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Abstract

Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions globally. However, in the US, Islam and Muslims are facing substantial challenges, especially following the September 11 attacks. Islam has existed in the US for the past four centuries after Muslims arrived in Columbus ships followed by the arrival of African slaves, of whom the majority practiced Islam. The founding of the United States as a country was based on the premise of freedom of religion and thought. This played an instrumental role in creating a religiously diverse society in the US. Moreover, during the early years as a nation, the US concentrated on cultivating stronger ties with the countries in the Muslim World. The philosophy of religious freedom guided the American society over the course of the 18th century and 19th century, which played a key role in facilitating the growth and expansion of Islam as Muslim immigrants were allowed into America. However, the September 11 attacks marked a significant change in the Islamic discourse in the US, especially through the increase in Islamophobia exhibited by its leadership as well as citizens. Muslims in America responded by better organizing and mobilizing themselves to influence political processes in the country taking part in an inter-religion dialogue to educate the American public on the nature of Islam. The 9/11 attacks also increase public visibility of Islam and a heightened interest in Islamic scholarship. However, with the recent election of Donald Trump, it is expected that Muslims in the US will experience further restrictions with respect to their freedom to practice. The election of Trump also served to increase the already soaring levels of Islamophobia in American society.

Islam in America

With about 1.6 billion followers, Islam is the fastest-growing religion globally. Muslims do not only practice diverse religious traditions but also speak different languages (Bowen, 2015). Still, even with more Americans converting to Islam and foreigners immigrating to the US from the Muslim World, American Muslims are still castigated. In the US, Islam is ranked third in terms of the number of followers, with 0.9 percent of the US population being Muslims, 70.6 percent identifying as Christians, 1.9 percent following Judaism, 22.8 percent were unaffiliated, 0.7 percent following Buddhism and Hinduism (Corrigan & Hudson, 2015). There are about 3.3 million American Muslims, who are drawn from diverse backgrounds (Corrigan & Hudson, 2015). In fact, Muslims in the US as a religious group has the highest level of racial diversity. This paper traces the history of Islam in America, Islam post 9/11, and the future of Islam under Donald Trump’s administration and beyond.

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History of Islam in America

The history of Islam in America can be traced back four centuries ago. While evidence exists to indicate Columbus’s ships carried Muslims, the first documented Muslim arrival took place in the 17th century following the influx of African slaves (Corrigan & Hudson, 2015). It is estimated that about 25%-33% of African slaves moved to the US were Muslims. While African slaves did not enjoy religious freedom, many practiced Islam secretly and passed the faith to their subsequent religions. Numerous autobiographies of Muslim African slaves have been documented with some participating in the Abolitionist movement or were soldiers during the Civil War (Corrigan & Hudson, 2015).

The founders of the USA were cognizant of the delicate nature of the alliance that existed between the states due to prevailing diversity. They knew that this alliance would only last if they could bring the diverse, conflicting ethnic and religious groups together to establish a new shared national identity (Bowen, 2015). In the absence of inclusive approaches, the newly established fragile country could disintegrate with relative ease amidst the sectarian divisions. As a result, the founders developed a Constitution with the supreme right of individuals to freedom of thought and worship, which played a crucial role in the development of vibrant and religiously diverse society in the US (Corrigan & Hudson, 2015). Although the minority was not always free as stipulated, the prevailing narrative in the US was the realization of unity amidst diversity (Bilici, 2012). Religious freedom meant that Americans had the right to practice any religion of their choice. To emphasize religious freedom, the constitution outlawed any form of discrimination based on religion. Moreover, the state and the church were separated. Many authors agree that the successful founding of the US was based on the premise of freedom of religion and thought (Corrigan & Hudson, 2015). Because the founders of the US were familiar with the religion of Islam, they nurtured relationships with leaders from the Muslim World such as Tunis, Ottoman Tripolitania, and Morocco among others. For instance, even prior to George Washington being inaugurated as the president, Morocco acknowledged the US as an independent nation. In 1786, Morocco entered into a treaty with the US. Subsequent US presidents devoted substantial efforts in establishing and maintaining positive relationships with the Muslim world (Bowen, 2015).

The next notable influx of Muslim immigrants to the US commenced during the mid-nineteenth century. From the end of the nineteenth century up to the 1920s, the US saw a considerable influx of Arabs, particularly from Syria, Turkey, Palestinian territories, and Lebanon (Bilici, 2012). Whereas about 90 percent of them were Arab Christians, a substantial proportion was Muslims. The majority of these Muslim immigrants settled in key urban centers such as Detroit, Chicago, and New York City. Over the course of the 19th century, various administrations enjoyed hospitable relations with Muslim Countries that resulted in the widening of the engagement scope (Bilici, 2012). After the adoption of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, many Muslims started flocking the US. This law lifted the earlier laws that restricted immigrants from Asia moving to the US. In addition, this law allowed family members to join their relatives who had already settled in the US (Bowen, 2015). During this time, the majority of Muslims who migrated to the US came from South Asia and the Middle East. Laws were also passed to encourage the influx of skilled individuals. Many Muslims across the globe took advantage of this opportunity to move to the US and comprise the present-day Muslims working in various occupations in the US (Corrigan & Hudson, 2015). Currently, Muslims constitute the most educated, hardworking, and entrepreneurial religious communities in the country (Corrigan & Hudson, 2015).

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Islam After 9/11

It can be seen that Islam and Muslims in the US had a promising future; however, following the 9/11 attacks, there was a considerable change in America’s relations with Muslims and Islam as a whole (Eroukhmanoff, 2015). The impact of the 9/11 attacks on the Muslim community in the US cannot be underestimated. People from diverse religions came together immediately after the attacks and stood by the American Muslim community, providing support and protection. A few days after the 9/11 attack, President Bush went to a mosque and noted the peaceful nature of Islam as a religion and that the acts of violence violated the core tenets of Islam (Goodwin, 2015). Regardless of the efforts by the government aimed at discouraging Americans from blaming the Muslim community following the attacks, there was an exponential growth on the number of attacks against people perceived to be Muslim. Such attacks against American Muslims were executed under the pretext of revenge. In the post-9/11 era, many individuals with Muslim-like appearance, especially Arabs and South Asians, have been victims of hate crimes and discrimination (Eroukhmanoff, 2015).

Besides hate crimes and discrimination targeting individual Muslims, Muslim organizations came under scrutiny unexpectedly. For example, the government shut numerous reliable and prominent Muslim charities in America such as the Global Relief Foundation and the Holy Land Foundation due to alleged relations with terrorists (Khan, 2016). Also, Muslim Student Associations operations in colleges across the nation were subjected to secret surveillance by the intelligence and police authorities. The Federal Bureau of Investigation increased its surveillance of mosques (Morgan, 2016).

The anti-Islam sentiments in the US were also aggravated by politicians. For example, Sharia has been described as a threat to the existence of freedom in the US by Newt Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives. Joe Walsh, a Congress Representative of Illinois, once stated that radical Muslims kill Americans on a weekly basis (Goodwin, 2015). Two weeks after Walsh made this statement there were eight hate crime cases in the area, especially related to defacing mosques. Peter King, a Congress Representative of New Jersey led a number of congressional hearings starting from 2011 aimed at investigating the radicalization of Muslims in America (Rajan & Gabriel, 2015). During the hearings, the tone adopted in the hearings together with the scrutiny directed towards King highlighted the tensions between Americans and Muslims as well as their understanding of Islam.

With the heightened public attention on Muslims during the post-9/11 era, Muslims in America questioned themselves on whether there is a fit between the American religious context and their Muslim identities (Khan, 2016). As a result, Muslim communities and leaders in the US appreciated the need to enlighten non-Muslims on the nature of Islam. This saw Muslim communities opening their doors to people and inviting non-Muslims to engage in lectures on Islam. Muslim scholars such as Professor Omid Safi have been vocal in emphasizing that Islam is compatible with democracy in America (Rajan & Gabriel, 2015). The post-9/11 era has also been characterized by Muslims playing an active role in engaging in inter-religious dialogue, jointly hosting events with groups from other religions, and establishing environments where Muslims can coexist harmoniously with other religious communities.

Despite these efforts, many people in America are experiencing Islamophobia, which denotes the fear of Muslims. Muslim community centers and mosques in the US have experienced both legal and vocal opposition (Eroukhmanoff, 2015). Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, a passenger killed a New York taxi driver after realizing that the driver was a Muslim. Moreover, in 2012, mosques found in Ohio, Toledo, Missouri, and Joplin were targeted using arson attacks. Before the 9/11 attacks, Muslims were the least targeted group in the US; however, after the attacks, hate crimes targeting Muslims have raised by about 1600% in 2002 (Goodwin, 2015). Currently, hate crimes against Muslims have increased fivefold relative to the period before the 9/11 attacks. Furthermore, there has been a significant increase in the negative attitudes towards Islam in the US, which can be attributed to continued attacks on the Islamic faith. For example, in 2005, 41% of Americans had favorable views regarding Islam. In 2010, it had declined to 30 percent (Goodwin, 2015). Over the same period, Americans were more likely to view Islam as a violent religion when compared to other faiths. The majority of Muslims in the US agree that it is becoming more challenging to practice Islam in the US following the 9/11 attacks (Eroukhmanoff, 2015). Similarly, many perceive the government as isolating Muslims by monitoring and surveilling them.

There is a continued dehumanization of Islam and Muslims in the US during the heightened anti-Muslim rhetoric. Franklin Graham, a renowned Christian preacher once described Islam as a very wicked and evil religion (Goodwin, 2015). When compared to the pre-9/11 period, the anti-Muslim rhetoric in the US has grown significantly during the post-9/11 era. The hatred has been augmented by the views expressed by American leaders. An example is Mark Kirk, a Congressman who stated that he has no problem with discrimination targeting young Arab males coming from countries associated with terrorism (Goodwin, 2015).

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The 9/11 attacks also increased Islam’s visibility in the US. From a political point of view, Muslims start playing a more active role with respect to the political processes in the country (Khan, 2016). At the state and national levels, there has been better political organization among Muslims. For instance, Muslims in a number of states such as New Jersey, Florida, Wisconsin, and Illinois mobilized themselves to the extent that they influenced 2008 presidential outcomes in these states (Morgan, 2016). A Muslim lobby was established in Congress in 2006, which has been instrumental in boosting the public visibility of Islam. The first Congressman under the Muslim lobby, Keith Allison, who swore using the Quran, which was a significant public gesture since he used a copy that Thomas Jefferson once owned (Morgan, 2016). This event has been described as being historic with respect to mending relations between Americans and Islam. There are several other examples that can be used to indicate the increased public visibility of Islam during the post-9/11 era. For instance, it can be observed that there has been an increased interest in Islamic scholarship and Islamic studies. American universities and colleges are providing more courses that focus on teaching aspects associated with Islam (Bilici, 2012). More faculties are being hired to teach these courses. As a result, Islamic scholarship is becoming more vibrant in the US. There is an increase in the intellectual output on aspects concerning Islamic scholarship, which is a positive development in the intellectual and academic domain of Islam (Bilici, 2012). This is especially important since academia provides the most objective reports on Islam.

In the same 9/11 era, there has been an increase in the establishment of Muslim interest groups with already existing groups becoming more vocal. An example worthy to mention is the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which represents an umbrella group that comprises several Muslim organizations. ISNA was established to tackle the many wider issues that affect Muslims in America (Bilici, 2012). It has been vocal in influencing the Islamic discourse in the US. Another notable example is the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR), which concentrates significantly on political activism geared towards opposing the prejudice that American Muslims experience via lobbying. CAIR has been involved in opposing the enacting of anti-Sharia law in numerous states across the country (Eroukhmanoff, 2015). Despite the fact that organizations like CAIR and ISNA do not receive support from all Muslims in the US, they have played an influential role in shaping the Islamic discourse in the post-9/11 era.

Future of Islam in America

The recent election of Donald Trump has implications for Islam in the US based on his campaign pledges. Even though the US was established on the premise of religious freedom, Trump’s administration is likely to reduce the level of religious freedom that Muslims enjoy in the US (Dorf, 2016). Based on his campaign promises, there are numerous indicators that Trump will impose restrictions on Muslims and Islam as a whole. For instance, Trump stated that he will prohibit Muslims from traveling into the US. In particular, Trump advocated for the extreme vetting of individuals coming from a country having a history of terrorism. This narrative has served to augment a trend that has been developing since the 9/11 attacks (Rojecki, 2016). The resultant outcome is that Muslims in the US are increasingly being seen as un-American due to their faith. In the course of his campaigns, Trump clearly stated that he has intentions of using aggressive methods targeting Muslims to enhance national security. Besides implementing an immigration ban for Muslims, Trump proposed to implement a Muslim registry, which undoubtedly has implications for the religious freedom of Muslims (Whitney, 2016).

After winning the November elections, the first nominations and appointments by Trump have been described as propagating Islamophobia. The 2016 presidential elections served to affirm that Islamophobia is still an issue and Muslims in the US will have to grapple within the foreseeable future (Whitney, 2016). Trump’s campaign was based on the vilification of Muslims coupled with the scapegoating of Islam – linking the national security problems that America faces to Islam. Cases of vandals and attacks have been documented targeting Muslims and involving some explicit reference to Trump. As a result, Muslim leaders have expressed concern stemming from the heightened fear among Muslims after Trump won the November election. In social media platforms, Muslim students have provided accounts of harassment. Similarly, parents are concerned whether their wearing headscarves will jeopardize the safety of their daughters (Dorf, 2016). This seems to suggest that Trump’s presidency will pose a threat to religious freedom for Muslims. Dorf (2016) noted that Muslims might be soon compelled to practice Islam in secrecy due to fear of reprisals from the American public.

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Until today, Americans raised several questions concerning Islam and Muslims. Some of the key questions relate to why Muslims hate Americans, the causes of terrorism and Muslim extremism, and whether Islam is a religion that condones violence (Bilici, 2012). Because these questions are not framed appropriately, it can suffice to argue that they augment the already existing Islamophobia contributing to negative reactions towards the increasing presence of Muslims and Islam in the US. A number of factors have been identified contributing to Islamophobia in the US, which include Muslim individuals engaging in terrorism under the pretext of Islam; enduring anti-Islamic sentiments demonstrated by hate preachers and Christian extremists; negative depictions of Islam in popular media (Khan, 2016). In combination, these factors result in an obscured understanding of the religion of Islam and exacerbate the fear of Islam.

Regardless of the efforts adopted by the American Muslim community to reduce Islamophobia, success cannot be realized overnight. Islamophobia in America is a multifaceted concept; thus, it is a problem that will continue to affect Muslims in the future (Morgan, 2016). Islamophobia is not only attributable to the ignorance of the religion of Islam among Americans but also has an ideological aspect that will need a substantial time to change. Groups opposing Islam because of its ideology tend to exaggerate the threat posed by radical Islam (Goodwin, 2015). This has resulted in Americans being inclined to adopt the ideological stance of wedging war against radical Islam which seems like a war between the West and Islam. These groups believe that the survival of Western civilization requires a total annihilation of radical Islam (Whitney, 2016). Moreover, a thin line exists between Islam considered radical and traditional Islam, which is likely to complicate the efforts aimed at reducing Islamophobia in the US.

Conclusion

Islam has existed in the US for the past four centuries. At the time of establishing the nation, the founders believed in the freedom of religion. Such philosophy was instrumental in promoting the growth of Islam in the country. During the early years of the US existence, subsequent administrations focused on cultivating strong relations with the Muslim world. Over the nineteenth century, immigration laws were relaxed, which increased the Muslim influx into the country and contributed to the growth of Islam. However, 9/11 marked a turning point for Islam in the US. This event has changed the course of Islam in the US, as evident from the increase of Islamophobia and violence targeting Islam. Despite this negative trend, positive developments in Islam have also been documented in the post-9/11 era such as a heightened interest in Islamic scholarship; increased public visibility of Islam; and Muslims have the ability to organize and mobilize themselves to influence political processes. However, the recent election of Donald Trump is bound to reduce the religious freedom enjoyed by Muslims and Islamophobia is expected to inflate in the foreseeable future.