Muslims Smash Right-Wing Stereotypes

Of the many revelations and questions still unresolved following the recent riots in Britain, a novel yet not altogether surprising thread has emerged but has hardly been noticed by the mainstream media:

These riots were not dominated, driven nor taken advantage of by angry, ghettoized, Shariah-demanding Islamists.

Much to the chagrin, we can assume, of many a jihad-hunter here in the United States, which we know tried, early on, to insert an Islamofascist element to the street violence. Here’s Robert Spencer, fresh from having to distance himself from the Norwegian mass murderer who quoted Spencer’s anti-Islamic writings 64 times in his own hate-filled manifesto, on his blog, Jihad Watch, on Aug. 11:

Jihadists employ a variety of means of warfare to create a vacuum of stability and security for which they will claim Sharia is the only solution, because it is the only one they will allow. In this case, anarchy is already present, and they are encouraging its growth because they see in it an opportunity to peddle their wares.

Spencer linked to a brief and curious Associated Press report, datelined Cairo, on the day before that said “militant online forums are abuzz with calls to Muslims in Britain to launch Internet campaigns in support of the British rioters and to urge them to topple the government. … Dozens of contributors on Wednesday suggested Muslims in Britain should flood social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, with slogans and writings inciting the British youth to continue rioting.”

One “contributor,” according to the report, suggested that “chaos is useful to militants in London.”

The report is completely unsourced, suggesting that the “contributors” are nothing more than fringe forum feeders and comment posters, much like those who frequent Spencer’s site. One such Jihad Watch poster responded to the AP’s non-news story with this:

From “Istanbul_Chick”:

The islamopithecaii will not dare to start the rioting here in America because they know, unlike the British population, we’re armed to the teeth, myself included.

Rather they’re pressing their jihad here through politics and lawsuits.

I actually wish they’d start riots here because then their intentions and true nature would be there in living colour for all to see and they’d be viable, legitimate targets

Of course there has been no visible evidence that Muslims — “islamopithecaii,” “kuranimals,” “militants,” disenfranchised-over-indulged-immigrants or whatever the online jihad-hunters are calling them these days — were the majority, or even a sizable minority, of the thugs responsible for the looting and violence in Britain.

In fact, stories in contrast to that meme began emerging as it became more obvious that British Muslims were busy protecting not only their own businesses and places of worship, but their non-Muslim neighbors’ properties, too. In the course of this activity, three Birmingham residents of Pakistani descent were run over and killed. Court records and subsequent reports do not reveal the ethnicity of the perpetrators, but their names and witness reports suggest they were not members of the Muslim community.

The Wall Street Journal, probably hoping for this event to finally set off simmering racial/religious tensions, wrote a story shortly after, saying “the deaths led to an outpouring of anger from the city’s large population of Asians (Muslims from Asian countries).” The story quotes members of the community suggesting an ethnic war between “Asians” and blacks (the accused driver of the hit and run is reportedly Afro-Caribbean). The riots themselves were reportedly sparked by the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a black man with reported ties to gangs and drug dealing.

So far there have been no reports of racial violence between the two groups, nor violent demonstrations from the mourning Muslim community. So far, the courts and the media in Britain have kept a careful lid on the ethnic face of the street rioting and looting overall. Reports of those charged and arraigned in British courts so far tell a tale of mostly kids — 69 percent under the age of 24, 95 percent male and 70 percent residing in another city or neighborhood than where they were arrested.

Reporters who have sat in the courtroom say the suspects represent different backgrounds and class interests, though they rarely speak of race. Official statistics have included the names of those charged. Muslim surnames are certainly represented, but definitely not a majority.

“In the broadest sense, most of those involved have been young men from poor areas,” reported Paul Lewis and James Harkin at The Guardian last week. “But the generalization cannot go much further than that. It can’t be said that they are largely from one racial group.”

An analysis on Aug. 12 by Robert Lambert at Al-Jazeera was the first to make the point that “Muslims have played an important role in helping to tackle the looting and preserve public safety. This would be an especially important acknowledgement if it came from those Islamophobic commentators who consistently denigrate Muslims.”

Lambert, a Brit, said he wasn’t surprised that the Muslim community acted “swiftly to protect shops, businesses and communities against looters.” He said he first saw their “street skills” put to the test in 2005 “when volunteers from the Muslim Association of Britain and Muslim Welfare House ousted violent supporters of Abu Hamza from the Finsbury Park Mosque.”

More recently, Muslim bravery has been seen in Brixton when extremists spouting the latest manifestation of Al Muhajroun hatred were sent packing out of town. In all these instances, and so many more, the brave Muslims involved have received no praise for their outstanding bravery and good citizenship, and instead faced a never ending barrage of denigration….

Now, we realize that Spencer’s group is called “Jihad Watch,” not “Islamic Community Hero Watch,” but it’s certainly worth noting that he has had nothing to say about the riots and British Muslims since it became apparent there was no Shariah revolution on which to assail.

Truth is, the positive things happening in the Muslim immigrant community never seem to get the full media treatment. We’re so used to hearing about “ghettos” of the unassimilated in London and France, fatwa-inspired extremists chasing cartoonists and authors and cutting down filmmakers, honor killings, headscarves and British deference to Shariah — that we can hardly think of anything else when it comes to Muslims living in Europe.

Here in the U.S., thanks to a right-wing agenda hell-bent on conflating the growing xenophobic ripples in society with a river of post-9/11 paranoia, surging economic insecurity, and politically driven neonationalism that tacitly condones open social discrimination against other Americans and legal residents based on their piety and their religion, Muslims here have hardly enjoyed what one would call “evenhanded” treatment in American media culture, either.

If there were such fairness in reporting, we would realize that Muslim-Americans are more “Main Street, USA” than we are often led to think. If anything, they might be a little bit happier, and a lot more confident in the future than the rest of us.

Shiny, Happy Muslims…

A major poll [.pdf] issued by Gallup’s Center for Muslim Studies and the newly established Abu Dhabi Gallup Center in early August found that 60 percent of Muslims living in America feels as though they are “thriving,” up 19 points from a similar survey in 2008 and higher than any other faith group surveyed, save for American Jews.

They also feel their life is on an upward trajectory, more than any other faith group, including Catholics, Protestants, Mormons and Jews. Some 64 percent say their standard of living is increasing.

This and earlier surveys of the community released by Pew in 2007 [.pdf] and Gallup in 2009 [.pdf] indicate that Muslims here are far more integrated than their counterparts in Europe, according to Gallup. Muslim Americans, and especially Muslim women, are above the national averages in employment and education stats. According to the 2009 poll, 40 percent of Muslims had a college degree, compared to 29 percent of the general population. Some 42 percent of women had college degrees, compared to 29 percent of women in the general population. Also in that poll, 70 percent of Muslims in America reported having a job, compared to 64 percent of Americans generally. At the same time, one in three Muslim American women was working in a professional capacity and one in six was self-employed, according to the survey.

In the 2007 poll, American Muslims did not stand out as more low income than the rest of Americans, yet in countries like England, France and Germany, Muslims were far more likely to be living in poverty compared to the general population. Also in those countries, Muslims were way more likely to consider themselves “Muslim first” — Britain in particular, where 81 percent of Muslims there felt that way — compared to America, where less than half of Muslims considered themselves “Muslim first.”

More recently, like other groups, Muslims expressed some dissatisfaction with their cities and communities, but they register more optimism than other faith groups that their problems will be fixed.

According to the most recent poll, Muslims here abhor political violence. In fact, they were far more likely (78 percent) than Catholics (39 percent), Protestants (38 percent), Jews (43 percent) and Mormons (33 percent) to say that military violence against civilians is never justified.

They are also more likely than any group to say individual violence against civilians is never justified. Some 95 percent insist that U.S. Muslims have no sympathy for al-Qaeda. Of all the other religious groups, Jewish Americans believe them the most — some 70 percent agree that American Muslims have no tolerance for the extremists believed responsible for 9/11 and for other terrorist acts across the globe.

The same goes for loyalty to the U.S. — 93 percent of Muslims surveyed believe that American Muslims are loyal. Again, 80 percent of Jews believe them, while only 56 percent of Protestants think this is true. In the 2009 Gallup Poll, only 45 percent of all Americans believed that Muslims were loyal to their country.

Not everything is positive, of course. While Muslims put more faith into elections than other religious groups in America, they are still the least likely to vote. They strongly believe (60 percent) that Muslims are discriminated against in American culture. While 91 percent of Americans of other faiths have confidence in the military and 75 percent in the FBI, only 70 percent and 60 percent of Muslims do, respectively. This should come as no surprise since Muslims in the U.S. have taken the full brunt of the war on terror. Despite their willingness to work with the FBI, for example, mosque leaders across the country have complained about government surveillance and infiltration and mistrust, particularly in recent years.

Also, the 2007 Pew Poll indicated that nearly a quarter of young Muslims felt that suicide bombing was justified in certain circumstances, compared to 13 percent of all Muslims surveyed in the poll. Experts suggested at the time that the poll had been weighted by African American Muslims (20 percent of all U.S. Muslims, according to the poll, and more recent converts) who tended to express less desire to integrate, and felt more discrimination than their Asian, foreign-born counterparts (this is true in later polls, too).

While Walid Phares, who saw the Pew Poll as cause for alarm, told me, “It is precisely because an indoctrination is taking place. It means that a huge jihadi political effort is ongoing within the United States to brainwash young minds,” others saw natural youthful bravado and rebellion in the numbers and said they still trailed far behind the negative sentiments held by young Muslims in Europe.

The latest Pew Poll did find one positive indicator where age was concerned. The 2007 poll indicated that only 40 percent percent of Muslim youth (ages 18 to 29) felt they were thriving, the lowest of all Americans. Today, that number is up to 69 percent — on par with the rest of their peers in other faith groups.

For the last decade, American Muslims have used as shameless props and foils in shrill political debates, targeted by hyperbolic demagoguery, scapegoated for the country’s deeper social and economic problems. Overall, these polls help smash the stereotypes and provide much more depth and complexity to this group of Americans, who today number more than 2.3 million strong.

Too bad we don’t hear more about them.

“The findings of the recent Gallup poll about the vibrancy of the American Muslim community should come as no surprise: it points to the strength of the same pluralistic national framework that neoconservatives have been working so hard to destroy,” said M. Junaid Levesque-Alam, a Muslim American who publishes the Crossing the Crescent blog.

“The mainstream media has all too readily blurred out the broader picture of Islam in America and zoomed in on one or two sensational cases — probably because fear sells, whereas patience and wisdom carry considerably less value in the neoconservatized ‘market of ideas.'”

The fear of terrorism has definitely ignited the negative view of Muslims here, but even that is suspect. A recent book by Charles Kurzman notes that only 40 people have perished to terrorism in the U.S. since the 9/11 attacks compared to 140,000 murders in the U.S. in that time. He also offers a provocative argument that is sure to set the jihad-hunters’ hair on fire — that there are actually very few Islamic terrorists in the world today, period.

Will the data stand up to the sensational headlines? Probably not. According to some of the loudest voices in right-wing politics today, jihadists are not only infiltrating the government and the military, but the U.S. court system and public utilities, too. Christian conservative leaders — even those who run universities and serve as role models — say Islam is not a true religion. We spent an entire summer debating whether an Islamic center should be built near the 9/11 site and years debating whether President Obama is a Muslim in disguise.

It’s probably safe to say that while the Muslim community may have advanced, the general perceptions of it by the rest of America has not gone beyond middle school. A Pew Poll released last August found Americans’ favorable view of Islam had actually declined, from 41 percent in 2005 to 30 percent in 2010.

Unfortunately, this sad view will probably be reinforced doubly as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches and all the old tropes and fears start to bubble up once again.

Heaven knows there are wingnuts cracked enough to hope for riots on the streets here in the U.S. — a final reckoning if you will — but if what happened in the U.K. is any indication, their worst prejudices won’t be validated, at least when it comes to the Muslims.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.