American Muslims Embrace Diversity, Decry Stereotypes, Panel Says

By Howard Cincotta
USINFO Special Correspondent

Washington – American Muslims are as diverse in outlook and views as any other group in the United States, but they continue to struggle under the burden of frequent stereotypes and misunderstanding, according to a distinguished panel of religious scholars and journalists who participated in a symposium at Georgetown University in Washington April 19.

Panel member Hadia Mubarak, the first woman to head the National Muslim Student Association, observed that her identity includes the Jordanian and Syrian heritage of her parents as well as her childhood in Panama City, Florida.

"My appreciation for the ideals [of this country] is reinforced by my religion. Islam has been central in shaping my identity as an American," she said.

The one-day symposium was co-sponsored by Georgetown's Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and "On Faith," an interactive, electronic discussion of religious issues being hosted by Newsweek and Washington Post around the world.

Mubarak was joined by other panelists who together provided a diverse cross-section of American Muslims, including:

• Ingrid Mattson, the first woman to head the Islamic Society of North America;

• Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain for Georgetown University and the U.S. National Naval Medical Center, and the imam of the Islamic Society in Frederick, Maryland (just outside Washington);

• Salman Ahmad, a Pakistani-American medical doctor, and the lead guitarist for the popular South Asian rock band, Junoon; and

• Sherman Jackson, an African American convert to Islam and a professor of both Arabic studies and law at the University of Michigan.

The symposium moderator was John Esposito, a professor of religion and international studies at Georgetown, and the founding director of the university's Talal Center.

Several media representatives participated as well, including the founders of the “On Faith” initiative - Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, former Washington Post writer Sally Quinn and Newsweek religion editor Lisa Miller.


Several panelists expressed concern about misperceptions of Muslims held by their fellow Americans.

"They tend to view us as a stereotype, a collective, rather than as unique individuals," Mattson said, "especially those who choose to wear the hijab [head scarf]." Like any other woman, she added, ''Each Muslim woman has a different issue ... we want to be able to define ourselves." (See related article.)

The issue of identity in the larger American culture "shouldn't be an issue any more than it is for African-American Christians," according to Jackson. "The meaning of the civil rights movement is that each of us can live the life we see fit for ourselves," he said.

"Muslims are Americans like everyone else," Jackson said. (See related article.)

Rock musician Salman Ahmad, who was born in Pakistan but grew up in New York, recalled that his first band included both Catholic and Jewish members.

Islam has a long history of embracing people of different cultures and religions, according to Ahmad. "Pluralism has always been like oxygen for Islam, historically," he said.

In his remarks, Imam Yahya Hendi referred to his international travels to promote religious dialogue and understanding.

American Muslims "are using their knowledge of America and their experiences here to build a bridge between Islam and other faiths," Hendi said. "We care about both worlds because we know both worlds."


A number of comments reflected frustration with how the news media has depicted American Muslims.

Muslims in the United States often feel a need to apologize or explain the actions of Muslims everywhere, according to Jackson, which is not the case with other racial and religious groups.

As an example, he said that Muslim Americans "are very at home" with the concept of the separation of church and state – and shouldn't be linked to cultures and nations that don't value that separation.

Imam Hendi expressed frustration at the perception that American Muslims haven't spoken out strongly against terrorism when, in fact, they have issued repeated pronouncements, or fatwas, condemning acts of terrorism. (See related article.)

In response, journalists Meacham and Quinn stressed that the news media is not necessarily biased, but will always be drawn to stories involving conflict. "You cover what the story is," said Quinn, "and since 9/11 the story has been about Muslims not in this country."

On the other hand, according to Miller, journalism has made huge strides in understanding and covering religion generally in the past six years, Christianity as well as Islam.

After September 11, 2001, "we have learned a lot about Islam," Miller said. "The Muslim community is as diverse as Catholics, as concerned about assimilation as Jews .... We're paying more attention to nuance and complexity."

In an online blog a day after the symposium, Ingrid Mattson said, "With freedom from clerical authority [for American Muslims] comes the responsibility to engage in the debate over the true meaning of Islam."

Despite the "oppressive weight of stereotyping," she wrote, "Hope lies in the goodness of ordinary Americans who try to overcome their prejudices and reach out to their Muslim neighbors. ... Hope lies in the extraordinary moral leadership shown by many American religious leaders to guide their congregations to the path of understanding and compassion."

For more information, see Muslim Life in America and Democracy Dialogues: Freedom of Religion.

More information about "On Faith" is available on a Newsweek/Washington Post Web site.