I am often told that America is a dangerous place for Muslims. Recently, the left-of-center news site Vox published a piece insisting that the shooting death of Ahmed Al-Jumaili, an Iraqi who had recently moved to Dallas, be seen as part of “the growing trend of violence against Muslims in the United States.” But it seems that this claim was unfounded. Soon after Al-Jumaili’s death, police apprehended a 17-year-old suspect who was apparently unaware of Al-Jumaili’s religious background. Earlier, three Muslim Americans — Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha, all of them very young adults — were shot to death over a parking space in Chapel Hill, N.C. Ever since, many Muslims, in the United States and elsewhere, have insisted that their killer, Craig Stephen Hicks, was motivated by anti-Muslim animus and that to suggest otherwise is to diminish what is undoubtedly a grave crime. Yet it appears that Hicks behaved in a hostile and threatening manner to neighbors of all persuasions, and his angry Facebook rants suggest that he reserved his deepest hatred for Christian fundamentalists.
The death of a loved one is always a tragedy, and to lose a loved one to senseless violence is more tragic still. It is easy for me to see why the families of these victims might have wanted to give some larger meaning to their deaths. That I can forgive. I’m less inclined to forgive the political activists who’ve rushed to use these tragedies to advance the notion that anti-Muslim xenophobia is somehow a graver threat to civil peace than is violent Islamic extremism. In truth, the United States has proven a very hospitable home for Muslims, and in particular for those who reject the most austere and the most radical interpretations of Islam. Indeed, the fact that observant Muslims feel comfortable wearing religious garb in America all but guarantees that some of them will be victims of violent crime, if only because it would be statistically improbable for a large group of people to be completely exempt from our country’s larger violence problem.
Muslims do encounter discrimination in America. It just so happens that they don’t often face religiously motivated hate crimes. The FBI reports that Jews are far more frequent targets of religiously motivated hate crimes than Muslims are. One of the things that make me most uncomfortable about the response to the Chapel Hill shooting is the effort to take a unique set of circumstances and force it into a larger narrative that doesn’t necessarily fit. It’s possible that Craig Stephen Hicks was not a crazed Islamophobe and that hatred and suspicion of Muslims are a real problem. To the extent that this hatred and suspicion exist, however, there is good reason to believe that it is fading.
A 2014 survey from the Pew Research Center found that on a scale of 0 to 100, 0 being the coolest and 100 being the warmest, Republicans rated their feelings toward Muslims at an average of 33, just below the 34 they gave atheists. Democrats gave Muslims a 47, above the 46 they gave atheists and the 44 they gave Mormons. This gap can mostly be chalked up to the fact that people are more likely to think well of Muslims if they know one, and Democrats are more likely than Republicans to know Muslims personally. And before Democrats assign too much significance to the feelings thermometer, they should note that Republicans feel more warmly toward Evangelical Christians, Jews, and Catholics than Democrats do. I don’t think it’s fair to say this makes Democrats more anti-Evangelical, anti-Semitic, or anti-Catholic than Republicans.
Another thing to keep in mind about Muslim Americans is that many of them are either immigrants or the children of immigrants from countries plagued by Islamist violence. My parents are immigrants from Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country in South Asia, so this applies to me personally. It’s not often that I think about my Muslim identity. I come from a family of moderately observant Muslims, yet Islam was never the central organizing principle of our lives. I’d say that our ethnic attachment to things Bengali was as strong as our attachment to Islam. When I was in elementary school, my parents hired a tutor to teach me Arabic and to offer their heathen offspring some religious instruction. Alas, I got into a huge argument with my tutor over whether androids have souls, and I haven’t had all that much to do with organized religion since. So I should stress that I’m far from an expert on Islam.
Over the past several years, however, I’ve been hearing from relatives and friends about how Islamic extremism has transformed the political and social climate in Bangladesh. In just the last few months, a Bangladeshi-born U.S. citizen, Avijit Roy, was murdered during a visit to his native country for the supposed crime of promoting atheism on his personal blog. Just a few weeks later another Bangladeshi blogger, Washiqur Rahman, was murdered for his alleged apostasy.
This is all very poignant in light of the fact that Bengali Muslims have traditionally been considered open and tolerant. Richard M. Eaton, a historian at the University of Arizona, maintains that in the 16th century the Mughal rulers of Bengal offered rent-free land grants to settlers willing to chop down the dense forests that dominated the eastern part of the province and start growing crops. They had no interest in converting the Bengali masses, whom they saw as an alien people. But most of the pioneers who took up the Mughals on their land offer were adventurous Muslims, and the locals they hired as manual laborers came to look up to them, and indeed to attribute mystical powers to them. Long after these industrious pioneers died, they were remembered fondly as, in Eaton’s words, “vivid mythico-historical figures, saints whose lives served as metaphors for the expansion of both religion and agriculture.”
Suffice it to say, the Islam practiced in these newly settled communities was not of the orthodox variety practiced in Islam’s Arabic-speaking heartland. Rather, it blended Islamic beliefs with beliefs associated with various other religious traditions. In the centuries that followed, it was not at all uncommon for Muslim Bengalis to take part in Hindu festivals or for Hindus to worship Sufi saints. By the early 20th century, a new generation of Bengali Muslims had decided that the local expression of Islam was far too permissive and far too open to Hindu influence. Since then, most of these self-described reformers have used arguments and persuasion to make their case, as civilized people should. But some have used violence and intimidation to impose their intolerant understanding of how Islam ought to be practiced, and their numbers are growing. Those who fall in this latter camp are the kindred spirits of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, and they’ve transformed a poor but peaceful country into a poor but violent one.
And that’s why I have a hard time taking complaints of anti-Muslim xenophobia in America as seriously as perhaps I should. Though I don’t doubt that there is suspicion and distrust of Muslims in America, the underlying trend toward greater acceptance seems firmly established. So does the underlying trend toward chauvinism and extremism in much of the Muslim world, not just in Bangladesh. Having witnessed Bangladesh’s transformation from a distance, and having also witnessed the assertiveness of American Muslim activists in defending their rights, I have a hard time thinking that it is xenophobia and not the extremist threat that should keep me up at night.