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Muslims say misconceptions, links to terrorism are top concerns for their community

Posted July 27
Updated July 28

About once a month, the Utah Islamic Center hosts a "Meet the Muslims" event. After a prayer, Imam Shuaib Din and Muslim community members lead a question-and-answer session. (Deseret Photo)

A growing number of American Muslims feel targeted for their faith in the past year, citing instances of harassment by law enforcement and name-calling, according to a new Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Muslims.

However, members of this faith community have also observed an increase in support from their non-Muslim neighbors.

"The data suggest that the number of Muslims who say they've experienced a variety of kinds of discrimination is trending upward. The difference isn't huge, but to the extent that we see a trend, it's going up," said Greg Smith, Pew's associate director of research. "But the people who have said they've felt support is also trending up."

Half of U.S. Muslims (48 percent) experienced at least one incident of discrimination in the past 12 months, compared to 43 percent in 2011 and 40 percent in 2007, Pew reported Wednesday. These incidents included being singled out by airport security, called offensive names or physically attacked.

Members of the faith community who appear Muslim, whether because they wear a headscarf or have a Middle Eastern accent, are particularly vulnerable.

"Of those whose appearance is identifiably Muslim, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) say they have experienced at least one of the specific types of discrimination asked about in the survey," researchers noted.

The survey analyzed responses from 1,001 U.S. Muslims and was conducted from Jan. 23 to May 2, 2017. It's Pew's third comprehensive study of Muslim adults and has a margin of error of 5.8 percentage points.

Pew's report on the new research includes earlier work on how other Americans view Muslims. The percentage of U.S. adults who say Muslims face a lot of discrimination has risen 10 percentage points over the last three years, from 59 percent to 69 percent, according to the survey.

More Americans now say the Muslim community faces a lot of discrimination than say the same about the LGBT community or black adults. However, many are still suspicious of whether Islam is compatible with the country's values.

"About half of the public says Islam is not part of mainstream society," said Besheer Mohamed, a senior researcher at Pew.

Muslims receive a relatively low score on Pew's feelings thermometer, an analysis of how warmly people feel about a religion on a scale from 0 to 100. The faith group had a mean thermometer rating of 48 in January 2017.

"Muslims are rated more negatively than Catholics, Jews, Hindus and many other religions we've asked about," Mohamed said.

Negative opinions about Islam likely stem from the religion's association with global terrorism, a phenomenon that frustrates many Muslims in the U.S., the survey showed.

"Overall, 8 in 10 Muslims (82 percent) say they are either very concerned (66 percent) or somewhat concerned (16 percent) about extremism in the name of Islam around the world," Pew reported.

One in 10 members of the community say people assuming Muslims are terrorists is the top challenge facing their community, according to the survey. Nearly 1 in 4 U.S. Muslims (23 percent) say discrimination and prejudice are the most important problems facing their community, while 13 percent say the same about misconceptions about Islam.

One of the bright spots in Pew's research is that Americans Muslims increasingly feel that their neighbors want to help them, whether by hosting interfaith events or educating the public about Islam.

Community gatherings can calm non-Muslims' fears about Islam and make Muslims feel more at home in their communities, as the Deseret News reported last month.

"All we really need is a brief conversation with someone — for them to listen and hear what we have to say about our religion, how we practice our faith and understand it, how we live day to day — for them to get that we're not the hostiles they see on television," said Maha Elgenaidi, founder and executive director of the Islamic Networks Group in San Jose, California.

Today, half of U.S. Muslims (49 percent) say someone has expressed support for them because of their religion in the past year, compared to 37 percent in 2011 and 32 percent in 2007. "And 55 percent (of Muslims) think Americans in general are friendly toward U.S. Muslims," researchers noted.

While many members of this faith community are worried or angry about their status in the U.S., they draw strength from acts of kindness, said Amanay Jamal, a professor of politics at Princeton University who served as an adviser for the study.

"Feelings of discrimination and acts of discrimination are on the rise … but there's a belief that the general public is on board in terms of supporting them," she said.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

2 Comments

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  • Henry Davis Jul 28, 7:19 p.m.
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    Does anybody care?

  • Andrew Stephenson Jul 28, 3:19 p.m.
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    We had some bigot near my neighborhood try to start some dissent on Nextdoor the other day by "alerting us" so some Islamic youth center opening nearby. He got shut down pretty quick. The construction sign wasn't visible from the street (it's part of a new subdivision), so he was like "are they trying to hid it?". Why yes, they probably are, for reasons outlined in this story.