1998 Civil Rights Report: Patterns of Discrimination

Executive Summary

Data gathered for this report demonstrates that Muslims in the United States are increasingly challenged by discrimination and intolerance. The daily experiences of Muslims in schools, workplaces, public areas, airports, and government agencies often include incidents in which Muslims are singled out, denied religious accommodation and otherwise discriminated against by reason of actual or perceived religion and ethnicity. This year’s report contains 284 such cases, up from 240 in 1997–an 18 percent increase. All of these experiences have common elements of setting symbols, rituals and other unique features of Muslim life apart of what is considered normal, acceptable and tolerable in the dominant culture.

A decline in harassment and violence

Incidents of harassment and violence account for 36 cases, compared to 85 incidents in 1997. The decrease in the number of incidents can be attributed to the absence of events such as the crash of TWA Flight 800 or the Oklahoma City bombing. These tragic events were unfairly blamed on Muslims, and led to a surge of incidents of harassment and violence against Muslims in the United States.

A rise in discrimination

This report documents 248 incidents of discrimination–a 60 percent increase over the previous year. These incidents include the termination or denial of employment because of religious appearance; the refusal to accommodate religious practices in the workplace, schools and prisons; the singling out of individuals at airports because of their distinct names, appearances and travel destination; and the denial of service or access to public accommodation facilities because of religious or ethnic identity.

Sources of bias

Many cases described in this report indicate that ignorance of Islam and its religious practices continues to be a major factor contributing to the mistreatment of Muslims. Another major factor is outdated corporate policies that do not take into account the needs of the rising Muslim population in the workforce. Some corporations have recognized this fact and implemented new policies to insure the free exercise of religion in the workplace. One example is a decision by Stream International in Dallas, Texas, to assign a room for employees to pray. Another example is an initiative by American Industry in Nashville, Tennessee, to institute a “floating break” as a mechanism allowing workers to attend Friday prayer at a mosque.

Private sector companies may decide to adopt an initiative similar to President Clinton’s 1997 guidelines on the accommodation of religious practice in the federal workplace. In this initiative the president specifically recognized the right of a woman to wear hijab (loose-fitting clothing with a head covering that Muslim women wear in public) and advised government offices to accommodate this and other religious practices of Muslims and people of other faiths.

Not all government initiatives have promoted tolerance in the past year. American Muslims are apprehensive about community members held under so-called secret evidence procedures. Also, the Computerized Automated Passenger Screening (CAPS–known as passenger profiling), initiated by the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, may prove to be an institutionalized form of discrimination. Exchanges between travelers and airline representatives and narrations of passengers’ experiences illustrate that ethnic and religious stereotyping can be a problem in the profiling procedure.

Another major source of discrimination is the bias against religion in general and Islam in particular. Muslims have been portrayed as the “other,” often leading to biased behavior by persons in positions of authority as well as by members of the public. CAIR recently published educational booklets, An Employer’s Guide to Islamic Religious Practices and An Educator’s Guide to Islamic Religious Practices, which helped in the resolution and/or prevention of several discrimination cases–a indication that changes in public perception are attainable through the constructive exchange of ideas.