Eight years after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Muslim Americans particularly Muslim-American women continue to face battles in their struggle for acceptance and the right to wear religious garb in public settings. A new poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds that Americans see Muslims as encountering more discrimination than any other religious group. But while Americans are more likely to be familiar with Islam or personally know a Muslim than they were at the time of the attacks, levels of tolerance are lower today than they were in the months immediately following Sept. 11.
It may be difficult to remember now, but just days after the attacks in New York City and Washington, President George W. Bush went out of his way to remind Americans not to confuse ordinary Muslims with the handful of terrorists who committed the violence. "We should not hold one who is a Muslim responsible for an act of terror," Bush said on Sept. 13, 2001.
The message appeared to sink in. A Pew Forum poll conducted that November found that only 17% of Americans held unfavorable views of Muslim Americans, a decrease from 24% just eight months earlier. The shift was most striking among conservative Republicans in March 2001, 40% viewed Muslim Americans unfavorably, but by November, that number had plummeted by more than half to 19%. In the wake of the attacks, Americans were also reluctant to say that Islam encourages violence more than other faiths; only one-quarter agreed with that statement in March 2002. But by the time the war in Iraq began one year later, that view had changed dramatically, with 44% of Americans willing to associate Islam with violence.
Today, the broad tolerance that existed in the days following 9/11 has largely evaporated. Nearly 40% of Americans still say they think Islam is more likely to encourage violence, according to a new Pew Forum survey, and only a minority hold favorable views of Muslims (the latest poll does not distinguish between Muslims and Muslim Americans).
Muslim Americans are also increasingly battling to adhere to their religious beliefs in the workplace and other public spaces. In Philadelphia, the police department disciplined an officer for wearing a hijab (a headscarf that covers hair and sometimes the neck), and the move was upheld in court. Legislators in Oklahoma and Minnesota have proposed legislation that would prohibit women from wearing a hijab for drivers-license photos. And in Oregon, the state legislature just affirmed a law prohibiting public school teachers from wearing religious garb. The law was originally developed in the 1920s as an anti-Catholic measure aimed at priest collars and nun habits, and it was supported by the Ku Klux Klan. Now some Muslim advocates worry that they are being targeted the same way. "Attire is always a red flag," says Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council for Islamic-American Relations. "But what we're seeing is the overall trend of a vocal minority in our society trying to block any accommodation to Muslims."
At the same time, Muslims have become a more familiar part of American society nearly half of all Americans claim to personally know someone who is Muslim, compared with just 38% of Americans in November 2001. And that number will probably rise in the future, as familiarity with Islam and Muslims is much more common among younger Americans.
A majority of Americans under age 30 (52%) know a Muslim, but less than one-third (30%) of those over age 65 do. That's significant because researchers have found that knowledge of Islam and Muslims tends to make an individual more inclined to express favorable views of the two. "People who know a Muslim tend to be less likely than others to see a connection between Islam and violence," says Gregory Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum.
It may well be, however, that an uncomfortable gray area exists between tolerating Muslim Americans and fully integrating them into U.S. society. It's not an accident that several recent cases challenging the right of judges to ask Muslim women to remove their hijab in the courtroom have come out of Michigan, which has the largest Arab population outside of the Middle East. Muslims are visible everywhere in the metro Detroit area, selling magazines in the airport, taking orders at Starbucks and manning tellers at local banks but the community is still struggling with the question of how far to extend accommodation for their beliefs and practices.
Muslim Americans still enjoy a status less fraught than that of their cousins in Europe, where France is considering banning the wearing of burqas in public and has already outlawed headscarves in schools, and where this summer Muslim women wearing what have been termed "burkinis" were refused entry to pools in France and Italy. But Americans are still divided on whether to embrace the declaration that President Obama made during his speech in Cairo this summer. "Freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion," said Obama. "That is why the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it."