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Debunking the Myths that Feed Islamophobia

If you understand Islam, you should have no fears

Feb. 7, 2017
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Photo Credit: Scott Billings (Flickr CC)

More than 80 years ago, during the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told his fellow Americans that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

This past month, however, President Donald Trump offered a far darker view of the world and, with his proposed Muslim ban, is telling Americans that we need to fear Muslim immigrants and refugees seeking a better life in the United States. 

Trump laid the foundation for his Muslim ban—which is attempting to block immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from traveling to the U.S. for three months and preventing refugees from entering the U.S. for 120 days—while on the campaign trail as he stoked Islamophobia among his followers and called for “a total shutdown” of Muslim immigration to the U.S.

Although Trump won election and is attempting to implement his anti-Muslim agenda, Americans of good conscience are resisting his call to fear our friends and neighbors.

Janan Najeeb, founder and president of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition, said that Islamophobia is irrational and based on unfounded fears of “the other.” 

“The basis for all fear is ignorance,” Najeeb told the Shepherd. “And ignorance promotes hatred. And hatred promotes violence.” 

Najeeb said she’s constantly speaking to groups to debunk myths and allay fears about Muslims among those who have never met a Muslim in their life.

“It’s my belief that the only way to tackle that is by promoting understanding, by building bridges, by creating opportunities for people to interact and get to know each other,” she said.

Here are some of the biggest myths and pieces of misinformation about American Muslims, refugees and violent extremism.


Myth: Muslims Are Taking Over

Muslims are a small minority of the American population. The Pew Research Center puts the number at 3.3 million nationwide, a mere 1% of the population. In Wisconsin, about 1% of the population is Muslim, about the same number each of Jehovah Witnesses, Jews, Mormons, Buddhists and Hindus. These numbers, of course, pale in comparison to Christians in Wisconsin (71%), “unaffiliated” (25%) and those with religious beliefs specified as “nothing in particular” (17%).

Although many American Muslims are first- or second-generation Americans, Najeeb argued that Muslims have a long history in America. She cited research showing that up to 30% to 40% of the African slaves brought to the United States came from Muslim areas in West Africa, many of whom were educated and literate.

“Muslims have been here for hundreds of years and Muslims helped to build this country,” Najeeb said.

 

Myth: Refugees Are Flooding Into the Country 

Very few refugees resettle in the U.S., and they only do so after a long, very involved vetting process that can take up to two years. According to Pew Research Center, the number of refugees the U.S. accepts fluctuates, from a high of more than 200,000 in 1980 (most from Asian countries) to almost 85,000 in 2016, which was a high point in the Obama administration. Most of the recent refugees to the U.S. are from Congo, but the U.S. has accepted 135,643 Iraqi refugees in the past decade. Nearly half of the refugees resettled in the U.S. in 2016 were Muslim. 

Wisconsin accepted just 1,719 refugees from October 2015 to September 2016, according to state Department of Children and Families data. More than half of these refugees (966) were from Burma, 867 of whom resettled in Milwaukee County. Of the countries on Trump’s Muslim ban list, 106 refugees from Iraq settled in Wisconsin during this one-year period, 147 are from Somalia, 10 are from Sudan, 99 are from Syria and just one Iranian refugee resettled in Wisconsin. No refugees from Libya or Yemen resettled in Wisconsin during that period.

Pew also found that Americans have long had mixed feelings about accepting refugees, even though many immigrants to America were fleeing persecution and hostile governments in their home nations. Pew reported that a majority of Americans disapproved of accepting Hungarians escaping communism in 1958, Indochinese in 1979, Cubans in 1980, Albanians fleeing Kosovo in 1999 and, in 2016, Syrians attempting to escape the murderous Assad regime.

 

Myth: Muslims Are Not Like ‘Us’ 

Trump and Bannon are using well-worn divide-and-conquer tactics to sell the Muslim ban. By trying to separate immigrants and refugees from the rest of “us,” Muslims and refugees can become “them” and targets of fear and hate. But Trump and Bannon’s views are not reality. Muslims are very much “us.” According to a comprehensive, first-of-its-kind survey of American Muslims from the Pew Research Center, Muslims “are highly assimilated into American society” even though many American Muslims are new to the United States. American Muslims believe that immigrant Muslims should adopt American customs and overwhelmingly agree that the best way to get ahead is to work hard—in other words, they believe in the American dream. In fact, 71% of the Muslim Americans surveyed said they believe in working hard to succeed, more than the 64% who supported that sentiment in the general population.


Myth: Muslims Are Radical Fundamentalists

This myth is debunked by Muslims themselves. The vast majority of American Muslims feel that there is not much support for radical fundamentalism among Muslims. A Pew Research Center survey from 2011 showed that 64% of Muslim Americans say there is not too much or no support for extremism among Muslim Americans, while a very few said there was a great deal (6% of respondents). A full 60% were very or somewhat concerned about the possible rise of Islamic extremism in the U.S. 

Pew also found that American Muslims hold more-mainstream views than Muslims in select Western European countries. American Muslims are generally more prosperous than European Muslims, and they’re more likely to think of themselves as Americans first, before identifying as Muslims. They’re also more likely to say that life for women is better in their adopted country than in Muslim countries. American Muslims are also more likely to have a college degree (39%) than the general U.S. population (27%), or even Methodists (37%), Evangelical Lutherans (36%), Presbyterians (33%), Mormons (33%), Missouri Synod Lutherans (32%), Catholics (26%) and various types of Baptists.

Najeeb said there’s a logical reason why so many American Muslims and Muslim immigrants are highly educated: That was the only way some immigrants were able to leave their home country, such as Syria. “There was always this brain drain to the west,” Najeeb said.

 

Myth: It’s Not a Muslim Ban

While campaigning Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and the seven countries on the list are more than 99% Muslim. Trump said in January that he’s prioritizing accepting Christian refugees over Muslim refugees.


Myth: The Muslim Ban Will Stop Terrorism in the U.S. 

Trump’s rationale for signing the Muslim ban is to prevent terrorist acts from occurring within the U.S. But Muslim immigrants—especially those from the seven countries included in the Muslim ban—are not responsible for the vast majority of mass killings in America. According to a comprehensive survey of terrorism in the U.S. since 9/11 by New America, “the large majority of jihadist terrorists in the United States have been American citizens or legal residents.” That’s right—83% of the jihadist terrorists in the U.S. since 9/11 were U.S.-born citizens, naturalized citizens or permanent residents. There were just 12 lethal jihadist terrorists in the U.S. since 9/11; seven were born American citizens, while the others were from countries not included in Trump’s Muslim ban—Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Egypt, Kuwait and Pakistan. And as for the national origins of those who committed the fictitious Bowling Green massacre—well, they appear to have been born only in the twisted fantasies of Trump’s top advisor, Kellyanne Conway.

So who is committing terror in the U.S.? The most likely group is right-wing, white Americans, according to New America—white nationalist terrorists like Wade Page, who murdered innocent Sikhs in Oak Creek, or Dylann Roof, who killed African American churchgoers in Charleston, N.C. New America found that white nationalists killed 48 people since 9/11, while radical Islamists killed 26 individuals in the same period.

Unfortunately, it might become more difficult to track, study and combat these violent, right-wing American extremists. Trump is planning to change the Countering Violent Extremism program to focus solely on Islamic extremism—not on all forms of violent ideologies, including white nationalism. Trump’s denial of the dangers posed by nationalist extremism was reflected in his total silence after a right-wing Canadian murdered six innocent individuals and injured 17 others in a Quebec City mosque in January. Yet Trump took to Twitter to tell Americans to “get smart” after an Egyptian man attacked a soldier in Paris.

 

Myth: I’m Not a Muslim, Immigrant or Refugee, So This Is Not My Problem

Najeeb explained that the U.S. has a long history of singling out a religious or ethnic minority and targeting them with hate and ostracism, whether it was Japanese Americans during World War II or Irish Catholics fleeing the famine. Right now, Muslims are being targeted.

But that doesn’t mean that non-Muslims shouldn’t be alarmed and resist Trump’s attacks.

Elana Kahn, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, said that the Muslim ban is a Jewish issue, since Jews have much in common with their Muslim neighbors.

“We’re used to being that other,” Kahn said. “The story of American Jews is a story of immigrants coming, many of them refugees, and being accepted into a new place and working to integrate and to have a second chance.”

Kahn called on people of conscience to support those who are being targeted by Trump.

“Today it might be me, but tomorrow it could be you,” Kahn said. “We need to transcend our fears to become allies.”


Sign the Petition 

State Sen. Chris Larson and state Rep. Jonathan Brostoff, both Milwaukee Democrats, are introducing a joint resolution in the state Legislature to denounce Islamophobia, discrimination and violence. They’ve also set up an online petition at ResistHateWI.com so that you can show your support for our Muslim friends and neighbors.

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