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Why many Americans fear Islam and what Muslims can do about it
American Muslims face many of the same public relations crises affecting other religious groups, and they must adapt and evolve their practices in response. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Ken Chitwood grew up in Los Angeles surrounded by religious diversity. His high school social crowd included Jews, evangelical Christians, Mormons and Muslims.

In this environment, Chitwood learned to appreciate the difference between stereotypes and actual religious practices. But even he was shaken by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"I didn't understand how my friends' experiences and (terrorism) could all be encapsulated in the same faith," Chitwood said.

He's now a Ph.D. student at the University of Florida, where he researches and writes about religion in the Americas and global Islam. The wide-ranging ideals and behaviors of Muslims around the world continue to challenge him, as he, like many Americans, tries to foster compassion for Muslims while condemning Islamic terrorists.

That's becoming an increasingly difficult task. Discomfort with Islam is on the rise in the U.S., according to a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey. Fifty-six percent of Americans agreed that the values of Islam are at odds with American values" in 2015, compared to 47 percent in 2013.

As in 2001, American Muslims are facing a public relations crisis. News stories on ISIS, shootings perpetrated by extremists and comments from political candidates like Donald Trump damage the image of Islam, leaving members of the Muslim community struggling to formulate a meaningful response. According to scholars of Islam and practicing Muslims, the faith shouldn't be considered violent or dangerous. But is it possible to convince the majority of Americans of that?

"Islam is extremely complex, rich and diverse," Chitwood said. "There is no simple way to understand it, no fill-in-the-blank answer as to what is Islam."

Muslim religion

Muslims comprise 0.9 percent of the U.S. population, according to a May 2015 study from Pew Research Center. Nearly half of the community (49 percent) enjoys an annual household income of more than $50,000 and 17 percent have a post-graduate degree, making the average American Muslim both wealthier and more educated than the average American Christian.

Although Muslims in the U.S. use the same holy book and say many of the same prayers as Muslims in other countries, American culture influences their spiritual practices as local leaders emphasize certain teachings over others, such as the value of interfaith cooperation or a democratic approach to governing, said Mucahit Bilici, a Muslim sociologist and author of "Finding Mecca in America: How Islam is Becoming an American Religion.

To the extent that Muslims are American, their understanding of Islam becomes American, he said.

One in four American Muslims said that their religion needs to adopt modern practices in 2014, a 4 percentage point increase from 2007, Pew Research Center reported in November. More members of the group (33 percent) said traditional practices should be preserved, but support for tradition has fallen 6 percentage points in seven years.

This willingness to embrace a certain level of change tracks higher among Muslims than it does for some large Christian communities, wrote David Damrel, a professor at University of South Carolina Upstate who has consulted with Pew on Islam research in the past, in an email. It shows a community that is largely engaged with contemporary American lifestyles rather than one disconnected from society at large.

The disconnect

As a minority faith in the U.S., Muslims are aware that it's largely on them to educate others about their religion, Bilici noted.

"We belong here but we have to explain ourselves," he said. Nearly one in four Muslims (23 percent) share their faith with others at least weekly, Pew reported in November.

This sharing is likely "not so much about religion per se. Its about Muslim identity, Bilici added, noting that American Muslims generally care more about helping people understand their lifestyle than about trying to convert them.

In the wake of violence perpetrated by members of their faith, American Muslims offer condemnations and point to research that illustrates their religion's focus on peace. For example, in 2011 Pew reported that 81 percent of American Muslims believe suicide bombing is never justified, compared to a 72 percent median for Muslims worldwide.

"Muslims have been condemning terrorism and extremism since the horrific attacks of 2001," said Rizwan Jaka, chairman of the board of trustees for the All Dulles Area Muslims Society, one of America's largest mosques.

However, the U.S. Muslim community's condemnation of terrorism is often lost on non-Muslim neighbors, including religious ones, Chitwood said. He noted that students will often come into the Intro to Islam course he co-teaches under the assumption that the religion needs its own reformation.

Many religious groups are more likely than the general population to express discomfort with Islam. Compared to 56 percent of all U.S. adults, 73 percent of white evangelical Protestants, 63 percent of white mainline Protestants and 61 percent of Catholics agreed that the values of Islam are at odds with American values, PRRI reported.

Part of the problem Muslims face is that their faith evolves and changes depending on its social and political context, Jaka said. Few non-Muslims are aware of the ways the religion transforms itself when it crosses borders and passes on to new generations, as survey data show it has in the United States.

"(Your impression) depends on how you look at each society and what benchmark you're looking at," he said.

There's also no centralized authority in the U.S. or the world who speaks for Islam, like Pope Francis does for Roman Catholics or the Archbishop of Canterbury speaks for the worldwide Anglican Communion. American Muslims and local imams speak for themselves and may regularly answer questions about their faith or condemn terrorism on their social media pages, but many non-Muslims will never hear or see these rebuttals.

Without a coordinating strategy, individual efforts to improve the image of Islam fall flat, said Douglas Cannon, a professor of public relations at Virginia Tech who previously worked in communications for the United Methodist Church for 25 years.

"In a strategic public relations plan, you coordinate your actions and provide messaging to support your actions. The goal is for people to have relatively the same experience no matter who they interact with," he said. "Islam in the U.S. has the problem of being so diverse and decentralized" that its adherents don't speak with one voice, although groups like the Islamic Society of North America and the Council on American-Islamic Relations do try to lead communication efforts.

However, some members of the Islamic community, particularly those who were born in America, resent the expectation to explain themselves. While relative newcomers to the U.S. are often shy, apologetic and trying to please and fit in to their new surroundings, the second- or third-generation Muslim immigrants are less likely to spend energy trying to convince their fellow Americans that they belong, Bilici said.

"They think, 'Why should they be treated differently?' They develop more frustration" and drop out of efforts to improve Islam's image in the U.S., he said.

Potential for progress

In November 2001, 61 percent of Americans said they knew "not very much" or "nothing at all" about Islam, according to a 2010 study by Pew Research Center. By 2010, that number had decreased to 55 percent despite obstacles of not speaking in a unified voice.

As Bilici noted, many Muslims assume that expanding people's understanding of Islam will improve their impression of it, so they diligently respond to questions and try to be articulate about their beliefs at an individual, grass-roots level.

Some local Muslim communities are active in interfaith initiatives, inviting non-Muslims to visit mosques and participating in community programs, Jaka said, noting that the All Dulles Area Muslim Society has hosted Christian and Jewish leaders at their services regularly over the last two decades.

He also highlighted the value of interfaith councils in larger cities, although even they have limitations.

"Faith leaders are working together. They're stepping up to learn about one another," Jaka said. "It has to permeate into congregations more to help alleviate misunderstandings about the Muslim community."

While all of these efforts can gradually improve Islam's public image, inspiring a more immediate shift in attitudes would require American Muslims to agree on a coordinated strategy, in which key messages about Islam were repeated again and again, Cannon said.

"Currently, individual Islamic groups are making an impact and changing attitudes," but the community has no national strategy, he said. "That's not meant to be a condemnation. They're just getting tripped up on finding a way to unify because of their cultural and ethnic differences."

A major component of that strategy, Bilici noted, is to find a way to reach people in the most fearful moments, people who are experiencing the same kind of confusion Chitwood felt after 9/11.

"Crisis situations ultimately force Muslims to express themselves and explain themselves," Bilici said. "When you're a minority, you carry most of the burden. You have to know yourself and you have to know the majority."
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