the United States for many reasons. For example, some Muslims are seeking refuge from war-torn regions, and some are experiencing religious or ethnic persecution, or fleeing Islamism. Others are attracted to the United States because they desire to receive an education. As Jackleen M. Salem reveals, “Today, immigrants can enter the USA and become citizens…through family sponsorship, work, political asylum, the diversity lottery, and special circumstances.” Many of these Muslims have become valued citizens in society as “lawyers, doctors, politicians, teachers, and are learning to manage their multiple identities as Muslims, Arabs, Turks, and Indians with their American…identities.” Although other nations such as France and Germany attracted uneducated and poorer Muslim immigrants, the United States received the opposite trend. In regard to Muslim immigrants in America, Salem contends, “[They] were both educated and professionals who could speak English proficiently. This allowed them to integrate in the American society’s upper middle class smoothly as they were often doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, and businessmen.” Thus, Muslim immigrants in the U.S. have valuable skill-sets, are educated, and tend to be scattered throughout the country as opposed to tightly woven enclaves.
Moreover, nearly two-thirds of the Muslim population in the United States consists of immigrants, and 63% of Muslims in the U.S. are “first-generation immigrants.” Another interesting consideration is that 81% of Muslims immigrants are U.S. citizens. The first generation Muslims in American come from a diverse background, which is worth noting: “About four-in-ten (41%) are immigrants from the Middle East or North Africa, while about a quarter (26%) come from South Asia nations including Pakistan (14%), Bangladesh (5%), and India (3%). Others came to the U.S. from sub-Saharan Africa (11%), various countries in Europe (7%), Iran (5%) or other countries (9%).” Pakistan is the single largest contributor to Muslim immigration in the U.S.
Muslims’ General Experience in America
Muslims’ experience in the US has been shaped by many factors, but none could be more significant than September 11, 2001. The Muslim population had kept a relatively quiet profile in the US, but all of that changed on 9/11. Jackleen Salem explains, “The political situation in the Middle East has always impacted Muslims in America, from the Six Day War in 1967 to the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. But it was 9/11 that put the spotlight on Muslims in America unlike it had ever been before.” Although unease around Muslims existed perhaps before 9/11, this feeling of discomfort seemed to morph into outright fear overnight. Since 9/11, 28% of Muslims report that they have felt people considered them to be suspicious, and 22% have had insults hurled at them. Before 9/11, hate-crimes against Muslims were rare. Since 9/11, Mona M. Amer describes, “Anti-Muslim hate crimes have surged…to possibly the most prevalent type of hate crime now taking place on American soil.” This is evident just by examining FBI statistics, which reveal thirty-three hate crimes committed against Muslims in 2000, but by 2001 this number skyrocketed to 546. Additionally, 52% believe that policies in the U.S. pertaining to anti-terrorism efforts promote additional negative focus on Muslims. One Muslim man, Abdullah Noorudeen Durke, laments this grievance when he says,
“One of the results of 9/11 that all Muslims endure is that we are now no longer individuals, but are a ‘religion’ and, as such, we all have become answerable and accountable for what fellow religionists did and do in various parts of the world – what used to be termed, in the McCarthy era ‘guilt by association.’ Could we similarly assign guilt to all Christians for the excesses of Hitler (who during his final day in his Berlin bunker avidly read the New Testament), or Stalin (an altar boy in his youth). These two killed some 18 million people.”
Due to increased suspicion, Muslims are under additional scrutiny by both law-enforcement and the government. This has resulted in, “surveillance, profiling, interrogation, detention… deportation, and additional violations of civil liberties.” Consequently, 55% of Muslims in America believe that challenges and difficulties have increased for them since 9/11. It is hard to be a Muslim in the United States now more than ever. One Muslim man pleads,
“We’re Muslim Americans, we’re neighbors, we’re politicians, we’re doctors, we’re lawyers. You know we’re teachers. We’re part of the American fabric. And to single us out and to put out these bills that are unconstitutional saying you can’t practice your religion and anti-sharia bills and things like that. These Pavlovian triggers that the Islamophobes are very good at putting out there…That’s something that our community really, I’d say, we are hurt by.”
Yet, American Muslims are resilient, which is reflected in their appraisal of their overall experience in the United States. Regardless of the aforementioned difficulties, Muslims are surprisingly happy in the United States. 82% say that they are content with their lives in the US, and 79% consider the communities where they reside to be positive places to live. In addition, 48% believe that the average American is typically friendly toward Muslims in America, which is partnered with 32% who feel Americans respond in a neutral manner toward Muslims. In fact, 66% indicate that Muslims in America have an improved “quality of life” over Muslims residing elsewhere in the world. Additionally, Muslims are actually happier with the direction the United States is heading compared to the general population (56% vs. 23%).
Islamophobia? Assessing the Perception of Muslims
Before proceeding, it is important to take a moment to define a key term, Islamophobia, which will be used for the duration of this paper. Jocelyne Cesari suggests that Etienne Dinet first posited the term in 1922 in the essay L’Orient vu de l’Occident, but the term perhaps did not carry the same weighty connotation as it does in modern times. Regardless, it was the Runnymede Trust in 1997 that highlighted the term in a published report, which bolstered the term’s usage and familiarity. Although scholars have not come to a consensus concerning the definition of Islamophobia, Lawrence Davidson supplies an apropos definition when he describes,
“Islamophobia is a stereotyping of all Muslims (that is the stereotyping of over a billion human beings) as real or potential terrorists due to the alleged hateful and violent teachings of their religion. Islam is reduced to the concept of jihad and the concept of jihad is reduced to terror against the West.”
Another appropriate definition by Stephen Schwartz explains, “Islamophobia is the condemnation of Islam in its entirety as ‘extremist’ while denying the very existence of a moderate Muslim majority.” Essentially, this term means that people bundle negative, derogatory, or threatening terms, such as “violence and terrorism,” with all of Islam and Muslims.
Some scholars believe Islamophobia is akin to a new type of racism, and describe the term as a “cultural racism.” Ramon Grosfoguel suggests that by focusing on the religious aspect of Islam, it allows Americans to sidestep the distasteful label of racism. He relays,
“Cultural racism is a form of racism where the word ‘race’ is not even mentioned. It is focused on the cultural inferiority of a group of people. Usually it is framed in terms of the inferior habits, beliefs, behavior, or values of a group of people… In the new cultural racist discourses, religion has a dominant role. The contemporary tropes about ‘uncivilized,’ ‘barbarian,’ ‘savage,’ ‘primitive,’ ‘underdeveloped,’ ‘authoritarian,’ and ‘terrorist’ inferior people are today concentrated in the ‘other’s’ religious practices and believes [sic]. By focusing on the ‘other’s’ religion, the…Euro–Americans…manage to escape being accused of racism.”
In truth, it is a form of racism, but just packaged differently. Furthermore, Islamophobia is typically expressed via four dimensions. Sabri Ciftci describes, “These dimensions are exclusion, discrimination, prejudice, and violence.” The most dangerous aspect of Islamophobia is when it evolves from prejudice (a belief) to discrimination (an action), which could escalate to violence. In regard to Islamophobia, one Muslim man, Mohamad Nimer, comes to an interesting conclusion and actually pleads with his fellow Muslims to have patience with the general population. He contends, “My argument is there are a few Islamophobes…but the vast majority of Americans are people who’ve been misinformed, who don’t know the truth and don’t know the real facts.”
Correspondingly, it is important to ascertain whether Islamophobia exists among the general population of America, and how Americans’ perception of Muslims compares to Christians’ perception. Around 50% of Americans believe that the general population is prejudiced against Muslims in America. Forty-five percent think that Muslims experience “a lot” of discrimination in the US along with 28% who suppose they receive “some” discrimination.
In fact, Muslims who call America home have experienced a more elevated level of prejudice than members of other religious groups. Similarly, they receive more prejudice than other groups such as “gays, lesbians, Hispanics, African Americans, and women.” Furthermore, 60% of Muslims in America recognize this prejudice, and 48% acknowledge being the recipient of discrimination just in the last year. This is a staggering number when one considers that there are an estimated seven million Muslims residing in the United States.
In the past, atheists were considered to be the most untrustworthy group in the American opinion. Now, this designation has shifted to Muslims, and 45% of the general population considers Muslims to be the most suspicious and least trustworthy group. Consequently, this lack of trust has resulted in four out of ten Americans believing that Muslims should be forced to wear special identification cards, and 52% urge that mosques should be wiretapped. Similarly, in 2014, 46% of the general public felt they did not “share a vision of society” with Muslims. This might be because 54% of the general American population thinks that American Muslims are supporters of terrorist branches, such as al-Qaeda. In the same vein, 69% of Americans possess “widespread concerns” about Islamic terrorists, 46% believe that Muslims are fanatics, and 47% think they are violent. Clearly, this indicates that many Americans possess some measure of Islamophobia and view Muslims and Islam in a less than favorable light.
In addition, this heightened prejudice extends beyond just the American perception and seems to have injected itself into the hearts and minds of American Christians as well. In all actuality, the American Christian perception of Muslims is perhaps even more corroded. Several studies have determined that the greater the emphasis an individual places on their religious identity the more likely they are to perceive Muslims as a threat. Sabri Ciftci asserts, “The odds that an individual with a strong Christian identity will hold such attitudes are 1.68 times larger than for someone who has a weak religious identity.” This is confirmed by thirty-seven out of forty-seven other studies that correlate greater degrees of religiosity with an increase in prejudice.
Moreover, the Pew Research Center further tested this postulation by surveying 3,217 participants in 2014 from among Jews, Catholics, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Mormons, and Christians. They evaluated the opinions of various religious groups by utilizing a figurative thermometer as a measurement, and by asking respondents to rate their feelings about Muslims on a scale from warm (one hundred) to cold (zero). The mean score of Muslims by all participants was a forty, but Protestants were among those who labeled Muslims with one of the lowest measurements which was thirty-six. In fact, Muslims received their coldest assessment from white evangelicals who ranked them the lowest by assigning them a thirty.
Additional studies prove that this is a consistent trend. A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center discovered that 63% of white evangelical Protestants believe that Islam “encourages violence more than other religions.” In comparison, only 42% of the general public holds the same view. Further confirming this idea, sixty-five Christians who were surveyed for this paper said that they believed Islam was a religion of violence, and only nineteen said they considered it a religion of peace. One man commented on the survey, “Muslims have pretty much given themselves a bad name by not doing more to protect what they say is peaceful.” In addition, in regard to the surveys received for this paper, seventy Christians out of eighty-seven said they were concerned about attacks by Muslims in the US and around the world, while only seventeen said they were not concerned.
In the same surveys, when asked if they had more positive or negative feelings and thoughts about Muslims, fifty-seven Christians responded with “negative,” while twenty-seven responded with “positive.” One of the questions on the survey asked, “When you hear the word Muslim, what is the first word that comes to your mind?” Only six Christians out of eighty-seven responded with a positive word, such as friend, excited, hospitable, misrepresented, evangelism. Forty-four responded with more neutral words, such as Arab, covering, religion, Middle East, and burqa. But, thirty-two responded with negative words associating the word Muslim with ISIS, terrorist, violence, radical, hate-filled, 9/11, dislike, oppressive, militant, and Anti-Christ.
Furthermore, past studies corroborate that throughout history Protestants have consistently held a more severe view of Muslims and Islam than the general public:
“The 2005 Pew survey found that while the overall unfavorable view of Islam was at that time 36 percent, the percentage was 47 among white evangelical Protestants. Similarly, the percentage of white evangelical Protestants convinced that Islam was more likely than other religions to encourage violence was 49 [percent], compared with an overall rating of 36 [percent]. The Pew Center poll of 2007 shows the same pattern. The overall unfavorable view is 35 percent, but that for white evangelical Protestants it is 57; and for the affirmative answer to the question about Islam’s encouraging violence the percentage for white evangelical Protestants is 56 compared with an overall percentage of 45.”
In fact, some of the most recent research conducted in September 2014 does not stray from this trend, and instead actually reinforces it. LifeWay Research conducted two studies examining Americans’ perception of Islam and Christians’ perception of Islam in light of ISIS. As a result, the survey also sheds light on whether or not Americans and Christians can differentiate between Islam and extremism. To accomplish this, LifeWay surveyed one thousand Americans and one thousand senior pastors in America. In reference to the study, USA Today reported, “What might be most notable about the LifeWay surveys is the strikingly harder views on Islam among clergy compared with Americans at large.” To begin, 27% of Americans believe that “ISIS is a true indication of what Islam looks like when Islam controls a society.” On the other hand, 45% percent of Protestant pastors agree with the statement, and 51% of evangelical pastors. Similarly, 37% of Americans are concerned about the implementation of sharia law in the US, and even more evangelical Christians are concerned about it (51%). Further supporting this idea, one Christian woman wrote on her survey for this paper, “I do not understand Sharia law above our country’s law.” Moreover, 76% of Protestant preachers in the LifeWay research agree with the statement “airstrikes against ISIS are needed to protect Christians.” Sherman A. Lee suggests this harsh perception perhaps stems from many Christians viewing Islam as the “enemy of Christianity.” In the end, these studies seem to suggest that not only is prejudice toward Muslims in existence among the general population of America, but perhaps even to a greater degree among American Christians.
Perception versus Reality
Clearly, many Americans in the general public, including Christians, believe that Muslims in America subscribe to violent beliefs, but this can be an inaccurate and unfair assessment. For example, many Americans would be surprised to learn that a study conducted ten years after 9/11 emphasized that Muslims in America do not support extremism. Only 21% of Muslims agreed with the notion that there is at least a small amount of support for extremism among the Muslim communities in the US. In contrast, the general American public disagreed with this assessment, and 40% believe there is between a small amount to a great deal of support for extremists among Muslims in the US. In truth, 1% of Muslim Americans subscribe to the belief that suicide bombings or violence are acceptable in order to “defend Islam from enemies,” and 7% say that this is “sometimes acceptable under those particular circumstances.” But, the overwhelming majority (81%) espouse that neither violence nor suicide bombings against civilians are ever acceptable under any circumstances. Moreover, 2% of Muslims in America view al-Qaeda in a “very favorable” light, and 3% in a “somewhat favorable” light, but 70% rank al-Qaeda as “very unfavorable.” Thus, Muslims in American tend to be moderate and reserved in their beliefs. In fact, Muslims are sometimes credited as the ones who help thwart attacks against the United States as Gallup reveals,
“Since 9/11, the Muslim-American community has helped security and law enforcement officials prevent nearly two of every five al-Qaeda terrorist plots threatening the United States, and tips from the Muslim-American community are the largest single source of initial information to authorities about these few plots.”
Therefore, the harsh perception that the American public generally maintains is not one based on truth and does not correspond with reality. Despite the typical assumption, American Muslims actually seem to be more in line with the general American population than with their Muslim counterparts around the world. Typically, Americans hold an erroneous view that Muslims do not desire to assimilate. In reality, 56% of Muslims sincerely believe that Muslims immigrating to the US want to adopt and embrace the traditional American way of life. Only 20% of Muslims believe that other Muslims want to alienate themselves from others and cling to a Muslim-only segment. On the other hand, the majority of the general population (67%) believes that Muslims do not desire to assimilate. This is an important factor, because studies have indicated that when people perceive that Muslims do not desire to assimilate, it increases their negative attitude toward Muslims. For example, those who believe Muslims are segregating themselves are more likely to correlate Muslims with, “violence, fanaticism, and terrorism.” Similarly, as recent as 2014, 61% of the general public perceives that Muslims are “more loyal” to Islam than to America.
Surprisingly, only 48% of Muslims in American say that the majority of their friends are Muslims and only a minority (7%) says that all of their friends are Muslim. This only confirms the willingness of Muslims to integrate into society and that most of them are not alienating themselves. Clearly, Muslims in America are open to the idea of being friends with people who are of other religions, which is an opportunity that Christians should embrace.
Continuing, at least one in five Americans believes that Muslims are intolerant of other religions or people of different races. On a scale measuring threat perception, Muslims rated significantly higher than all of the other groups when it came to being “intolerant of others, do not share morals or values, and threat to public order and safety.”
Despite this opinion, Gallup’s research found evidence of the opposite and revealed an interesting assessment,
“Gallup finds Muslim Americans, however, are among the most integrated religious groups in the U.S. Gallup Religious Tolerant Index, which measures people’s attitudes toward religious faiths different from their own and ranks survey respondents by three categories: Isolated, Tolerant, and Integrated people. Among US religious groups, 44% of Muslim Americans are integrated, on par with Mormons (46%) and greater than Jewish Americans (36%), Protestants (35%), and Catholics (34%).”
Understanding Gallup’s definitions of integrated and tolerant is critical. Tolerant in this study is defined as, “Individuals [who] have a ‘live-and-let-live’ attitude toward people of other faiths, and they generally feel that they treat others of different faiths with respect. However, they are not likely to learn from or about other religions.” In addition, Gallup defined integrated individuals as, “[People who] go beyond a ‘live-and-let-live’ attitude and actively seek to know more about and learn from others of different religious traditions. They believe that most faiths make a positive contribution to society.” This study seems to indicate that at least 44% of Muslims in America are open, willing, and seeking to learn from people of other faiths. The question remains as to whether Christians are willing to embrace this opportunity.
In the same vein, Muslims share many similar beliefs with the standard American population. Seventy-four percent of Muslims agree that working hard leads to success compared to 62% of the general public maintaining this belief. Interestingly, despite typically receiving a bad reputation in regard to women’s rights, 90% of Muslims in America believe women should be able to have a job outside of working in the house. Sixty-eight percent believe that there is “no difference” in regard to male and female political leaders. These views are atypical for Muslims in other parts of the world, which demonstrates that Muslims in America in large part are adapting to American ways of life. Furthermore, despite the caricature that Muslims are grotesquely different from the general public, Muslims actually share many similar features as others in the general population. For instance, Muslims and the general public had comparable percentage responses in regard to watching TV, recycling, playing video games for entertainment, interacting on social media, displaying the American flag, and rooting for sports teams. Obviously, this information is significant, because many Christians and Americans view Muslims as different and consider them to be an “other” or an “out-group,” but in reality they share many similarities.
In fact, Edward Curtis sums up this very mainstream way of life that most Muslims share with their fellow Americans when he describes, “With only a very few exceptions, Muslim Americans are not and never have been terrorists. Focusing on the supposed Muslim ‘enemy’ inside America may stir fear and sell books, but it does not accurately or fairly portray the mundane realities of Muslim American life.” The stereotypical depiction of Muslims as terrorists determined to annihilate the West is not an accurate reflection of the many Muslims peacefully living life in the US. Most Muslims in America just want to live normal, quiet lives like the rest of the general population. In fact, 63% do not see any issue with being a “devout Muslim and living in a modern society.” This point is important because it shows a clear distinction between the general perception and reality. Jocelyne Cesari reveals why this is critical when she divulges,
“A common point across surveys is that non-Muslims mostly fear that the presence of Muslims will affect their way of life or alter the norms of an assumed mainstream. In other words, while non-Muslims may not have a direct problem with Muslims or individual Muslims, they fear that Muslims – particularly growing numbers of them – will impose unwanted changes in their countries.”
Accordingly, this is in line with the survey results received for this paper. While fifty-three of eighty-seven Christian respondents were comfortable having Muslims as neighbors, only thirty were comfortable with a mosque being built near their house. Similarly, only thirty-three said they felt fear when they saw a Muslim, yet fifty-seven were alarmed by the number of Muslims moving to the US. This seems to indicate that Christians are comfortable with Muslims in small numbers, but feel threatened by swarms of them. This might also explain why Christians primarily responded in a positive manner during the participant observation portion of this study. Most Christians were regarded as friendly when they perceived a Muslim woman in their church, which might indicate that a solitary, female Muslim is considered non-threatening in comparison to a multitude of Muslims.
Continuing, despite the concern of the general public in regard to large numbers of Muslims causing a change to societal norms, the figures previously discussed clearly indicate that most Muslims are adopting American culture and assimilating. To put this into perspective, there are around 320 million people in the US, and 257 million of those people proclaim to be Christian. Essentially, this equates to eight in ten people in the US being a Christian. In comparison, there are only four to seven million Muslims in the US, which makes this fear of Muslims altering the norms of society seem unfounded.
Moreover, Muslims in America deviate from other Muslims around the world in that they are less dogmatic when it comes to religion. A surprising 57% believe that there is more than one way to interpret Islam, and even more surprising, 56% hold the belief that “many different religions can lead to eternal life.” Only 35% assert that Islam is the exclusive means to eternal life. The Pew Research Center survey concludes by saying, “In this respect Muslim Americans differ from many of their counterparts in the Muslim world and are similar to U.S. Christians.” Thus, it has been demonstrated that many Muslims in America believe that other religions can lead to eternity, and many are open to learning from people of other faiths. Clearly, their open-mindedness is a wide door of opportunity for Christians to share the Gospel with them. Yet, there is a tremendous gap between the perception of Muslims and the reality, which is perhaps hindering outreach. Therefore, given this disparity, it is necessary to understand the factors that contribute to forming these misconceptions in American society and within the church.
Citations have been removed for readability. Leigh Carmichael’s paper “American Christians’ Perception of Muslims and its Implications for Ministry” can be read in its entirety in the research section.