Ali Hanif is an African-American Muslim living in Oakland, California. On Fridays, his day off, he attends group prayers at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Northern California (CCNC). But Hanif says that he never volunteers his religion to strangers.
“Speaking freely about being Muslim and being identified as a Muslim because of dressing, attitude and name has become harder in recent years,” he told IPS.
The father of two children, Hanif believes that since the attacks of Sep. 11, 2001 — more than six years ago — it has become more and more difficult to pray or read the Koran in public.
“It has never been easy, but these days it can be a security-related concern,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff going on out here. There are a lot of crazy people out there. A lot of people have a lack of understanding of Islam.”
“You know, we live in a European, Christian-dominated country. This country is set up for Christians. We Muslims pretty much have to make our own space in America.”
A survey released by Pew Research Center last month confirms that public attitudes in the United States about Muslims and Islam have grown more negative in recent years.
“About four in ten Americans (43 percent) say they have a favourable opinion of Muslims, while 35 percent express a negative view. Opinion about Muslims, on balance, was somewhat more positive in 2004 (48 percent favourable vs. 32 percent unfavourable),” Pew reported.
“As in previous surveys, Muslim Americans are seen more positively than Muslims (53 percent vs. 43 percent); however, unfavourable opinions of Muslim Americans have also edged upward, from 25 percent in 2005 to 29 percent currently.”
There are almost three million Muslims in the United States. The American Muslim Council reports that 42 percent are African-Americans, 24 percent are of South Asian origin and 12 percent are of Arab origin.
When this reporter took out a camera at the CCNC, one of the few places in the area where Muslims gather for Friday prayers, the handful of attendees who were preparing for the noon prayer and waiting for the Imam to start the Khutba turned their faces away. . .
Sheila Musaji, editor of American Muslim magazine, agreed. “Sadly, I do see an increase in Islamophobia — in the media, in public perceptions, and also in the number of incidents targeting Muslims,” said. “The American Muslim has been tracking negative statements and actual incidents for some time, and even a cursory look at the information shows a steady increase in Islamophobia.”
In 2005, the Council on American Islamic Relations processed a total of 1,972 civil rights complaints, compared to 1,522 cases reported to CAIR the previous year.
Still, efforts to promote interfaith dialogue appear to be flourishing. Last week, more than 250 people of different faiths, including Muslim community leaders, interfaith leaders, members of law enforcement, representatives of peace and justice groups and elected officials, turned out for a “Sharing Ramadan” iftar, or fast-breaking meal, held at the Islamic Centre of Greater Cincinnati. (MORE)
Omid Memarian is a peace fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He has won several awards, including Human Rights Watch’s highest honour in 2005, the Human Rights Defender Award.