For Muslims living in the U.S., situations like this are not uncommon. Once invisible in most areas of the country, Muslims are now a fast-growing group. According to estimates by the Pew Forum on Religious Life, there were about 1.3 million Muslim adults in the U.S. in 2010, almost 1 percent of the population. By 2020, that figure may more than double, to 3.9 million.
Yet despite their increasing presence, Muslim-Americans are deeply concerned by a sense that other Americans view them negatively due to stereotypes and suspicions. One poll released last year by the Arab American Institute found that just 27 percent of Americans view Muslim-Americans favorably.
Indeed, “for many Americans, Islam is only a religion of violence,” says Islamic scholar Haroon Moghul of Columbia University in New York City. This perception is fueled by daily media reports of attacks by ISIS, the civil war in Syria, and other Middle East horrors—as well as the memory of the September 11, 2001, attacks by Al Qaeda, which killed nearly 3,000 people in New York City, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.
Anti-Muslim sentiment can take many forms. Muslim-Americans might be stopped at airports on suspicion of being connected with Middle Eastern terrorists. More often, they may be denied common courtesy in public. In the most extreme cases, their lives are threatened. In February, for example, a North Carolina man murdered three promising Muslim-American college students. Their offense was nothing more than their dress and faith—their differentness.
Changing the negative perception of Islam in America is no easy task, but it’s certainly not impossible. According to the authors of the Arab American Institute report, “Education about and greater exposure to . . . American Muslims are the keys both to greater understanding of these growing communities of American citizens and to ensuring that their rights are secured.”