Commentary Magazine


Are Muslim Americans Victimized?

Early this year, President Clinton publicly lamented the fact that Muslim Americans face “discrimination” and “intolerance” in this country. Not long afterward, the Senate passed a solemn resolution inveighing against the “discrimination and harassment” suffered by the American Muslim community.

Neither of these pronouncements happened by accident. Rather, they followed years of agitation and complaint on the part of organizations speaking on behalf of the several million Muslims living in the United States. These organizations are now bent on following the Senate resolution with a similar one by the House. To this end, the American Muslim Council (AMC) has invoked an “ongoing wave of discriminatory acts,” while the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) states that “discrimination is now part of daily life for American Muslims.” According to one member of the CAIR board, “Islamophobia,” or the fear and hatred of Islam, is “at epidemic levels.”

Is this true?

Ironically, evidence largely provided by the Muslim organizations themselves suggests a very different picture of Muslim-American life.

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In socioeconomic terms, certainly, Muslims can find little fault with America. They boast among the highest rates of education of any group in the country—a whopping 52 percent appear to hold graduate degrees—and this translates into a pattern of prestigious and remunerative employment. Immigrant Muslims tend to concentrate in the professions (especially medicine and engineering) or in entrepreneurship, and their income appears to be higher than the U.S. national average; this year, median household income was said to be $69,000. Muslim magazines are replete with advertisements for luxurious mansions, stately cars, and fine jewelry, and more than a few Muslims have lived out the classic immigrant success story of rags to riches.

Business tycoons of note in the Muslim-American community include Bijan (high-end men’s clothing), Rashid A. Chaudhry (personal care products), Ayhan Hakimo?lu (armaments), Yusef Haroon (consulting and managerial services), Mansoor Ijaz (investment management), Farooq Kathwari (furniture), Nemir Kirdar (venture capital), and Safi Qureshey (computers). The wealthiest Muslim American appears to be a software engineer of Turkish origins, Kenan ?ahin, who in 1999 netted $1.45 billion when he sold his company, Kenan Systems, to Lucent Technologies. Muslim Americans proudly say that theirs is “the richest Muslim society on earth,” and they are right.

If Muslims are not oppressed economically, neither have they encountered many difficulties being accepted in the United States. Not only do Americans make persistent efforts to understand Islam, but, formally and informally, innumerable expressions of good will have come the way of the Muslim community.

On a government level, President George Bush in 1990 began the custom of congratulating Muslim Americans on the occasion of their holidays. A year later, Muslim men of faith were invited to inaugurate sessions of Congress with recitations from the Qur’an. President Clinton, the first lady, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have all hosted Muslim delegations to celebrate the breaking of the month-long fast of Ramadan. In 1997, the National Park Service installed a star and crescent on the White House Ellipse, alongside the national Christmas tree and a Hanukkah menorah.

The U.S. military has been similarly accommodating. In 1992, a military aircraft took 75 enlisted Muslim soldiers to Mecca for the pilgrimage, and in 1993 the Army commissioned its first Muslim chaplain. The armed forces provide halal meals (following Islamic dietary prescriptions) and do not require daily physical training during the Ramadan fast.

As for the media, they treat Islam and Muslims with a truly unique delicacy. The religion itself is portrayed only in positive terms. Articles explain the appeal of Islam (Chicago Tribune: “Searching Americans Embrace the Logic Behind the Teachings of Islam”) and its spiritual rewards (Orange County Register: “In the Footsteps of the Prophets: A Pilgrimage to Mecca Defines a Couple’s Faith and Marriage”). Newspapers regularly report the pleasure taken by Americans at the appearance of mosques in their communities, as well as the fact that, to the astonishment of immigrant Muslims, non-Muslims sometimes even donate funds for their construction. Ramadan inspires a blitz of coverage, with, for example, the Los Angeles Times running no fewer than seven major stories during the holiday season last year and virtually every other Los Angeles outlet following suit.

Sympathetic news reports show Muslims as good neighbors, as classic exemplars of the American dream, and as part of the fabric of American society. From the point of view of media coverage in the United States, one could hardly ask for better.

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What about the public expression of Islam? Here again the picture is a bright one.

Holidays. The Islamic festivals present two challenges. Based as they are on a lunar calendar, they move forward each (solar) year by about ten days, making it impossible to schedule a regular annual time for them. And while there are only a few main holidays, one of them, Ramadan, lasts a month, during which pious Muslims fast during the day and party at night.

These customs are not easily compatible with American work habits. And yet several corporations permit their Muslim staff to work a shortened day during Ramadan, and some also allow Muslim employees to take off the several weeks or even months required to make the full-scale pilgrimage to Mecca. Employers have proved somewhat less willing to give time off during the two Eids—the other major holidays in addition to Ramadan—but a number have acquiesced here, too. Several school districts, including New York City’s, permit Muslim students to be absent on five Islamic holidays (New York also suspends its alternate-side-of-the-street parking rules); Paterson, New Jersey actually closes its schools for the Eids.

Prayers. Muslims are required to pray at five designated (but changing) times throughout the day. Although it is permissible to make up for one’s devotions at a later hour, many Muslims insist on praying exactly on schedule. At the office or at school, this involves being excused for a period of time and finding a suitable venue. Considering that there are millions of Muslim Americans, remarkably few problems have arisen in this connection, and many of those involve factories where it is difficult to let employees be absent at times of their choosing.

Muslim plaintiffs have won substantial settlements against employers for prayer-related disputes. In Lincolnshire, Illinois, Mohammad Abdullah was fired for leaving his job at about noon on Fridays for prayer, even though he regularly arrived early to work or stayed late to compensate. After taking his case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), he won a $49,000 settlement. In Jacksonville, Florida, Fareed Ansari won $105,216 from Ray’s Plumbing Contractors, his former employer, on similar grounds.

Muslims have successfully sought accommodations for prayer from such employers as American Industries, Cleo, Larus Corporation, the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, Minnesota Diversified Industries, Nu-kote International, the St. Paul, Minnesota school district, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Somali workers at National Electric Coil in Columbus, Ohio convinced their employer to grant them permission to take an hour-and-a-half lunch break, triple the usual allotment, to attend Friday afternoon prayer services outside the factory. In Columbia, Missouri a junior high school reached an agreement with the parents of fifteen Muslim students to permit prayer during school hours.

Similarly, when Muslims demand a place for prayer, corporations sometimes set aside an area, or at least give workers the right to roll out mats in a corner of the plant. Some workers have won rights to a floating break period designed to coincide with the ever-changing times of prayers, restroom facilities with floor-level sink basins for ablutions, and an on-site Qur’anic study group.

Beards. Wearing a beard has great symbolic importance for some Muslim men, being a means of emulating the Prophet Muhammad and signaling their membership in a pious community. They have frequently won the right to do so over an employer’s initial objections. This was the case, for example, for Pakistani-born Mohammad Sajid, briefly dismissed as a dishwasher at a fast-food eatery in Sacramento but eventually reinstated. So, too, were Muslim males at such companies as Adirondack Transit Lines, Coca-Cola, Hilton Hotels, McDonald’s, Safeway, and Taco Bell.

When a Muslim goes to court over this issue, he invariably wins. A Minnesota court ruled in favor of a fired Muslim who had refused to shave his beard. The EEOC found that United Parcel Service had discriminated against a beard-wearing Muslim in Illinois by refusing to promote him to a driver’s position. And a federal appeals court in Newark, New Jersey, finding that the Newark police department’s policy of prohibiting officers from wearing beards “violate [d] the First Amendment,” awarded a Muslim policeman $25,000 in back wages.

Modesty. For Muslim women, the hijab, a cowllike headscarf that covers the hair, serves as a sign of sexual reserve and a means of self-identification. American employers occasionally perceive it as mildly offensive or as an impediment to customer relations. In March 1999, five immigrant Muslim women sued a security firm at Dulles International Airport for requiring them to remove their scarves. The two sides settled out of court, with the women receiving written apologies, $750 in back pay, $2,500 in additional compensation, and a promise from the company to provide religious “sensitivity training” at all its U.S. locations.

Mindful of such precedents, many corporations—Bank of America, Bojangles’ Restaurant, Boston Market, Cox Communications, Domino’s Pizza, Kmart, Manpower Inc., McDonald’s, Sheraton Hotels, the University of California at Berkeley, Taco Bell, and US Airways—have agreed to reconsider hijab-wearing female Muslim applicants who have been denied jobs or reinstate job-holders who have been let go. A number of companies have also agreed to provide “diversity training” to their staff. Having fired eleven Somali women at its car-rental outlet in the Atlanta airport for wearing ankle-length dresses, Hertz quickly reinstated them even though it said the long dresses had caused the women difficulties while getting in and out of cars.

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Issues of modesty have also arisen in schools, where students briefly, but only briefly, run afoul of dress codes. A Muslim girl attending high school in Fort Worth, Texas won permission to wear a hijab while playing soccer. High-school students in Williamsport, Pennsylvania gained the right to take their mandatory swimming instruction in private. A Muslim boy at the Lincoln Middle School in Gainesville, Florida was at first sent home because he would not tuck in his shirt but was then permitted to violate the school’s dress code when his parents explained that untucked, loose-fitting shirts were more modest. A female applicant to the University of Health Sciences in Kansas City, Missouri was accepted as a medical student even though her request that she not be palpated by male colleagues disrupted the practice of having students learn by physically examining each other. And so forth.

Still other accommodations occur in the public square. Pennsylvania women may wear a headscarf when their pictures are taken for a driver’s license. Muslim mothers in Alsip, Illinois may remain fully clothed as they watch their children at the pool. A particularly piquant case in Portsmouth, Virginia involved two Muslim women who were briefly detained for wearing full-face veils, thus allegedly violating an anti-Ku Klux Klan law prohibiting the wearing of masks in public. What the arresting officers did not know was that the law had been changed in 1991 specifically to permit the Muslim covering; for this momentary mistake, Portsmouth had to pay an astounding $100,000 to each woman. If the unscientific poll conducted by a local website can be relied on, the decision was a popular one, with a 2-to-l majority agreeing that the women deserved compensation.

As we have seen, employees with grievances can make out fabulously well in court, an exercise in which they often find themselves benefiting from the pro-bono services of non-Muslim lawyers or money from nonsectarian institutions like the Becket Fund. Lule Said, a Somali immigrant, was working in 1991 as a guard for Northeast Security of Brookline, Massachusetts when a co-worker complained about his origins and faith, announced that he hated Muslims, wiped his feet on Said’s prayer rug and kicked it aside, and threatened him. When Said complained to his supervisor, he was told to stop praying or lose his job. The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination awarded him $300,000—about a decade’s salary—and chewed out Northeast Security. Ahmad Abu-Aziz, an immigrant from Jordan, complained of discrimination from the start of his employment with United Air Lines in 1994. Ignored by his supervisor, then terminated for supposed misconduct, he went to court: a jury awarded him $2.9 million in damages, a sum sustained by the appellate court.

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Whatever complaints Muslims may have about life in America, then, they cannot legitimately complain about a lack of receptivity to those complaints. Indeed, the effort to accommodate Muslim sensibilities extends well beyond issues of legal and employment rights.

Thus, public figures who issue statements perceived as inimical to Islam are usually induced to make amends right away, sometimes under pressure from non-Muslims as well as Muslims. This can go to extreme lengths: when, earlier this year, Republican Congressman James Rogan refused to meet with one Muslim leader, Salam Al-Marayati, on the altogether correct grounds that Al-Marayati “seem[ed] to be an apologist for Muslim terrorists,” Jewish and Christian organizations rushed to Al-Marayati’s defense and were instrumental in prompting Rogan to express his regrets.

The same readiness to recant obtains when the media offend Muslims or commit factual errors. Jay Leno of NBC’s Tonight retracted a seemingly inoffensive comedy sketch about an imaginary amusement park in Iran and promised to be “more diligent in the future.” Martin Goldsmith, host of National Public Radio’s Performance Today, offered “sincere apologies” for having related a legend about the sexual powers of the prophet Muhammad, and thanked his listeners for making their concerns known. Paul Harvey, possibly the most listened-to radio broadcaster in America, called Islam a “fraudulent religion” but quickly retracted this “unintentional slur” and apologized on air for having “understandably offended” Muslims.

Book publishers go farther, actually recalling books at considerable expense to themselves. Simon & Schuster withdrew a children’s book, Great Lives: World Religions, after being made aware of its negative treatment of the prophet Muhammad. Muslim Holidays by Faith Winchester was pulped simply for showing pictures of Muhammad, for transliterating the name of a holiday in a nonstandard manner, and for repeating some odd folk tales. How many books normally get destroyed for such misdemeanors?

Schools are especially sensitive. When a professor at Southern Connecticut State University allegedly gave an anti-Islamic tract to a student, the university reacted by instituting educational seminars on Islam. A high-school teacher in Rochester, Minnesota was reassigned for expressing dislike of Muslim modesty practices; in the words of a school official, “one [more] misstep and she’s gone.” A New Jersey professor who said “goddamn Muslims” in front of a class was reportedly out of a job.

On the Internet, Muslims are protected from the sorts of things that are routinely said about blacks or Jews. AT&T WorldNet Service removed a site that defamed the prophet Muhammad as a “rapist” and as worse than Hitler. GeoCities took down a website that called Islam “a threat to the whole world.” America Online closed down a site that published pseudo-Qur’anic verses, on the grounds that it was “clearly designed to be hurtful and defamatory.”

In the business world, advertisements that take Islam lightly are withdrawn with alacrity. Total Sports, Inc. canceled an ad showing a group of Muslims “praying” to a basketball. Burger King pulled a commercial in which a character bearing a Muslim name praised the restaurant’s bacon-laden (and thus non-halal) Whopper sandwich. A radio commercial by the Colorado lottery that began, “You’ve heard the old expression about the mountain coming to Muhammad?,” was withdrawn on the grounds that Islam forbids gambling. Because of Muslim objections, the Los Angeles Times dropped an innocuous promotion campaign contrasting two types of female readers: bikini-clad and chador-clad. Other companies—including Anheuser-Busch, DoubleTree Hotels, MasterCard International, Miller Brewing Company, Seagrams, and Timeslips Corporation—have done likewise.

The use of Arabic script for decorative purposes often provokes complaint, and corporations respond quickly. Warehouse One withdrew a women’s shirt bearing Arabic script from the Qur’an on the front and sleeves. In a similar incident, Liz Claiborne discontinued the use of Arabic lettering and issued an abject apology. When CAIR contended that the logo on a Nike basketball shoe could “be interpreted” as the word Allah (God) in Arabic script, Nike, although denying any such intent, withdrew the shoe, introduced changes in its design shop, and produced educational CD’s and videos about Islam. The company also agreed to sponsor events in the Muslim community, to donate Nike products to Islamic charitable groups, and to pay for sports facilities at several Islamic schools. The first payment was $50,000 for the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in northern Virginia.

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This is not to deny that some degree of bias against Muslims does exist in the United States. But no immigrant community or non-Protestant religious group wholly escapes such prejudice. Buddhists and Hindus, adherents of religions yet more alien than Islam to most Americans, also face bias and are subjected to ridicule.

More importantly, bias against Muslims is contained, illegal, and of relatively little import. Linda S. Walbridge, an anthropologist who has immersed herself in the American Muslim community, offers a useful comparison with anti-Catholic sentiment. It, too, she writes, “has not disappeared from America, but it is at a low enough level that it certainly does not hinder Catholics from participating in all spheres of activity. There is no reason to think,” Walbridge adds, that Muslims “will experience anything much different.” Whatever adjustment may still be needed to accommodate a new and alien faith, the record shows an impressive flexibility on the part of American institutions, public and private, both to acknowledge Islam and to oblige individual Muslims.

Are ordinary Muslim Americans (as opposed to their organizational spokesmen) aware of their good fortune? A mid-1980’s survey suggests that they are. According to its summary statement:

No Muslim interviewed reported that he or she had ever experienced any personal harassment in the workplace or knew of any experienced by a friend or associate as a result of being either Muslim or foreign-born. Nor did any of those interviewed report any problems in buying or renting homes or apartments as a result of perceived prejudice.

In an early 1990’s poll, young Muslim women “denied they were oppressed in any way in the United States,” while an AMC poll this year found 66 percent agreeing with the assertion that “U.S. society currently shows a respect toward the Muslim faith.”

Individual Muslims concur. “Our life in this county has been terrific and we love it,” an immigrant to Virginia told the Washington Post, while Fereydun Hoveyda, a former Iranian official now living in New York, finds that in the United States “there is no animosity at all to Islam.” Even Ibrahim Hooper of CAIR, perhaps the single most vocal complainer about “Islamophobia,” has acknowledged that “domestic policy toward the Muslim community is quite good.” Khaled Saffuri of the Islamic Institute goes further, conceding that in the United States “there is relatively speaking a better degree of freedom compared to many Muslim countries.”

If one were to speculate about the reasons for this happy circumstance, two explanations spring to mind. One is American openness to the immigrant and the exotic, combined with a historic disposition to offer a level playing field to all. The other is a genuine multiculturalism—not the specious doctrine of racial and ethnic “diversity” imposed so successfully on American institutions, but a sincere willingness to accept and learn from other civilizations. Other factors play a part as well, including the growth of the regulatory arm of government and especially its readiness to dictate workplace rules. Muslim Americans have been quick to avail themselves of these benefits, as is, of course, their right.

It is also the right of CAIR, AMC, and the Muslim Public Affairs Council to devote their resources to promoting the idea of Muslim victimization. But the reality is, stubbornly, otherwise: far from being victimized, the Muslim-American community is robust and advancing steadily. For non-Muslim Americans, at least, the lesson should be clear: even as they continue to welcome active Muslim participation in American life, there is no reason to fall for, let alone to endorse, spurious charges of “discrimination and harassment.”

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