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Muslim Americans, All Year

Watan, Commentary, Jen'nan Ghazal Read Posted: Sep 08, 2009

DURHAM --It's the start of September, the time of year when Americans discover anew that Muslims live in their country.

Perhaps you've seen news reports highlighting the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began Aug. 21 and runs through Sept. 19. Soon, we'll all be hearing those "What's Going on with Muslims?" stories we've come to expect with the annual anniversaries of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

I suppose it's a strange sort of progress that many Americans have reverted to ignoring Muslim Americans most of the time instead of worrying throughout the year whether they might be killed by them. The fear and prejudice that many Americans felt toward Muslim Americans following those terrible attacks has eased considerably.

So now, while this population is briefly in the spotlight again, it's a good time to remind ourselves just how much Muslim Americans actually do resemble other Americans socially and economically. The short answer is: a lot.

Abundant research shows they have above-average levels of education and income and are concerned about the economy, health care reform and other issues of the day, just like other Americans.

As someone who studies the Muslim American population, I've been impressed by the growing sophistication of the questions I've been receiving from reporters and others, especially at this time of year. I'm hearing a new level of understanding about Muslim beliefs and practices, and about how Muslim Americans fit into the national landscape. Questions revolve much less than they did a few years ago around stereotypes of Muslims as oppressors of women, violent, singularly focused and irrational.

Still, I have a hard time imagining that scholars who study Christian Americans get a lot of phone calls before their big religious holiday, Christmas, from reporters asking, essentially: "Hey, what's up with those Christians?"

Although I welcome the interest implied by these calls and hope the conversations will help educate people, there's an implication that Muslims are still "the other." They are seen as being outside the mainstream of American life, even though the facts show the contrary is true.

In other words, I wonder whether this recent progress is superficial. If there were another terrorist attack, how quickly would many Americans revert to their old fears and deny anew that Muslim Americans are, just like them, hard-working people with families, mortgages, houses of worship and a few members capable of doing very bad things?

Ramadan is a religious holiday much like religious holidays in other faith traditions. The major difference is that it is concentrated into one lunar month instead of spread out over several times of the year. As we spend the next few weeks hearing about it, I hope Americans will appreciate the true spirit of the season and embrace the fact that Muslims are an integral part of our national family -- and our country is better for this.

When President Barack Obama spoke to an audience of students in Egypt at the beginning of the summer, he surprised many of them by pointing out that "since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, served in government, stood for civil rights, started businesses, taught at our universities, excelled in our sports arenas, won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building and lit the Olympic Torch."

Obama's message, that "Islam is a part of America," needs to be repeated within our own country as well, and not only during these few weeks. I'll believe it is being heard when I start getting an equal number of media inquiries during the 11 other months of the year.

Jen'nan Ghazal Read, an associate professor of sociology and global health at Duke University, is a Carnegie Scholar studying Muslim American political assimilation.

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